No wonder the students were frightened: Uh-oh! The free-thinking students at Brown’s Janus Forum had scheduled a debate.
For background, see our previous post.
At the Brown Daily Herald, two reporters described the growing concern. They profiled the two debaters:
BRANDFIELD-HARVEY AND KELLY (11/17/14): A Janus Forum debate titled “How Should Colleges Handle Sexual Assault?” that will take place in Salomon 101 Tuesday has incited controversy among some students, prompting a community-wide email from President Christina Paxson this weekend and the creation of alternative events.In that account, Valenti has written five books. McElroy is “controversial.” Fear of McElroy’s frightening views had set off a scramble for safety.
Some students have voiced opposition to the nature of the debate between visiting speakers Jessica Valenti and Wendy McElroy, whom Janus Forum fellows director Dana Schwartz ’15 said were chosen as representatives of conflicting viewpoints on campus sexual assault and rape culture.
Their opposition sparked the staging of two additional events—at the same time as the debate, a faculty member will present research on rape culture in the Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, and BWell Health Promotion will host a “safe space” for emotional support in Salomon.
Valenti founded Feministing.com in 2004 and has written five books, including “The Purity Myth” and “Full Frontal Feminism.” McElroy is a controversial author of several books, an editor of ifeminists.com—an abbreviated moniker for “individualist feminist”—and the author of “The Big Lie of a ‘Rape Culture,’” an article for the Future of Freedom Foundation. McElroy’s viewpoints in particular have attracted condemnation from some students.
Moving quickly, President Paxson scheduled a simultaneous forum where students could hear a presidentially-sanctioned account of “the research.” Later in their news report, the Daily Herald scribes reported a solemn pledge:
“Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and University relations, wrote in an email to The Herald that both the Janus debate and Orchowski’s lecture will be taped and available for students to view later.”
We don’t know what happened. But assistant professor Orchowski’s lecture doesn’t seem to be available. Neither does Valenti’s part of the debate.
By way of contrast, the tape and transcript of McElroy’s 20-minute opening statement are both available. This is the way she began:
MCELROY (11/18/14): Thank you and good evening.To watch her presentation, click here.
How many of you came tonight knowing exactly who I am and thinking you know exactly what I'm going to say?
I'm an individualist feminist which is a tradition within feminism that you may not be familiar with. It's also called libertarian feminism. I'm going to open in an unconventional manner by speaking about my personal background.
I've had a great deal of violence in my life. When I was 16 I ran away from home and lived on the street. I was raped, and brutally so. I did not blame society, I did not blame the culture. I blame the man who raped me. I've had reason in my life to blame other men. Due to a domestic violence incident years ago, I had a hemorrhage in the central line of vision of my right eye that left me legally blind. I did not blame society. I did not blame culture. I blame the man who put his fist in my face.
Every morning I wake up I know the pain and the importance of violence against women because I see only half of the world because of it.
I am bringing this up before I bring up arguments and the evidence because when a woman like me comes and disagrees with the feminist orthodoxy, what comes back are accusations. They claim I don't know what it means—the significance, the importance of violence against women. Or that I trivialize rape.
Let's put that behind us. Let's say I am a woman who knows intimately the pain of sexual violence, and that I disagree. Let's do the one thing that is most important on this issue, which is actually discuss the issues. Raise questions.
This evening I'll address two topics all too briefly. The rape culture, and how I think sexual assault accusations on campus should be treated.
We’re not sure why students needed an alternate forum to protect them from hearing that. As McElroy began discussing “rape culture,” she quoted last year’s statement by the (mainstream) Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), in which RAINN said this:
“There has been an unfortunate trend towards blaming the rape culture for the extensive problem of sexual violence on campus. While it is helpful for pointing out the systemic barriers towards dealing with the problem it is important not to lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions of a small fraction of a community to commit a violent crime. While that may seem an obvious point it has tended to get lost in recent debates.”
For ourselves, we don’t have a giant view on this matter. Does a “rape culture” exist in this country? As a general matter, this tends to strike us as a largely semantic question.
(Though it’s obvious that giant industries earn lots of money from selling the vicarious thrill of violence against women. People, we walked out of The Deep! In 1977!)
We’d like to watch the full debate. But only one side is available.
In this piece last year for Slate, Amanda Marcotte described RAINN as “one of the most active and important organizations in the country fighting sexual violence.” She went on to say that RAINN doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “rape culture.”
You can assess that as you like. We thought it was worth looking at the outlandish views which caused President Paxson to direct an assistant professor to create a forum where students would only be exposed to ideas of which their president approved.
In Sunday’s New York Times, Judith Shulevitz snarked fairly hard at several Brown students. We thought the actual problem here involved Brown’s adult authorities.
Was there some reason why the average Brown student had to be shielded from McElroy’s views? In that report from the Brown Daily Herald, the organizer of the debate was quoted making a striking statement:
BRANDFIELD-HARVEY AND KELLY: “Obviously we knew that any topic about sexual assault would be challenging to address, but we aim to be a non-partisan, non-biased organization,” [Dana Schwarz] said. “We brought two speakers, who have completely different viewpoints, one of which probably has a completely different viewpoint than most of campus, but we do that with the intent to spark debate and discussion.”Schwarz seemed to think that McElroy “probably has a completely different viewpoint than most of campus.” We don’t know if that’s true.
Schwartz said the Janus Forum has wanted to host an event focused on women’s issues and sexual assault since students raised concerns about the University’s sexual assault policies and disciplinary procedures last spring.
Janus Forum events “always try to reflect the climate of the campus,” Schwartz said. “We don’t shape it, we just respond to it.”
In response to students’ opposition to McElroy, Schwartz said hearing and dissecting opposing opinions is essential to strengthening one’s own viewpoint. “We have to be aware that people outside of Brown have opinions that we might find highly unpalatable, and I think instead of silencing opinions, by listening and understanding how to deconstruct and debate them effectively, that’s the best thing a Brown student can do.”
That said, it didn’t seem to cross her mind that someone might learn something, or end up with a changed point of view, from hearing that different viewpoint. By listening to McElroy, students could only learn about the “highly unpalatable” opinions which obtain off campus, out in the rest of the world.
Schwarz did a lot of things right in the matter. But that strikes us as a remarkably blinkered view.
That said, Schwarz is an undergraduate; she’s a college student. With leadership from adult authorities like Paxson and Orchowski, it’s no wonder that terrific young people at Brown might hold such blinkered views.
Progressives can’t succeed in this know-it-all manner. But as Augustine thoughtfully said:
Dear lord! It just feels so good!