Thanks to Rolling Stone and Lena Dunham, a big and sensational media issue today is rape on campus. Both the magazine and the author/actress appear to have published false accounts of rape that were written to fit a preconceived liberal or feminist agenda. Vulnerable women are raped by “a Republican” (Dunham) or gangs of fraternity boys who think it is their white, patriarchal privilege to treat women like chattel. The editors of Rolling Stone were so pleased with the latter narrative that they didn’t check the most obvious facts, although it would seem that anyone should be suspicious of a story that fits their prejudices so seamlessly.
In their malpractice, the sophisticated liberal/feminist media have ended up instead publicizing the counter-narrative of their foes: To wit, the politically correct mainstream media, campus affairs staffs, and Department of Education are waging a war against men. Based on sketchy or false data, the Department of Education and its allies in the media have caricatured our campuses as a kind of state of nature where there is no effective check on the lawless aggression of men. Extraordinary means that bypass ordinary standards of due process must therefore be deployed to cast predators off campus. The goal is rarely to lock them up—that could only be achieved by the police and courts—but to purge them from the academic community. Our campuses need a different kind of a policing that aims to make them utterly safe spaces, freeing students—especially women, gays, and other marginalized groups—from any perception of risk. Discomfort is to be banished from interpersonal experience, whether in the dorm room or the classroom, by regulating every interaction with detailed rules concerning what constitutes “affirmative consent,” supplemented by “trigger warnings.”
The real outrage, so the counternarrative goes, is not that women are subject to sexual assault and rape on campuses (which are far safer than society at large), but that men’s rights are far less protected there than they are beyond the walls of the institutions of higher education. The same goes for the rights of those who dissent from the reigning political correctness, including political and religious conservatives.
What may be surprising to those far removed from campus life is that one can find elements of truth in both narratives of outrage, the one grounded in political correctness and the other in individual rights. Ours is both a libertarian and securitarian time. Americans, especially the young, seem to want to be liberated from every vestige of religious moralism found in our public policy. But they also seem to be more obsessed with protection from danger than ever before. There’s an intensifying paranoid, puritanical, and prohibitionist impulse when it comes to health and safety risks, fueled by the experience of intensified personal contingency that comes with the atrophying of the various safety nets that institutional authority once provided.
You may object that libertarian securitarianism is more than a bit of an oxymoron, but that’s the point. We live in a time of conflicting impulses. Our characteristic self-indulgence is the thought that we can have a sustainable society that maxes out both liberty and security.
At first glance, our residential campuses are bubbles, artificial environments that insulate students from the life of the competitive marketplace. The more exact truth is that our campuses offer students the privileges of liberty without the corresponding responsibilities. They can do what they please, whenever they please, as long as they respect the minimalist principles of safety and consent. When it comes to sex, they’re not only allowed but encouraged to express themselves freely, as long as they do so in safe and consensual ways. Such a bubble culture flourishes because the natural, relational roles that structure life—being a husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter—and that force us to recognize the limits of individualism in defining who we are, aren’t features
of “liberated” campus life.
The campus instead can be close to a consumer-sensitive libertarian and securitarian paradise, where students are offered a comfortable, “no worries” environment in health-club dorms with gourmet food, recreational facilities, student-affairs staffs that function like concierges, and classes that are virtually impossible to flunk. Students are remarkably free to frolic with each other in the service of pure enjoyment. Sure, that’s an exaggeration and not true at all about some campuses. But like any good exaggeration, it points to an inconvenient truth—this one about privileges without responsibilities.