Moral Outrage Is a Poor Substitute for Debate

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In America, sex is always in the news. (Note: it’s actually not like that in most other countries.)

That news provides a chance for sincere, well-informed people to disagree. But these days, unfortunately, people are using the day’s sex news more as a chance to choose up sides—to define what your opinion means about you and all your other opinions.

~ “I disagree” has been replaced by “You’re misogynist.”
~ “No, you’re wrong” has been replaced by “You’re a rape apologist.”
~“I don’t get your logic” has been replaced by “You’re blaming the victim.”
~ “I don’t agree with that assumption” has been replaced by “You’re transphobic.”

Increasingly, Americans are more interested in finding out what tribe you belong to than in what you actually think. And once they decide you’re in the wrong tribe, they feel free to ignore what you say. Or to attack you for what they imagine you believe.

This makes secular democracy impossible. It’s how phony “democracy” works in Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Afghanistan: Voters don’t ask what a candidate knows or wants or believes. They ask what his religion is, what his ethnicity is, what tribe he’s from. Then they vote for their guy—and demonize the other guys.

So these days writers and speakers are being labelled for what their opinions supposedly mean, instead of having their ideas dissected and discussed. And too much of this is a purity measurement—are you 100% with us, or are you the enemy?

Here are a few recent examples with which you may be familiar:

~ Last year, a Stanford University student was convicted of having sex with an unconscious woman. The judge punished him with lifetime sex offender registration and six months in jail (the judge simply followed the Probation Department recommendation.)

Some people think the sentence is shockingly light, so they organized a recall campaign.

Other people—including dozens of California judges—are against the recall, primarily because it undermines judicial independence, making judges think twice about following the law. Many anti-recall people also believe that lifetime sex offender registration (and a jail record, not to mention jail time) is an enormous (and appropriate, even if imperfect) punishment.

Supporters of the recall are framing the upcoming recall election as “Are you against rape or not?” and “Do you believe women deserve to be safe or not?” This simplistic narrative can’t possibly do justice to the subtleties or sophistication of the anti-recall position.

How dare you accuse me of being pro-rape just because I believe in judicial autonomy? This does NOT help rape victims.

~ There’s a lot of concern about women who are sexually assaulted on college campuses. Many uninformed people have irresponsibly repeated the bizarre claim that 20 or even 25% of women in college have been raped—a figure higher than reported during the brutal wartime chaos in failed states like Congo or Yugoslavia.

This is demonstrably false. The “1 in 4” and “1 in 5” figures were generated by a researcher who did NOT ask respondents if they’d been assaulted; rather, she asked respondents if they’d had various sexual experiences (such as unwanted kissing), which the researcher then coded as sexual assault.

Challenging this impossibly high figure hasn’t been popular—anyone referring to more reliable data (from the FBI, CDC, etc.) has been attacked as being part of “rape culture.” In fact, social justice leaders have said that “quibbling” over numbers trivializes the awful experience of being raped.

I say the opposite—redefining sexual assault so that it includes things like unwanted kissing or groping (as unpleasant as they are), trivializes real rape. It also erases distinctions that are crucial to serious efforts to reduce all kinds of sexual misconduct. Just as strategies for reducing drunk driving will not much reduce car theft, strategies for reducing rape will not much reduce the far more common sexual disrespect.

~ If my college-age daughter and her friends plan to drive to a frat party, I would advise her to wear a seatbelt, and to pull off the road if she wants to text. If the frat is in a dangerous neighborhood, I’d advise her to take a cab or use Uber rather than walk.

Is that kind of thinking about safety “blaming the victim?” No, it’s encouraging someone to take responsibility for themselves. Similarly, it’s a message of self-care and adult caution to advise her “do not get drunk before you go to a party. In fact, don’t get drunk at the party.”

And yet this reasonable position—encouraging women to take care of themselves, recognizing the reality of the world in which they wish to be autonomous—is fiercely attacked as “blaming the victim” and “letting predatory men off the hook.” I’ve even been attacked as supporting rape—with the twisted logic that since women have a right to be safe when they’re drunk (which they do), they shouldn’t have to be thoughtful about whether to get drunk in a given situation.

* * *

People who spend years studying issues often come up with contrasting analyses, leading to contrasting policy ideas. At the same time, only fanatics are 100% ideologically pure. Caricaturing someone else’s ideas with words or slogans like “rape apologist” or “micro-aggression” may help define a small, dedicated in-group—but it prevents communication and limits the size of progressive communities.

It also keeps ideas simple, free from the nourishment of cross-pollination with other ideas. Simple ideas (like perfect moral clarity) may be attractive, but they seldom work in the real world.

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