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Earlier this week I participated in a Bloggingheads debate on contemporary campus free speech and sexual violence issues, alongside Robby Soave from Reason magazine. I’m working on a full writeup of that debate, but I just came across one particular moment that I’d like to highlight.

I don’t usually quote myself at length, but I think this response — to a suggestion from Soave that we’re currently seeing an “authoritarian, moralizing, Victorian policing of students’ sexual lives” on campus — is worth foregrounding.

“Let me put it this way: It is absolutely beyond arguing that we saw a hundred times — a thousand times — more, and more pernicious, policing of students’ sexual lives before the sexual revolution than today. The problems that we’re dealing with now in terms of policing sexual behavior are problems of figuring out how to deal with predators in a free society. The problems that we were dealing with half a century ago were the problems of a society in which women had essentially no recourse when they were subjected to sexual predation — a society in which not only did they have no recourse when they were subjected to sexual predation, but also a society in which even voluntary, consensual sexual activity was routinely punished in extremely draconian ways.

“So we are getting better at prosecuting rape in this society — and rape rates are, by plenty of indications, declining — and we are also getting better at not prosecuting consensual sexual activity. You know, we’ve had an assumption here, a sort of unstated assumption, that we’re talking about heterosexual activity, but if we’re talking about sexual activity more broadly, all of these campuses — many of these campuses — were punishing consensual homosexual activity in extremely vicious and horrific ways. And even heterosexual sexual activity was being punished regularly half a century ago, and overwhelmingly the people who were punished in those cases were women.”

To get where we want to go, we need to understand where we’ve been.

This is the ninth in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.

What’s the point of attending these extremely progressive conversations if the rest of society is so far behind and doesn’t seem to be catching up? (gender pronouns,etc)

Wow. My experience of this stuff is very different. It wasn’t very long ago that you could easily spark a real argument among well-intentioned people about whether it was wrong to use the word “retard” as a pejorative — if I were to take ten minutes, I could rattle off half a dozen different arguments people have given me about why that word is really perfectly fine and how silly it is for people to get up in arms about it.

I haven’t had one of those arguments in years, and it’s not because my circle of acquaintances has narrowed. It’s because values have changed. And those values have changed precisely because of all the arguments that were had.

Now, it’d be an oversimplification to portray this change as merely a happy story about how things get better when people get yelled at. Language shifts and evolves in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, and often the chart of those changes can look more like a squiggle than an ascending line. (Farther back, I still remember the brief vogue for “differently abled,” and the righteousness that accompanied both its arrival and its departure. This stuff is complicated.) But yes, beliefs and behaviors do change as a result of discussion and reflection. That’s a fact.

You didn’t ask whether the terminology we use ultimately matters all that much, but I know some people reading this are wondering about that right about now. Your “what’s the point?” is the cousin of another: “What’s the point of spending so much energy policing language when there are real, material struggles that need to be waged?”

That’s a legitimate question. Changing the dictionary is easier than changing the world, and it can be more attractive as a political project in part because it’s easier. There’s a danger that an emphasis on vocabulary can distract us from other fights and divide us when we should be united. And yet.

I never met someone who I knew was trans until after I’d graduated from college. I was never friends with someone who I knew was trans until quite a few years later. And frankly, if I’m being honest, those two facts aren’t completely unrelated.

An argument about how we talk about a thing or a person or an idea is a discussion about how we think about that thing or that person or that idea. It’s easy to mock the progression from “colored person” to “negro” to “black” to “African American” to “person of color,” but each of those nomenclatural debates was a debate about how we understand race and racial difference — about what the experience of being black is, what it should be, and how we should comprehend it. Each of those debates was a debate about blackness, and each one allowed people — white and black and otherwise — to grapple with questions of identity and culture in new ways.

Which is all a long way of saying that a debate about the word “tranny” is a conversation about trans people, and that if there had been more and better conversations happening in our society about (and, crucially, with) trans people when I was young, I would have grown from that. I would have benefited from that, and a lot of other people would have too.

A few years ago, when I’d get asked about attacks on college funding and affordability, my response was simple. I’d say that we, as a nation, were in the process of dismantling public higher education in this country and we weren’t even talking about it. Stupefying tuition hikes and mind-boggling cuts to state funding were taking place year after year, but we weren’t having a national discussion about whether we thought that made any sense.

These days that conversation is happening. It began to bubble up around the time that aggregate student debt hit one trillion dollars in late 2011, and took a step forward in the 2012 presidential election. It’s still not where I’d like it to be, or where the scale of the crisis suggests it should be, but it’s happening.

And one thing we’re seeing as a result is strong confirmation of something that a lot of us have believed for a long time: Americans really like public higher education. We think it’s great. We think it’s great and we think it’s important and we want everyone to have more access to it. We like it and we want to keep it.

There’s a new study out from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation that puts some numbers on these impressions. Though many of the questions are frustratingly elliptical (Why ask how important respondents think student diversity is to colleges, but not how important they think it is themselves?), the core findings are stark.

Let’s start with this: 94% of Americans believe we should work to broaden access to post-secondary education, while only 21% believe that higher ed is “affordable for everyone in this country who needs it.”

Public higher ed is a universally valued good, and there is a near-consensus that it needs to be made more accessible. Those facts alone won’t reverse the trends we’re seeing in college funding, but they should shape the way activists approach the problem.

There are some organizing campaigns in which the battle is a battle to change popular perception.

Ours isn’t one of them.

When it became clear that Rolling Stone’s November 2014 story on the fraternity rape of a University of Virginia student was falling apart, RS managing editor Will Dana posted a hastily-composed editor’s note on the magazine’s website. “There now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account,” it read in part, “and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

Dana now says he was “pretty freaked out” when he wrote the note, and that he quickly “regretted using that phrase.” But Rolling Stone continues to blame Jackie for the implosion of their reporting on her alleged assault. In a New York Times interview just yesterday, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner called Jackie “a really expert fabulist storyteller,” and said that whatever is “untruthful” in the RS article “sits at her doorstep.”

It seems clear that Jackie misrepresented important facts when talking to Rolling Stone — though there is least some evidence that she was sexually assaulted on the night in question. But a comprehensive review of the story by the Columbia Journalism Review demonstrates that the blame for Rolling Stone’s now-discredited story lies with the magazine itself.

Rolling Stone claims that Jackie was an uncooperative and demanding source, and that they accepted restrictions on their reporting at her request. Jackie placed limits on what they could investigate and how, they say, and they agreed to those limits because they believed in her and her story.

In perhaps the most egregious lapse, Erdely failed to track down three friends Jackie claimed she disclosed the rape to immediately after it happened. Instead, she relied exclusively on Jackie’s account of their conversation — an account that paints all three in a negative (and they now say false) light, and which depicts the lone woman among the three as a callous, sexually promiscuous social climber. Worse, Erdely crafted the piece — over a fact-checker’s objections — in such a way as to leave the impression that some of the most damning of their quotes came from them, not from Jackie’s own recollections.

RS would have us believe that credulity is intrinsic to reporting on a rape. As Erdely puts it now, “maybe the discussion should not have been so much about how to accommodate her but … whether she would be in this story at all.”

But Rolling Stone’s failures did not emerge as the consequence of a laudable deference to rape survivors, or a principled insistence on believing Jackie. In fact, on several occasions when Jackie declined to provide supporting evidence she encouraged Erdely to find it elsewhere and Erdely simply did not.

In the case of Jackie’s three friends, for instance, Erdely now says that they were “always on my list” of potential interview subjects, but that other lines of inquiry ultimately took precedence. This is journalistic malpractice plain and simple, and it was rampant throughout the reporting and editing of the piece. As CJR puts it, RS “set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting” in covering the UVA rape story.

And it is simply not true that reporting on rape requires such compromises. As the CJR piece makes clear, thoughtful, careful, rigorous reporting on an alleged rape benefits everyone, including the accuser:

Kristen Lombardi, who spent a year and a half reporting the Center for Public Integrity’s series on campus sexual assault, said she made it explicit to the women she interviewed that the reporting process required her to obtain documents, collect evidence and talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, including the accused. She prefaced her interviews by assuring the women that she believed in them but that it was in their best interest to make sure there were no questions about the veracity of their accounts. She also allowed victims some control, including determining the time, place and pace of their interviews.

If a woman was not ready for such a process, Lombardi said, she was prepared to walk away.

If you are not ready to subject your story to scrutiny — thoughtful, compassionate, rigorous scrutiny — then you are not ready to have your story in a national magazine. It’s that simple.

A proper concern for the interests of survivors of sexual violence, and for the effort to combat sexual violence in the larger society, would have made that obvious.

This is the eighth in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.

Why are we encouraged to believe Muslim women when they say they’re happy with their religious choices, but not (for instance) Michelle Duggar when she does? (I try to err on the side of believing people about their own lives; not saying don’t believe Muslim women.)

I’m tempted to just answer “Who’s ‘we’?” and leave it at that. But okay. I’ll say a little more.

First, who are you referring to who’s doing this encouraging? Are there specific individuals who you’ve seen standing up for Muslim women’s choices but slamming Christians’? If so, I’d encourage you to raise that question with them and see how they respond. If not, are you sure that the folks doing A agree with the folks doing B and vice-versa? Because a lot of times when communities of people are called out for supposed contradictions, what’s actually being described is ideological diversity, not hypocrisy.

Are some folks on the identity-politics left more inclined to cut theologically conservative Muslim women slack than theologically conservative Christian women? Yep. Is that sometimes kind of fatuous? Sure. Is it always? Nah. Life is a rich tapestry. There are all sorts of ways to break down complex questions, and all sorts of distinctions to be drawn between superficially similar circumstances.


About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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