The real victim of ‘rape culture’? Free speech
As the Christina Hoff Sommers furore shows, too many students can’t handle debate.
In November last year, anti-rape activists at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, erupted in outrage when it was announced that libertarian feminist Wendy McElroy had been invited to take part in a debate about sexual violence. McElroy, as it happens, was herself the victim of a rape so violent it left her with permanently impaired vision. But she has since incurred the wrath of those who claim to speak for rape victims by vehemently disputing the existence of what radical feminists call ‘rape culture’. Rape culture, McElroy has written, is ‘a lie [which] has been successful in spite of reality’ and is now being used to justify an illiberal and sinister attack on due process. Whether one agrees with this view or not, it ought to be obvious that transparent debate of this issue is not only legitimate, but vital. McElroy’s activist opponents disagreed. The very expression of opinions like hers, they insisted, constitutes an intolerable threat to student safety.
This dismal scenario is now being re-run following an invitation extended by Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians (OCRL) to feminist writer Christina Hoff Sommers. Sommers – a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and author of the 1994 polemic Who Stole Feminism? – also considers ‘rape culture’ to be a dangerous moral panic. And, like McElroy, she believes it must be discredited with the careful marshalling of evidence and argument. Her opponents, on the other hand, while maintaining the truth of their own claims to be self-evident, have preferred to marshal only disgust and invective, the most recent manifestation of which has been an open letter published in the Oberlin Review beneath the maudlin headline ‘A Love Letter To Ourselves‘.
These activists have every reason to feel defensive. Sommers’ talk comes on the heels of the devastating investigation by the Columbia School of Journalism into Rolling Stone’s credulous reporting of last year’s UVA campus rape hoax. Not only was the story’s fallout an embarrassment for Rolling Stone – it also painfully exposed the degree to which campus activists refuse to allow facts to interfere with conviction and radical feminist dogma. The Oberlin letter will do nothing to dispel this impression.
The letter opens with a spurious attack on Sommers’ bad timing. ‘This Monday’, it explains, ‘happens to be a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month which makes the timing of this talk particularly objectionable’. And why should awareness-raising preclude open debate and discussion? Because, we learn, Sommers is a ‘rape denialist’. The inference is not hard to grasp. Would you, the letter suggests, bring a Holocaust denier on to campus to contest the facts of the Shoah during Holocaust Memorial Day? It is difficult to conceive of a more tasteless and dishonest analogy, which may be why no attempt is made to substantiate it. Instead, what follows is an example of question begging in its crudest form:
‘By denying rape culture, [Sommers] is creating exactly the cycle of victim/survivor blame, where victims are responsible for the violence that was forced upon them and the subsequent shame that occurs when survivors share their stories, whose existence she denies. This is how rape culture flourishes. By bringing her to a college campus laden with trauma and sexualised violence and full of victims/survivors, OCRL is choosing to reinforce this climate of denial/blame/shame that ultimately has real-life consequences on the wellbeing of people who have experienced sexualised violence.‘
Or, in other words, it is dangerous to challenge the existence of rape culture, since to do so inflames rape culture.
This is, at best, circular reasoning, and, at worst, an exercise in self-serving denunciation, cynically constructed to render dissent heretical. Have the letter’s authors never heard of the importance of falsifiability? Or have they simply chosen to disregard it in the name of expediency and bad faith? What follows leads me to suspect the latter: ‘We could spend all of our time and energy explaining all of the ways she’s harmful. But why should we?’ Why indeed, when to act fair-mindedly would only invite the accused to defend herself?
But like a child who has purged himself of a violent tantrum, the letter’s tone then lapses abruptly into sullen resignation. Eight ‘concrete examples of ways to engage’ are offered: ‘1) Listen to your friends who’ve been harmed; 2) use your social and financial capital; 3) challenge violence and harm; 4) participate in actions and conversations in response to the event; 5) recognise and prioritise intersectional feminism and survivor support; 6) genuinely care for one another; 7) educate yourself on the impacts of trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress/reactions; and 8) silence.’
But what is being recommended here is not engagement, but flight from argument, a retreat into the comforting echo chamber of like minds. Lest there be any doubt, sympathetic readers are then encouraged to ‘engage in some radical, beautiful community care, support and love. Let’s make space for everyone to engage at whichever level they want/need. Let’s come through for each other, both now and in the future. Trauma is an experience that threatens a person’s bodily, spiritual and emotional integrity. The psychological, emotional and somatic impacts extend beyond the experience of trauma. Healing is a process that looks different for each person. Let’s make space to care for all experiences of trauma and to respect those we care for. Let’s focus our energy on taking care of each other and ourselves. Let’s make [Sommers’] talk irrelevant in the face of our love, passion and power.’
If this letter is representative of intersectional feminism, then this is surely an ideology approaching its nadir. Its champions hold reason, scholarship, academic rigour and critical thought in contempt, while they re-cloth censorious spite and sanctimony as compassion. We are right because we care; you are wrong because you don’t. ‘It is important to underscore both that safety is a priority and that it’s not possible to be neutral about rape culture’, the letter runs. ‘A decision not to support survivors/victims is a decision to permit the actions of the perpetrators.’
If you are not with us, you are with the rapists. The gavel has come down. The sentence is public disgrace and excommunication from feminist politics and decent society. May God have mercy on your soul.
Jamie Palmer is a writer and filmmaker. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobinism