The intolerance of student activism and thought

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On November 2, 2015, The Flat Hat published a guest column by Thomas Briggs titled, “It’s a Hookup Culture, Not a Rape Culture.” Briggs essentially makes the argument that, as the title suggests, there is no rape culture on college campuses. Rather, there is a pervasive hookup culture that promotes sexual violence.

I must clarify that although my perspective on what constitutes a rape culture has changed over time, I still disagree with most of the points that Briggs argues in his article. I believe that his stance is misguided, uninformed and ill-expressed. It also appears likely that a sense of privilege clouded his vision and arguments. That said, I cannot and will not speak about the particulars of Briggs’ logic and evidence or the content of his personal character. Ultimately, this article is concerned with the way college students talk about important issues.

In the days following the publication of the article, I was more shocked by the visceral reaction of the campus community than by Briggs’ words. These reactions collectively amounted to a mob mentality that attacked Briggs as a person and attempted to either censor or invalidate his perspective. Briggs, according to his own account on WCWM radio, had even received a number of potentially threatening messages from members of our community. This is certainly not indicative of the critical engagement that is characteristic of the College of William and Mary. The fact of the matter is that a response of this magnitude would not arise in response to a College student who supported the existence of rape culture. I know this because I wrote an open letter to President Reveley that was published in The Flat Hat that portrayed the Sigma Chi email as an example of rape culture. I was met with nothing past mild disagreement — certainly nothing that made me feel intimidated or diminished.

I am particularly concerned with those who cited “privilege” as a reason that Briggs should not have been given a platform to even speak.

Briggs, on the other hand, was called a bigot. Some dismissed him as a person with little “stake in sexual matters” or otherwise disparaged him on the basis of his sexuality. Others simply dismissed him as another “white man” who had no experiential or intellectual foundation to speak about the issue of sexual violence. There is a blatant hypocrisy to each of these responses. As a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies major and activist, I was particularly shocked to see the number of other self-identified feminists who took part in these attacks.

I am particularly concerned with those who cited “privilege” as a reason that Briggs should not have been given a platform to even speak. They failed to remember that Briggs’ racial, ethnic, gender (etc.) identities and lived experiences are inherently unknowable and that he may very well identify in a way that attracts some form of oppression in his day-to-day life. In fact, he may not be so removed from the topic of sexual violence as some have presumed. Making this assumption is a prime example of a key aspect of rape culture that so many students have advocated against: The assumption that someone must not have any experience with sexual violence or any other form of oppression simply because they do not agree with your perspective is a great way of invalidating true experiences and silencing those who have actually suffered. Ultimately, this is a viewpoint that fails to acknowledge that suffering is felt differently depending on the person and that solutions are not always as clear cut as they may seem.

Rape culture is a deeply contested notion even within the field of sexual violence prevention, and it is worthy of scrutiny.

Even if Briggs has never been subjected to oppression or has no experience pertaining to sexual violence, his identity does not necessarily preclude him from looking at the world with a critical eye and commenting on it in detail. Almost everyone makes judgments on things they have no personal experience with (think of how often non-Greek members comment on Greek Life, for example) and they do so because they have access to second- and third-hand information that is just as important and enlightening as first-hand information.

I am a white male who has never been sexually assaulted, yet several people (including some who have no knowledge of my GSWS studies and activist background) have taken the liberty of extending me praise and support for my perspectives (which acknowledged the existence of rape culture) without saying that I am somehow unqualified or unauthorized to speak on the subject, despite the fact that Briggs and I share the exact same demographics according to some of the posts found on social media. Perhaps students should extend the same courtesy that has been granted to me to Briggs, however much they may disagree with him.

[Briggs] provoked our campus into thought without necessarily limiting his argument to a specific political agenda or catering to a specific audience …

Separately, however, Briggs illuminated a glaring disconnect between different people’s perceptions and definitions of rape culture. Rape culture is a deeply contested notion even within the field of sexual violence prevention, and it is worthy of scrutiny. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), the nation’s largest and perhaps most reputable anti-sexual assault organization, disputes the existence of rape culture and questions its relevance in terms of preventing sexual violence. RAINN even recommended to the White House that prevention campaigns should involve bystander intervention, risk-reduction messaging and general education to promote understanding of the law — concepts that are echoed in Briggs’ emphasis on “personal responsibility.” The question of what culture we live in and how we should improve it is an important and difficult one and is the basis for several fields of study at William and Mary. We should never stop addressing it.

If we are to speak truthfully, then we must acknowledge that Briggs accomplished exactly what the leftist Gadfly publication only purports to achieve: to pose difficult questions that challenge the status quo and “sting people and whip them into a fury — all in the service of truth.” He provoked our campus into thought without necessarily limiting his argument to a specific political agenda or catering to a specific audience (which in this case would be the socio-political left, which ironically might constitute the status quo that Gadfly claims to challenge). He spoke openly and boldly. He published his name, responded to criticisms, apologized for hurting people, altered his views and even engaged in debate on radio. He was concerned with the truth — not necessarily with being right.

Feel however you want about the points [Briggs] makes, but there is value in trying to redirect campus discourse.

The Gadfly, on the other hand, has evolved into something of a long-form Yik Yak: It does not specifically identify the names of its creators and it allows authors to write anonymously and with aggressive, vitriolic language that seemingly serves no purpose other than to enflame, rather than foster discussion about or resolve the issues at hand. It is in this sense that the Gadfly allows the tenet of honesty to succumb to a sense of self-serving righteousness. This mentality is becoming increasingly widespread on this campus; it eliminates the possibility of balanced and extensive dialogue in favor of raw, biased and oftentimes short-term monologue. It burns the bridge before attempting to cross it.

Ultimately, the problem does necessarily not lie with Briggs, but with the student activism and thought that cultivates intolerance for opposing viewpoints. Briggs was a true gadfly and our campus treated him terribly for it. Yet, his contribution sparked what is perhaps one of the largest dialogues about sexual violence that we have had in years. Feel however you want about the points he makes, but there is value in trying to redirect campus discourse. I encourage all of you to openly and respectfully discuss the opinions that have arisen out of Briggs’ article. I am always ready and eager to engage in discussion should you take issue with mine.

Email Jordan Taffet at [email protected]