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Saturday, December 05, 2015

Not a threat, still a problem

Like Paul, I lean towards the less charitable reading of the statement by the producers of Hunting Ground. But I did not read it as a threat to any action. Rather, I read it as a normative position--anyone who publicly disagrees with our position is irresponsible, shows public bias, and contributes to a hostile educational environment. This disagreement makes little practical difference, since my reading of their position still renders discussion or debate about the film impossible--why should they be expected to be debate anyone putting forth such an irresponsible and hostile position? But it is of a piece with some of what we have heard in the recent blow-ups at Mizzou, Yale, etc.--the very utterance of the contrary position deprives me of my safe space, inflicts harm, and violates my rights, thereby giving me a reason not to engage with it.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 5, 2015 at 02:59 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


I'm generally very sympathetic to the Missouri and Yale students, who I don't believe said anything like what you suggest. The Yale students, for example, didn't have a problem with the very utterance of the position, in vacuo, that students should be free to wear racially offensive costumes at Yale, but rather, with the fact that an administrator appeared to be licensing the students she supervises to wear racially offensive costumes. That's not just an utterance of a position, but an official act. The protesting students vehemently prefer a different policy, i.e, a policy of, at least, discouraging students from wearing blackface and the like - which is all that the letter to which the residential administrator objected did. If a student had written an editorial in the school paper making the same, frankly, inane arguments about the difficulty of drawing lines between an 8-year-old in a Disney princess costume and a white college student going out for Halloween dressed up as a black woman, certainly many minority students would have felt aggrieved, but there wouldn't have been the same sorts of protests. The reason being that there is a difference, which these students apprehend, between a student opining that white college students shouldn't be discouraged from dressing up as black women, and a residential administrator instructing her charges that they should feel free to indulge in the "transgressive experience" of giving racial offense to their peers. For example, I doubt that the protesters would have asked the school to sanction the student author of the hypothetical op-ed (anymore than they've asked the school to sanction students who disagree with their protests), while they did, sensibly enough, ask the school to appoint a more sensitive and sensible residential administrator.

That being said, allowing that some people do say nowadays that the mere utterance of a contrary position to theirs inflicts harm and so on, I think that's rather different from what the producers of this film are up to, which strikes me as far more cynical and far less justifiable, even if not for the cynicism. Having been caught out making an inaccurate and possibly dishonest film, they want to silence their critics (while not, I agree, by threatening them, certainly by stigmatizing them as people who favor rapists over victims), and distract observers from the facts of the matter. And it's very hard to believe that they truly think it's irresponsible to question accusations of rape, as that's something they must have repeatedly done themselves in the making of their film.

As to the substance of their normative position, it's one thing to say that people ought not espouse certain ideas because they're too harmful. Some ideas, like racial bigotry, or defenses of it, do inflict harm. It's not troubling, to me at least, that some people think some ideas are beyond the pale; such a position is theoretically on the table in many normative debates. All one's saying, when one says that, is that an idea is so normatively wrong that espousing it is itself normatively wrong - a completely plausible position in many cases, even if that kind of normative wrong is one we shouldn't regulate. But aside from Holocaust denial, there aren't many empirical claims that can reasonably be met with that sort of reaction, and doubting what seems to be a fairly doubtful accusation of rape just isn't one of them. As painful as skepticism must be for real rape victims - or for that matter, persons who sincerely but mistakenly believe they were victims of rape, which may be the case here - we can't, unfortunately, spare them of that skepticism just by categorically choosing to believe that everyone who's been accused of a rape committed a rape, which seems to be what these producers (disingenuously, I think) suggest we do, to the point that they suggest it's irresponsible to entertain the possibility that someone who was acquitted of rape is factually innocent of it.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Dec 6, 2015 3:05:16 PM

Remember when failing to address damaging evidence or the other side's point of view was considered a weakness in an argument and not a virtue of "advocacy"?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Dec 5, 2015 5:28:30 PM

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