Monday, June 16, 2014

George Will's Willful Ignorance

Last week, the conservative columnist George Will wrote a typically dismissive column about sexual assault on college campuses. One of the institutes of higher learning cited was Swarthmore College, a school in the Philadelphia area with deep Quaker roots. I know several alumni and can attest that the warning call Will sounds is entirely unfounded. From a feminist perspective, it is based entirely on groundless fears and demonstrates a complete lack of context.

Will weakens his argument significantly by watering down the few substantive points he makes around the same right-wing erogenous zones. Washington, DC, is the root of all terrible things? Check. President Obama is somehow to blame for everything? Check. I suppose I don’t understand why an established journalist like Will feels he no longer has to make any further salient points.

Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims. It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults.

Some of what Will says does resonate with me. I did not have, as he puts it, an especially privileged East Coast upbringing. I went to a state school in the South instead. My classmates were, more often than not, small town kids in the big city for the first time. I felt out of place in their company, but I concede that I probably would have felt out of place in a different way had I attended an elite school. These days, I rub shoulders with those who consume milk from grass-fed cattle and knit woolen caps for infants in third-world countries.

Will opens himself up to charges of hypocrisy because he’s an alumnus of some very prestigious universities, Princeton and Oxford being only two. This is only the most glaring flaw in his screed.

I keep my eyes open to the flaws in everyone’s argument, which is part of being a responsible citizen. My working-class fellow students had blind spots, as is the case for every person who identifies in a particular way based on shared commonalities. Such outright disdain, as evidenced here, is intellectually lazy. Will’s column is little more than a rant, held together by a nail or two. Resolving conflicts require mutual comprehension, a lesson I’ve learned from peacemaking. Coming to the table with the desire to set aside adversarial relationships is much more difficult than spouting off, but it is work we must do.

An Amen Chorus is always a temptation, as is one’s daily dose of outrage. Long ago, I learned that raising my blood pressure to dangerous levels on a regular basis was counterproductive. If we really want to make progress and make beneficial changes, we must first recognize that blasting away at each other is only helpful to a degree. I know that words like peace and resolution may seem ineffectual or even na├»ve.

I understand the cynicism many feel about these concepts. But for the sake of the greater good, we should act like evolved beings. This doesn’t mean we reduce our arguments to mush in the process. Will’s approach is an example of how not to proceed. I may disagree with some on the other side who voice their opinions, but I respect them more if they make thoughtful arguments. I will likely never share their views, but I will gladly embrace the role of loyal opposition.

But in the meantime, back to the same old, same old.

Meanwhile, the newest campus idea for preventing victimizations — an idea certain to multiply claims of them — is “trigger warnings.” They would be placed on assigned readings or announced before lectures. Otherwise, traumas could be triggered in students whose tender sensibilities would be lacerated by unexpected encounters with racism, sexism, violence (dammit, Hamlet, put down that sword!) or any other facet of reality that might violate a student’s entitlement to serenity. This entitlement has already bred campus speech codes that punish unpopular speech. Now the codes are begetting the soft censorship of trigger warnings to swaddle students in a “safe,” “supportive,” “unthreatening” environment, intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant.
This condescending response shows willful ignorance. Though I shouldn’t have to defend my own perspective, I will here for the sake of argument. As I have written about several times already, I am a survivor of sexual abuse. As a means of basic survival, the memories of most of what happened to me have been submerged and repressed. When triggered, some of them return. I’ve spoken to other survivors who cite the same issues and have experienced themselves an uncomfortable memory.

I could salivate like Pavlov’s dogs if I wanted, allowing several buttons to be pressed simultaneously. Once, I felt there was some value in playing ain’t it awful, but mainly I want us all to play nice and not run with scissors. Outrage is the key tactic of the activist, but I have loosely embraced that label over the years. If we could liken our country to a dysfunctional family, I’d rather we put aside our bitterness and resentment. Each of us wants satisfaction and the feeling of togetherness. Rarely do we ever come together in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, but soon we may need each other for the sake of survival.

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