George Will Loses The Plot

In his column last Friday on what he sees as the dangers of progressivism in universities, George Will provoked widespread outrage by expressing skepticism in statistics about campus rape and mocking the Obama administration’s response to the crisis. The line that seemed to really set people off was his allegation that campus progressivism seeks to “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges,” which in turn makes “victims proliferate”. In fairness to Will, he wasn’t specifically referring to sexual assault here, and the line has since been widely quoted out of context. But Twitter wasn’t about to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Marcotte covers the backlash:

Sexual assault victims were so outraged at being told they exaggerated their experiences to get some unnamed “privileges” that they took to Twitter to explain how un-fun it actually is to come out about your rape.

Wagatwe Wanjuki kicked it off with a tweet reading, “Where’s my survivor privilege? Was expelled & have $10,000s of private student loans used to attend school that didn’t care I was raped.” The hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege swiftly emerged, with survivors explaining, one tweet at a time, as the various ways your life can go to hell after you survive a sexual assault.

The psychological toll of enduring sexual assault was a major theme. Sexual assault survivors recounted having flashbacks and panic attacksfeeling like “damaged goods”, and living in fear of having it happen again. The elusive nature of justice was another major issue, with women telling hair-raising stories of their attackers getting away with sexual assault and everyone pretending it didn’t happen.

But perhaps the saddest survivor “privilege” is the one that often gets talked about the least: How frequently survivors find coming out about being assaulted means losing your entire support system, as people get mad at you for making them have to think about it. Or even just because they start to think that being around you is a bummer.

But even if Will didn’t mean to say that being a victim of sexual assault confers privilege, his views on the issue are still at odds with reality. Alyssa examines his contention that sexual assault can’t be as prevalent as progressives say it is:

As I wrote last week, most studies that balance the perspectives of survivors and law enforcement suggest that there is a false reporting rate of between two and eight percent. So why does the idea of the false report persist? Daniel Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollar Professor of Law at Yale Law School, who has written extensively on the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning,” that the way we weigh evidence is influenced by strong goals, needs and worldviews, studied the cultural norms that affected views of acquaintance and date rape cases. He found that attachment to traditional gender roles played a significant role in driving skepticism that survivors actually meant it when they said no to sex.

James Hamblin points out that the epidemic Will refuses to believe in is starting to become more visible:

According to a report today from the U.S. Department of Education, the number of sexual assaults reported on college campuses increased by 50 percent between 2001 and 2011—from 2,200 to 3,300 cases. That’s actually more heartening than disconcerting, in that it’s unlikely that sexual assault increased by that much; rather, more victims are coming forward. They come forward when they don’t feel they’ll be blamed for being raped, dismissed as drunken sluts, and when there are appropriate outlets for reporting and justice.

But it’s still underreported and underpunished, thus condoned. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 18 percent of American women report having experienced rape at some point in their lives. The way sexual assault is defined in the media is critical to shifting culture from blaming victims to blaming aggressors. “Victims proliferate” when aggressors proliferate, or when victims were there all along.

Katie McDonough notices that Will never quite gets to the point:

If men like Will really do believe that most sexual assaults are a byproduct of the “ambiguities of hookup culture,” why aren’t they writing smug editorials about affirmative consent? If the actual crisis is that young men are being falsely accused of rape at an alarming rate (they are not), then wouldn’t some legitimate action be required? But instead we just get Will’s ridiculous column. It seems that even Will doesn’t take his own ideas that seriously.

Linker bluntly calls the column “outrageously stupid, transparently absurd — the kind of tossed-off, back-of-the-napkin theorizing one would expect of a guy who spends a little too much time in the make-up chair at Fox News.” Maria LaMagna psychoanalyzes Will:

[H]e appears to have succumbed to what in many college curriculums is known as the “just-world fallacy,” by which one assumes that real-world consequences, including tragedy, are solely a product of just deserts. In fairness to Will, we all do it. We prefer to believe we live in a fair world, one where bad things only happen to bad people who deserve them. When tragedy strikes someone, we reassure ourselves by thinking, “That could never happen to me, or anyone I care about.” The colloquial term for this magical thinking is “blame the victim.”

Amy Davidson determines that Will’s column is not ultimately about sexual assault or even women:

The true target of his column is “progressivism,” which he seems to regard as an engine for the mysterious elevation of people whom he doesn’t feel should call themselves victims. In that, his column is of a piece with a general conservative complaint (one also heard in some recent Supreme Court decisions).