Not every fundamentalist is a right-winger. Crackpot utopianism and black-and-white thinking infect all social, political and religious movements. Indeed, it often appears that abandoning common sense for dogma is one of the main concomitants of a certain kind of liberal arts education.
Consider a recent bitter controversy involving Slate’s Emily Yoffe and an angry swarm of self-described feminist detractors. As “Dear Prudence,” Yoffe writes an online advice column for that magazine and the Washington Post. You know, “I had a one-night stand with my fiance’s brother,” or “my ex-wife is stalking me on Facebook.” That kind of thing.
I’m a big fan and a friendly acquaintance. We had dinner in Washington some years back along with a mutual friend who was in town on a book tour. We’ve exchanged emails now and then, mostly about her column. Unpretentious, nondogmatic, skeptical and compassionate, Emily’s what my wife calls “real people,” her highest encomium.
It’s not necessary to agree with Dear Prudence every time to see her column as a useful antidote to a Washington disease I call “hardening of the categories.” When you read about the astonishing messes people make of their intimate lives, the wonder’s not that the world’s chaotic, but that it’s as safe and orderly as it is.
So anyway, writing under her own byline, Yoffe took note of a number of high-profile sexual abuse and rape cases in the news — the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; and Maryville, Mo. — and noticed something elementary: “A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated.”
Friends warned her against saying so. “Talking about things women can do to protect themselves from rape is the third rail, they said.”
Let’s pause a moment to contemplate such an absurd situation. Warning college girls how not to be victimized is contrary to crackpot feminist ideology, which evidently holds that vomiting into the toilet while a football jock you met five minutes ago holds your hair is an empowering act.
Warning readers that fully 80 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol — with victim and perp alike getting wasted — Yoffe added that there are also disturbingly frequent reports about “shrewd — and sober — sexual predator(s) who lurk where women drink like a lion at a watering hole.”
“Let’s be totally clear,” she wrote. “Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them ... That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.”
Yoffe added that there are many things schools could be doing to educate young men and women: “Educating students about rape, teaching them that by definition a very drunk woman can’t consent to sex, is crucial. Also important are bystander programs that instruct students in how to intervene to prevent sexual assault on drunk classmates and about the need to get dangerously intoxicated ones medical treatment.”
So sane and sensible, in other words, as to be almost banal. Ah, but that was until the avant garde online thinkers caught wind of Yoffe’s offenses against womankind. Writers at sites like Jezebel, Feministing, and Salon alleged that Yoffe had written “a rape denialism manifesto.”
The Slate columnist had not only “blamed the victims” of sexual crime, but implicitly promoted something called “rape culture” — a catch-all propaganda phrase like something out of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
Four legs good, two legs bad!
Girls good, boys bad!
Some of the make-believe outrage was so over the top as to be downright comical. Salon’s perpetually indignant Katie McDonough — she’d recently written an angry screed about a porn star famous for performing an anatomically improbable act who was having trouble finding respectable work in her Arkansas hometown — basically accused Yoffe of writing that “women deserve rape.”
There was no obvious evidence that McDonough actually read the Slate article. For that matter, none of Yoffe’s detractors felt compelled to provide a halfway fair summary of her argument. To get the flavor of this absurd episode, it’s important to understand that this is an essentially dogmatic and ideological dispute having almost nothing to do with the visible world.
Unless, that is, you can imagine a professor of Women’s Studies actually urging her students to get blackout drunk at frat parties.
Actually, Yoffe may have found such a person. In response to her original article, she wrote, one professor wrote that “to reiterate the old Puritan line that women need to restrain and modify their pleasure-seeking behaviors is a big step backward.”
Meanwhile, out in the boondocks where I live, it’s reliably reported that most people admitted to hospital emergency rooms for snakebites are intoxicated. Apparently, booze makes them insensible to danger.
I do hope that saying so doesn’t make me pro-copperhead.
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.