Twenty years ago, the late Pulitzer Prize winning columnist David Broder wrote about "that damnable duality of human nature" where noble impulses coexist with the penchant to destroy human life. Would anyone other than a lunatic suggest that by acknowledging this reality, Mr. Broder was absolving murderers of blame for their misdeeds?
Fast forward to present day. In an interview with a student newspaper, University of Iowa President Sally Mason said that the university’s goal is to “never have another sexual assault occur.” She added, that’s probably “not a realistic goal given human nature.”
"Human nature"? What on earth is President's Mason's evidence for this epiphany?
Could it possibly be the reality that rape has been present since the dawn of man? Just as murder, assault, robbery, and every pretty much every social pathology have been present?
In other words, nothing in President Mason's off-hand statement was in any sense incorrect, controversial, or even insightful. In any other setting, her innocuous words would have been quickly forgotten.
But we are not living in just "any other setting." The anti-rape crusaders jumped on the president's comment and have read into it misogyny and victim-blaming. The comment prompted a group, including university researcher Chelsea Bacon, to start a petition called “Not in My Nature.” In addition, about 20 students, including Bacon, interrupted an annual Presidential lecture by standing in front of Mason with signs. During the interruption, Mason expressed support for their activism, and promised the university will make progress on the issue.
Then, there was an on-campus protest about the president's remarks where Ms. Bacon said this: “Human nature is a common term people use to take the blame from the perpetrator and put it onto other sources. Not only is it unfounded and irresponsible, it’s very harmful to victims.” She added: “It perpetuates the idea that there are other causes of sexual assault other than a perpetrator. It’s not what she was wearing, it’s not how much she drank. It’s what the perpetrator wanted to do.”
That Ms. Bacon would read such malevolence and backwardness into President Mason's remarks, and to accuse her of victim blaming, is chilling in the extreme. It is reminiscent of similar overreactions we've seen recently from gender zealots. See, e.g., here. These sorts of hysterics stifle real dialogue. They put everyone on notice that when it comes to sexual assault, they need to walk on eggshells because even innocuous comments made by people with no tolerance for rape can provide an excuse to be outraged. And for people like President Mason, it's easier to just humor them than to tell them they are behaving like children.
A former editor of the Pitt News was talking about this very phenomenon when he wrote the following: ". . . these straw-men battles undercut legitimate causes. Advocacy groups stop looking forward and content themselves with ritualistic passion plays. Finding big targets on which to pin 'sexist' or 'oppressor' is a tired tradition. . . . . No one is talking about issues, just the social theater surrounding them. We need true dialogue, debate, education. Not grandstanding and moralizing."
Why should anyone be surprised by this overreaction to President Mason's remarks? We are stranded in an era where calling for due process in rape cases (see here, here and here) is considered "victim blaming." So is calling for people to keep an open mind when it comes to rape accusations, and preaching safety, and failing to treat a false rape claim as if it were an actual rape, and calling for men and boys accused of sexual assault to be anonymous. They use the term "victim blaming" so loosely it means nothing at all. And the folks who scream "victim blaming" the loudest are often are at the forefront in rushing to judgment to assume the accused is guilty based on nothing more than an accusation. See here and here.
It's time to have an adult dialogue about these issues free of shrill overreactions. The problem seems to be that the only persons making themselves heard on these critical issues are naive, young zealots, chronically offended, ready to sniff out gender oppression even if they have to invent it. We are reminded of the words of Amanda Marcotte, writing about the young Wellesley College feminists in an uproar over the sleepwalking statue: ". . . one thing I've been trying to keep in mind is that the women getting wound up about the statue are really young and just starting to explore the identity of 'feminist.' College is a time for taking everything too far, from drinking beer to sports fandom to sexual drama to using your fancy new vocabulary words picked up in women's studies courses."
Here's another example where we need more adults at the table and fewer children.