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(This post is a lightly-edited version of a Twitter rant from last month.)

When I was a young man, I believed that I won every argument in which the other participant didn’t convince me. If you wanted to best me in debate, you needed to win by my rules. Those rules were “rational,” so if you didn’t accept them, if they made you angry, if they made you withdraw, then I won. I won by default.

I was willing to be convinced, of course. I was EAGER to be convinced. But I had to find you convincing.

I was sure that I was fair. I was sure that I was reasonable. I was sure I was decent and objective and even-handed. But actually I was a colossal dick. And I weaponized being a dick by crafting a self-image that utterly denied the possibility that I was one.

A conviction that you’re unassailably rational is toxic. It’s aggressive. It’s vicious. And it’s profoundly emotional while remaining in total denial about its emotionalism.

Dudes who see themselves as rational wind up rhetorically bludgeoning other people into submission, and their bludgeoning is the opposite of reasoned discourse.

It’s astonishing to me that folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris can remain so blithely unaware of these dynamics. Dawkins says the most fatuous crap, then hides behind the claim that he’s just being logical. If his critics weren’t so blinded by emotionalism, he says, they would understand that. Too bad for them that they don’t. Often what he says in the course of these episodes isn’t actually rational — his bizarre categorical statements about gradations of rape, for instance — but even when it is, that doesn’t mean it’s a constructive contribution to any meaningful discussion.

I think reason is great. It got us antibiotics and suspension bridges and laser printers. But it’s a tool, not a goal. Adherence to principles of formal logic isn’t proof of rectitude. It’s proof of mastery of those forms, at most — and often not even that.

Human interaction is never exclusively rational. It’s fluid. It’s intuitive. It’s responsive.

And when you deny that, you’re no longer having a conversation. You’re just being a dick.

Anita Sarkeesian, a critic of sexism in video games, has cancelled a campus speech scheduled tomorrow after the university declined to ban guns from the venue in response to a threat of a mass shooting.

There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence, so let’s break it down.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist media critic who has been the subject of an ongoing campaign of harassment since 2012. Late this summer, as the #GamerGate campaign was heating up, she was driven from her home by new, specific threats against her and her family.

Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak at Utah State University tomorrow (Wednesday), but this morning several school officials received an emailed threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the speech went forward. The email’s author, who claimed to have a variety of guns and bombs in his possession, threatened a “Montreal Massacre style attack” on the speech and the campus Women’s Center — a reference to the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in which a male shooter killed fourteen women on a Montreal college campus in an explicitly anti-feminist attack.

The university announced Tuesday afternoon that the speech would be going forward with increased security, including a prohibition on “backpacks and any large bags.” This evening, however, it was announced that Sarkeesian had cancelled the talk.

So why did Sarkeesian cancel, given that she’s experienced similar threats in the past? Well, that goes back to a 2004 law that made Utah the first state in the country to require universities to allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry loaded weapons on campus. Based on the university’s statement this evening, it appears that USU does not have the discretion under the law to ban weapons from a particular event, even in the face of a specific threat against the speaker.

I have to say, this is kind of incredible. That a public university would have the ability to ban backpacks from a speech but not loaded guns strikes me as something that even many concealed-carry advocates might blanch at.

It really is extraordinary.

Update | Here’s the relevant statutory language: “Unless specifically authorized by the Legislature by statute, a local authority or state entity may not enact, establish, or enforce any ordinance, regulation, rule, or policy pertaining to firearms that in any way inhibits or restricts the possession or use of firearms. … “Local authority or state entity” includes public school districts, public schools, and state institutions of higher education.”

Second Update | Sarkeesian just tweeted that that there were “multiple specific threats made stating intent to kill me & feminists” in advance of her USU speech.

Morning Update | USU confirms that “state law prevent[s] the university from keeping people with a legal concealed firearm permit from entering the event.” They say that “University police were prepared and had a plan in place to provide extra security measures at the presentation.” Sarkeesian tweeted last night that she requested “pat downs or metal detectors” at the venue, but that “because of Utah’s open carry laws police wouldn’t do firearm searches.”

It’s not clear whether state law (or state law as interpreted by USU administrators or police) prohibits searches for firearms at campus events. But again, even if such searches had been conducted, individuals with concealed carry permits would have been allowed to bring loaded weapons into the room. According to the Guardian, such permits are available to any state resident who is “at least 21 years old, mentally competent, and hasn’t been convicted of a felony or crimes involving violence, alcohol, narcotics or ‘moral turpitude.'”

The trustees of the State University of New York last Thursday passed a resolution directing all 64 of the system’s campuses to implement an “affirmative consent” standard for use in campus disciplinary proceedings involving sexual assault.

The standard adopted by the trustees declares that consent to sexual contact must be “active, not passive.” Such consent must be “clear, knowing, and voluntary,” independent of prior sexual contact and to consent to other forms of sexual activity.

What does this mean? It means that you won’t be able to claim consent to sexual contact in SUNY unless your partner has indicated that consent in a clear, uncoerced, active way.

What it doesn’t mean, despite the claims of sky-is-falling types, is that such consent must be verbal. There’s no requirement that sexual partners ask permission before engaging in particular acts, and in fact the standard explicitly states that non-verbal communication is appropriate:

“Consent can be given by words or actions, as long as those words or actions create mutually understandable clear permission regarding willingness to engage in (and the conditions of) sexual activity.”

The concept of affirmative consent has been gaining ground recently, most visibly with the passage of a California law mandating it as the standard to be used in disciplinary proceedings in that state’s public campuses. I’ve been a fan of the approach since I first encountered it in 2010, when I summarized it this way:

“Under an affirmative consent model, consent can never be assumed. It must always be confirmed. Both parties must “opt in” for consent to exist. When you initiate sexual contact, you have an obligation to pay attention as you go to whether your partner is receptive.

“And no, this doesn’t mean you have to get a verbal “yes” in response to each act. It just means that if one person is doing all the initiating, that person needs to be responsive to their partner’s reactions. An overt affirmative response, whether verbal or non-verbal, constitutes an opt-in. In the absence of such a response, you back off or you ask what’s up.

“That’s it. That’s all there is to it. If you don’t know whether your advances are being well received, you don’t keep advancing. Pretty simple.”

I’m excited to see my alma mater take this step, and look forward to its adoption elsewhere.

Fifty years today, students at UC Berkeley blockaded a police car on campus to prevent the unjust arrest of a recent graduate, Jack Weinberg, who had been leafleting on campus. Here’s how I described the events in my dissertation:

            On September 14, 1964 the dean of students of the University of California at Berkeley, feeling political pressure from local conservatives, announced new restrictions on student activity on university property. Tabling by student groups would now be strictly regulated, and leafleting, speech-making, and the sale of publications relating to off-campus organizations would be banned. A broad-based student coalition called the United Front (UF) quickly rose up against the ban. They held their first protest on September 21, and the next day the campus student government, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) voted 11-5 to ask the Regents of the university to overturn the policy.

            When the administration refused to lift the ban, members of the UF began tabling in defiance of the policy. Their protest rapidly gained momentum — when five students (representing SNCC, the Young Socialist Alliance, and the campus political party SLATE) were cited for violating the tabling policy, hundreds joined them in a march to the dean’s office. Three students who helped to organize the protest were added to the original list of five violators, and before the day’s end it was announced that the eight had been suspended from the university. The march had by then turned into a sit-in, and the UF had been given a new name — the Free Speech Movement (FSM).

            More tables were set up in the heart of the campus the next day, and the administration escalated their response. They approached one of the tablers, a recent Berkeley graduate, and when he refused to identify himself they informed him that he was under arrest. As the campus police dragged him to their car, the students in the plaza — thousands strong by now — sat down. They blocked the car for more than 30 hours, until Mario Savio, a protest leader and one of the eight suspended students, announced that a team of negotiators had won a number of concessions from the university. Berkeley president Clark Kerr had agreed to submit the suspensions to a faculty committee for review, and to convene a separate committee of faculty, students, and administrators to assess the regulations that had sparked the protests. Furthermore, the university would not press charges against the man who had been arrested.

Yesterday Lydia Brown, a student disability activist at Georgetown was supposed to help lead a training on accessibility and student programming. The event was hosted by the campus Center for Student Engagement, and Brown showed up as promised. There was soda, there was pizza, and there was nobody there.

Brown blogged about the incident last night, writing that

Nothing demonstrates more clearly the utter disregard that disabled people face every day at Georgetown than this. That of literally hundreds of student organizations with hundreds (possibly even creeping into the low thousands) of students involved on their boards or other leadership positions, not even one person deemed it worth their while to learn about access and inclusion.

I agree with all that, and I’d like to add one more thought: For student affairs staff to humiliate a student like this is indefensible.

Planning an event like this shouldn’t just be a matter of sending out an email blast or putting up a notice on Facebook. You need to reach out one-on-one to the people you want there. You need to get commitments. You need to make sure that there are people in the seats, and you need to know who those people are going to be.

And if you reach out and you get rebuffed? If it’s a couple of days before the event and you don’t know who’s going to be there? You tell your guest. You give them a heads-up and you tell them what you’re doing to drum up turnout. And if all else fails, you cancel.

For student affairs staff who are paid — paid! — to organize events like this to invite a campus activist for students with disabilities to address student organization leadership and then allow her to show up to an empty room without warning is an insult and a dereliction of the their responsibilities.

The folks responsible should be embarrassed, they should be apologetic, and they should be taking concrete steps to repair the damage that they’ve done.

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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