The university is often said to be the first place in our society to look for the truth. Unfortunately, it is now one of the last places to find it.
Events surrounding a recent Rolling Stone article that chronicles an account of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity make clear how little the critical spirit operates today on our nation’s campuses. The story, which Rolling Stone no longer supports, begged to be treated with skepticism. Appearing in a magazine that trades in sensationalism—last year it put a glamour photo of the Boston marathon bomber on its cover—the narrative is so pat and faithful to a formula that common sense dictated caution. And most readers, one suspects, did feel at least a tinge of suspicion. Yet opinion leaders and campus activists across the nation quickly embraced the story as gospel truth, with some looking to convert it into a national movement to stem sexual violence.
At the epicenter of this event is the University of Virginia, where I have taught for over three decades. Jefferson’s campus became the site of rallies, demonstrations, constant social network exchanges, and endless meetings at all levels. A discourse or rhetoric began to develop that alternated expressions of rage with pleas for compassion. Apologies were issued all the way from the university’s Board of Visitors down to informal groups gathered on the campus grounds.
To be in the midst of an occurrence of this kind is to appreciate just how powerful is the force of the crowd. What took place resembled nothing so much as the behavior of a gentle mob, postmodern style. Anyone who expressed reserve about the article or who dared to apply the adjective “alleged” to the acts described faced the charge of being indifferent to sexual violence and rape. The penalty was to be written out of the community. Best, one observer cautioned, not to poke the beast.
Like many such crowds, this one sought its own victims to punish. Strangely, retribution against the seven alleged perpetrators was treated as less important than one might have thought, for this result would have placed the onus in the affair on these individuals and their criminal acts. From the moment of the first mass rally, speakers from the faculty and student body left no doubt that they were in search of much bigger game. Moving in a reverse pyramid from the specific to the more abstract, they decried the fraternity system, privilege (the “money-fraternity complex”), and the rape culture of the South, including Thomas Jefferson for his relations with Sally Hemings. The charges went higher and higher up the ladder of generality until the sex crime committed at UVA became a confirmation of the basic theory of privileged Western male oppression that is so widely subscribed to in the disciplines of cultural studies. The theoretical or ideological dimension that began to take hold, which relies on class profiling, accorded with the subtext of the Rolling Stone article that is directed less against sexual violence per se—of which Charlottesville has tragically suffered more than enough in recent years—than against sexual violence perpetrated by males belonging to society’s “upper tier.”
The abandonment of a critical spirit on our campuses is as much a failure of moral courage as of intellectual blindness. Every adult, if not every student, knows what happened at Duke eight years ago, where, under pressure from the same kind of academic crowd behavior, members of the men’s lacrosse team were tainted and criminally prosecuted for rape, under charges that ultimately proved baseless. Every professor in media studies and public opinion is fully aware of the spectacular hoaxes of modern journalism, from the gripping accounts of urban poverty by Janet Cooke in the Washington Post to the multiple fabrications of Stephen Glass in the New Republic. And scholars of literature and history cannot be ignorant of the psychology of false accusation, from the biblical story of Potiphar’s wife down to the rape charges by Tawana Brawley, cynically perpetuated by Al Sharpton. Yet, in the climate of the moment, none of the perspective that these teachers could have offered, even if they had wished to do so, was ever brought to bear. A crowd does not listen, particularly when it is convinced it is on the side of the angels.