The Strange World Where Being Flat-Out Blasted is a Feminist Stance

Kudos to the ever-reasonable Ruth Marcus, who defends her friend Emily Yoffe, who wrote what seems on the deconstructed face of things to be banal advice: young women are safer from sexual assault on college campuses when they’re not smashed or unconscious from booze.

Some of the most appalling cases of rape in recent years have involved unconscious women, raped at parties—often by drunk men.

I’ve not waded through the backlash against Yoffe’s comments, because it’s too early in the morning, it’s Friday, and I don’t have the heart for it. As Marcus summarizes it, Yoffe’s critics feel that she’s blaming the victim (the feminist third rail, and not without good reason), and putting the burden of rape prevention on women, rather than emphasizing zero tolerance for rapists. Basically, as they construe it, Yoffe’s urging women not to enjoy a party or social life, rather than focusing on the perpetrators.

I understand that critique mostly in a specific political context:  Rape is so often dismissed, and trivialized, and this seems to be getting worse, that in some ways, we can’t even trust ourselves with the kind of common sense advice about wellbeing that Yoffe offers:  Her advice is too easily misconstrued, or too easily put to cross purposes with the spirit in which she delivered it, which is not in the spirit of belittling rape or victim-blaming, but a spirit of sensible-shoes pragmatism. In other words, it’s too scary politically to dispense even minimally-observant advice about campus safety.

Feminists were more tolerant of this sort of advice in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rape really became part of the political agenda. At that time, things like learning to defend yourself and stay safe were examples of “self-empowerment.” Self-defense, broadly defined, was something to relish, as a newfound form of agency and personal control.

Women learned how to keep themselves safe—as opposed to relying on the protection or goodwill of men—and to take responsibility for their safety. They tried to overcome inhibitions against basic things, such as really yelling when you’re in trouble, or fighting back. Feminists flocked to self-defense classes, carried whistles to stay protected, walked with other women at night, and looked out for each other, and for themselves. 

The notion of giving a woman safety tips about rape prevention—when this had never even been discussed before--in no way diminished the energy with which feminists fought successfully to reform rape laws, and the popular idea of rape, and to prosecute rapists.

Rather, these two things—self-empowerment, and political activism against rape, and rapists—worked hand in hand.

Self-defense and the strict prosecution of rape aren’t mutually exclusive, which would be obvious—and easier to accept—in a social context where rape and feminism weren’t so distrusted, maligned, and trivialized.

Rapists have raped and should be prosecuted. Nothing changes that. If a woman can’t say “yes,” then it is rape. Doesn’t matter how drunk she is. Consent cannot ever be inferred from intoxication, or, what’s worse, sexual availability be inferred as the default stance unless a woman vigorously says no.

As I’ve written many times before, for all humans, women and men, the very highest standards need to attach to sexual consent, and to physical, bodily integrity, and protection against violation. In a free society, neither labor nor sex can be coerced or compelled.

Taking Yoffe’s prescription for young women’s safety at face value, I don’t see it as any different from, say, advising that your daughter not drive drunk, because she could kill herself or someone else. And the advice applies equally to men.

The elephant in the room is that alcohol impairs human judgment and safety. Talk to anyone who struggles with alcohol abuse, and they’ll confirm that.

And there is a deeper problem that Yoffe’s advice alludes to. Why are men and women compelled to drink so much that they pass out in the first place? Of course, most of us have done this, at college and beyond. But we can’t normalize binge drinking as just part of college, either.

I came across a chilling term the other day in Ann Dowsett Johnston’s book, Drink: The Intimate Relationship of Women and Alcohol. She refers to “drunkorexia.”  This is a new Frankenstein of psychological trouble among college women, who have both an eating disorder—anorexia or bulimia—and unhealthy, self-destructive drinking habits.

The term hit me the minute I heard it. Viscerally, I get it: These are two afflictions of people who are not comfortable in their own skins, and heads, who have social unease, sexual anxiety, or discomfort being in their own bodies and consciousness.

Most of us have been there. Most of us know that unease well.

Surely the biggest part of sexual safety and wellbeing, ultimately, is being comfortable in your own body, and able to live in it, without starving it or pickling it every weekend.

Bracketing the issue of rape for a moment, Yoffe’s advice that young women try to live a social life conscious and awake, however uncomfortable that can be, supports sexual health and a feminist agenda, in the biggest senses of those terms.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.