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An Ivy League Lynch Mob by Brendan O'Neill

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When you hear the phrase “lynch mob,” what image comes to mind? Most of us will probably think of tooth-free rednecks with pitchforks off to find themselves some darker-skinned folks to harass. Or we might cast our minds back to a time when angry, hungry people regularly rounded up eccentric old women, blamed them for causing crop failures and other local calamities, and then had them dunked or burned as witches.

I saw a different kind of lynch mob recently at Columbia University. There wasn’t a pitchfork in sight. No one started a fire. Yet this gathering of self-styled justice enforcers, who were loudly demanding the metaphorical scalp of an individual they suspected of doing something bad, nonetheless had the same scary moral righteousness and disregard for due process as every other lynch mob in history. It’s just that they were better dressed, better educated, far more middle-class than the usual fire-wielding dispensers of mob justice. It was an Ivy League lynch mob.

The gathering took place last week as part of a global student uprising against “rape culture” on campus. In solidarity with Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been dragging around her mattress for the past two months in protest against Columbia’s failure to expel the male student she claims raped her in 2012, students at Columbia and 130 other universities around the world brought their mattresses out, too, many of them emblazoned with slogans condemning “rape culture.”

A self-styled Christ of modern student feminism, only forlornly hauling around her bedding rather than a crucifix, Sulkowicz has become a cause célèbre in progressive circles. She’s featured in borderline fashion shoots for New York magazine, complete with skinny jeans, gorgeous flats, and, of course, cross-like mattress slumped across her back like the weight of the world. She and her backers have been gushingly congratulated by vast swaths of the media for “starting a revolution against campus sexual assault.”

There’s only one problem with this depiction of the mattress protest to get a male student thrown out of Columbia as some great liberal, revolutionary strike — the male student in question has not been found guilty of assaulting Sulkowicz. Her alleged assailant (many in the media forget to use the word “alleged”) was brought before a disciplinary hearing at Columbia and found “not responsible” for the things Sulkowicz accused him of. Sulkowicz laterfiled a complaint with the police but, according to the New York Times, “didn’t follow through with the necessary steps to prosecute the student.” So, she and her cheerleaders want a student who has not been convicted of assault to be expelled from the university. They want a man to be punished on the word of one accuser, which is surely behavior more befitting a Stalinist tyranny than a liberal-arts college.

At Columbia, I was startled by some of the mob-like invective falling from the mouths of otherwise bright, well-read students. One group of female students said “the rapist” must be expelled. But he hasn’t been found guilty of committing rape, I said. “We know he committed the rape,” one said, with the kind of steely-eyed conviction that recalled (admittedly in a much less lethal context) how KKK members once “knew” that their black victims were guilty of raping local white women.

A male student told me my insistence that individuals suspected of a crime must be fairly tried and found convincingly guilty before we ruin their lives — and being expelled from a prestigious university for rape would undoubtedly be life-ruining — was evidence that I had fallen for the “liberal paradigm” of justice, which tends to benefit white, well-off men. Apparently there is another “paradigm,” a better one, in which women who accuse men of rape are instantly believed and the men in question swiftly and severely punished.

The speeches made by students from the mattress-strewn steps leading up to the beautiful Low Library were chilling. Many focused on the need to believe women who make accusations. “I believe!” they hollered, to cheers from the crowd. This casual assertion of belief in all accusations of sexual assault mirrors the gullible fanaticism of the 17th-century Salem trials, where, likewise, claims and denunciations were taken at face value. When twelve Boston-based ministers said that the Salem magistrates should not rely so heavily on “spectral evidence” — that is, evidence based on dreams and visions rather than proven facts — they were roundly condemned. And so it is today that anyone who says that a rape allegation should be treated seriously but should not be automatically believed runs the risk of being branded a “rape apologist.” It would have been a brave student indeed who stood up at the Salem-like belief-fest at Columbia last week and said, “We have to prove accusations, not naïvely accept them.”

The Columbia students’ chanting spoke to an ugly combination of victim culture and sexual scare-mongering. Referencing Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger, the students screamed: “Come on, PrezBo, be courageous! Rape culture is contagious!” The notion that “rape culture” is catching, spreading around campus, presumably from man to man and threatening every woman, is a secular rehabilitation of the idea of evil, the notion that wickedness is always in the air, always ready to corrupt minds and warp souls.

Most foully of all, the students chanted the following in the style of an old Southern slave song:

Mama, mama, can’t you see What Columbia has done to me? Rape culture is all around. There’s no safety to be found.

For some of the most privileged and secure young people in the United States to depict themselves as some kind of greatly at-risk minority, to mimic old black protests against enslavement and abuse at the hands of white slave owners, is truly objectionable. Not only because it is a hysterical exaggeration to say there is “no safety” at Columbia but also because, if anything, this “revolution against campus sexual assault” has more in common with the lynch-mob mentality of the slave owners and other white racists than it does with slaves’ seething against their bondage. The idea that suspected rapists should be punished without benefit of a court case or a judgment has a very dark history in the United States.

The gathering of this Ivy League lynch mob exposed what a devastating impact the idea of “rape culture” is having on campus life and young people’s attitudes.

“Rape culture” is a moral panic on steroids. It is based on very twisted evidence. The oft-repeated claim that one in five female students on American campuses is sexually assaulted — which was parroted by most of the students I spoke to at Columbia — is highly questionable. As one debunking recently pointed out, the definition of campus sexual assault used in the federal-government survey that came up with that stat includes sex that occurs when you’re too drunk or drugged up to really know what you’re doing. Isn’t a lot of student sex like that? It was in my day. Seventy-five per cent of the female students who were labeled by the survey as victims of sexual assault as a result of drunkenness did not claim that they had been raped. But what do they know, right? Maybe they’ve “caught” rape culture, too, and are making excuses for their assaulters.

The idea of “rape culture” combines all the worst moral panics of the past 25 years. It has an ugly steak of fear-mongering about male sexual bravado. It has a healthy smattering of media-effects theory in its promotion of the idea that raunch culture makes all men into misogynists. It depicts women as vulnerable, fragile, in need of saving. And it rides roughshod over both due process and freedom of speech, as can be seen in the rise and rise of on-campus kangaroo courts using lower-standard evidence to mete out punishment to suspected assaulters and in the demands from some feminists for more controls on access to porn and other mind-warping sexual material, to stop men from becoming rapists.

The Christian moralists, anti-porn crusaders, and Victim Feminists of the 1970s and ’80s must be beaming with pride at the rise of the idea of “rape culture,” for it embodies their every prejudice and ill-founded panic and their lust for authoritarianism as a solution to the alleged sexual swagger of dumb, media-fueled men.

There really is only one thing to say to the bleating students, the illiberal liberals, of Columbia and other privileged campuses: You have lovely, lazy, intellectual lives that many of the world’s still-repressed women would sell their souls for, so, please, shelve the slave songs and self-pity and grow the hell up.

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