Analysis of George Will’s “Colleges Become the Victims of Progressivism”

Summary of Will’s Argument

On June 6, 2014, columnist George F. Will published an opinion piece in the Washington Post. As indicated in the title of this post, Will’s focus was on what he perceived as the surprise experienced by college professors, as they discover that the kind of governmental regulation and scrutiny they had long advocated was now being turned against them.

In support of that perception, Will advanced several examples. The first had to do with “campus victimizations”; the second involved a plan in which the U.S. Department of Education would reportedly rate academic institutions as one might rate a blender; the third pertained to a trend toward “trigger warnings” in which students would have to be warned beforehand about potentially upsetting or unpopular content in assigned readings. Will concluded that, in these several ways, by “asking for progressivism,” institutions of higher education had brought upon themselves the kind of bureaucratic intrusion that other parts of society resent. This reading seems consistent with the title of the piece.

Will’s Perceptions and the Realities

When asked about this opinion piece afterwards, Will indicated that he would not take back any part of it. This was interesting, insofar as numerous commentators had found parts of the piece highly objectionable. Generally, his C-SPAN interview conveyed the impression that he sees himself as wise and patient amid the chaos of lesser minds. To me, however, it did appear that the piece needed significant alteration.

The outrage was largely directed at some of his remarks about campus victimizations. In this regard, Will seemed to feel that academia is now learning two painful lessons: (1) Higher ed itself is being flooded by self-styled “victims” because professors have been teaching that victimhood is everywhere in society — in, notably, the experience of “micro-aggressions” — and (2) those professors’ attention to victimhood has given it a preferential status on campus.

Those are significant claims. Will’s opinion piece would have been greatly improved if he had devoted the balance of its text to a more nuanced explanation of the relationship between victimization and government intrusion.

He might feel that he did, in fact, focus on providing that explanation. The problem was that he did so by plunging onwards into additional propositions that would likewise require careful elaboration. There was not enough space to discuss and clarify all these things. Hence, while I do not share many of his readers’ outrage, I do share their consternation that he would fail or refuse to see the difficulty in presenting these ideas persuasively to a mass audience, as distinct from merely preaching to his believers — to, that is, those who would already know what he means.

Campus Victimhood and Microaggression

I begin with an attempt at a redemptive reading of Will’s two claims about victimhood. Briefly, I must say that I spent years in schools of social work, in an atmosphere highly oriented toward what I think Will meant by “victimhood,” and I encountered little if any discussion of micro-aggressions. Google Scholar searches for “micro-aggression” turn up only 1,330 hits overall, of which 316 are linked in some sense with social work. For comparison, similar searches turn up tens of thousands of hits for victimization. In other words, “micro-aggression” is not a concept that has taken academia by storm. My preliminary sense is that more careful research by Will would have resulted in deletion of that seemingly minor term from his essay.

In saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the idea of microaggression per se. My vague sense of the concept, buttressed by brief review while writing these words, is that it has potential value for purposes of analyzing interactions among people. A quick search generates the tentative impression that it might be studied in some detail in a course on communication.

I do agree that victimhood is everywhere in society — that, indeed, as I have developed in another blog, predation is fundamental to life itself. Will’s point, I gather, is not that life is hard; it is that academics have tended to distort reality by exaggerating the victimization experienced by some groups while minimizing the victimization experienced by others. To correct his wording in pursuit of clarity on what seems to be his own point, I think he meant that academia confers privileges on those whose victimization becomes a cause célèbre. Being a woman, being gay, being a member of a racial or ethnic minority — all of these have resulted in the creation of admissions preferences, targeted scholarships, and other arrangements openly or quietly conferring privileged status upon groups that have trumpeted a kind of victimization beloved of academe.

But I could be wrong in that reading. Will does state that “colleges and universities . . . say campus victimizations are ubiquitous.” Even without the reference to microaggressions, I find his actual wording unpersuasive. In my 15 years on American campuses, and in additional years of reading and study, I have not found that “victims proliferate” with faculty encouragement. Much to the contrary, in my impression there has been very much a status quo among the privileged statuses, a calcification of entrenched special groups that have achieved recognition through huge old struggles, stretching back into the 1960s and beyond. Refugees, people with disabilities, people of socioeconomic disadvantage — these sorts of victims, more recently or inconsistently catered to in academic tradition, are at least ostensibly appended to the gay-minority-female club. But in my experience, with limited exceptions, heterosexual white males, unemployed people, commonsense middle-aged students, people accused of crimes, and others who reek of ordinary America are on their own, to the point of being victimized indeed by the university itself.

What Will characterizes as an ongoing march of progressivism within the university, I see as a tired collapse into familiar territory and an aversion to cutting-edge ideas and new developments. Will is giving us a spat between two cliques of old folks, each conservative in its own way — between, basically, those who never really got into the mentality of Baby Boom academia and those who never got beyond it.

The Part About Sexual Assault

The preceding discussion has dealt solely with Will’s first paragraph. My remarks so far may demonstrate why I think he would have been better advised to develop his ideas a step at a time, first being clear about victimhood and then transitioning into a lucid introduction and elaboration of his anecdote about sexual assault. Instead, by rushing through his material, he basically wrote two different articles — the one about progressivism’s impact upon university administrators, and the one about sexual assault. He may have thought he was talking primarily about progressivism, but he led the majority of his readers to a discussion of sexual assault instead.

The dividing line between those two parts of his essay appears at the beginning of his second paragraph. There, he says, “Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault.'” He seems to mean that academia has given privileged status to victims of sexual assault, just as it has given privileged status to women and blacks. This may be true in a limited sense — for example, there may be a few special scholarships somewhere for sexual assault victims, and there has been much pro-victim distortion of facts pertaining to sexual assault. But this activity appears derivative of a larger solicitude for women generally. It does not appear that sexual assault victims have largely splintered off into their own movement, independent of the larger pursuit of improved treatment of women.

Will does seemingly intend to link the Swarthmore College anecdote, involving rape or sexual assault, to his preceding remarks about ubiquitous campus victimizations and microaggressions. I don’t know if he thus intended to trivialize rape as a mere microaggression; he certainly does not take pains to differentiate the two. In his eyes, it seems, a proliferation of overblown sexual assault complaints is just one more manifestation of a larger tendency toward too much compassion for everyone’s complaints. From a writer’s perspective, Will does not bother to bring readers around to this perspective; he just launches directly into a discounting of the rape story, as though he assumes he will be read only by those who already share his way of seeing things.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that, as critics charge, Will does construe rape as a form of victimhood that campuses have treated as “a coveted status.” That claim was obviously going to be inflammatory. His own anecdote does not even support it: there is no explanation of how the Swarthmore woman benefited. Will simply lurches onward, to the remark that “the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of ‘sexual assault’ victims,” as if Obama’s decision were shaped or even slightly influenced by this single story. Tell me that the Swarthmore woman is the daughter of Obama’s best friend, and I will consider the possibility. Short of that, by this point it sounds like Will has gone adrift.

The cluelessness pervading the first sentence of Will’s second paragraph is most evident in the words “rape, a.k.a. ‘sexual assault.'” He seems not to grasp that the two are not synonyms, as I have developed in a separate post. If he doesn’t want to bother using words well, that’s up to him; but in that case he should be replaced by someone willing to work for the privilege to write for major newspapers. It is one thing to foment useful controversies by addressing difficult topics; it is another to abuse one’s position, irresponsibly generating unnecessary strife through sheer laziness and ignorance.

The Swarthmore College Story

Will devotes the next five paragraphs to remarks about campus sexual assaults. Those five paragraphs, containing 441 words, account for nearly 60% of the essay’s total of 750 words. If he wanted to write a piece on sexual assault, he could have done that. But already at this point, less than 100 words into the piece, he is departing from his original theme — that college and university administrators are being saddled and ridden by Washington bureaucrats — to argue in the opposite direction, tacitly acknowledging that those administrators are not strongly resisting D.C. in this matter of sexual assault. If Will wanted to support his original thesis, he needed to show how institutions of higher education are being severely impacted by the approach to sexual assault adopted by the U.S. Department of Education. He makes no such showing.

Instead, as I say, Will sallies forth in a new direction. At Swarthmore College, he says, a female student got into bed with a male student, told him that she didn’t want to have sex, acquiesced in his amorous efforts without further objection, and then decided, six weeks later, to report that she had been raped. Here again, however, Will’s treatment falls flat. As just noted, there were no privileges for the female; nor was there discipline or other adverse impact for the male. As noted in a discussion near the end of my post on rape, the story would have gone away but for its highly atypical media coverage. Both students graduated without any significant intervention by administrators. In these regards, the anecdote seems to have nothing to do with Will’s thesis that progressivism has burdened Swarthmore College.

It is true that the Swarthmore College story presents a rather extreme indulgence of anti-male sentiment, insofar as it vaguely advances the claim that a man raped a woman who, by her own admission, was “just tired” and did not feel like making a big deal out of it. The notion that both parties have to be equally “into it” every time they have sex (or do anything together) is incompatible with the realities of day-to-day interactions among friends and lovers. Not everybody is always going to be happy about everything. That, in itself, does not make anyone a rapist. Will certainly could have used the Swarthmore anecdote effectively in a separate editorial on exaggeration of sexual assault. But it was just a distraction and a liability in this editorial on progressivism.

The Supposed Campus Rape Epidemic

The new topic that Will jumped into, with that story about Swarthmore, seems to involve what he sees as a “supposed campus epidemic of rape.” His contention, as I understand it, is that places like Swarthmore are being deluged with complaints of trivial victimization like the one he describes, and the Obama administration is aggravating the problem by “riding to the rescue of ‘sexual assault’ victims.” Will apparently wishes that the federal government would take what he would consider a more measured and fact-driven approach.

Yet here, again, Will is the one proceeding without factual basis. His editorial needed to present facts demonstrating that college administrators are being heavily burdened by this team effort — by feckless governmental bureaucrats who bestow excess credibility upon women crying wolf. On this point, Will gets a grade of B-. He does advance an argument, but his argument is purely hypothetical. He says that universities are being forced to declare male students guilty of sexual assault through an inappropriate “preponderance of the evidence” evaluation, and that the resulting damage to those male students’ career prospects will prompt them to file costly lawsuits against those universities.

I am certainly a believer that such things can happen. My own experiences in the corrupt ambiance of Indiana University demonstrate how nutty and unjust such places can be, when a female student decides to hound a male classmate. The problem here is just that Will does not offer any real-world stories to illustrate the concrete realities of his sexual complaint scenario — as just noted, nothing of the sort happened at Swarthmore — and he also fails to put forth any statistics showing a tide of such cases nationwide.

Will does better in his attack upon the Obama administration’s sexual assault statistics. In a separate post, I have devoted considerable attention to contemporary research into such matters, and I agree with Will: the claim that 20% of college women are sexually assaulted is a great exaggeration of the actual numbers. It was dismaying, in this regard, that Mel Robbins of CNN, attacking Will for this editorial’s remarks on sexual assault, did not have the grace to admit that he had a point. The best she could bring herself to do was to argue that even a 5% rate would be an epidemic, ignoring Will’s statement that even a calculation of 2.9% would not be supported by the available data. Discussion in contentious areas will not be advanced if the talking heads cannot bring themselves to acknowledge instances when the other party has identified a fact worth considering. In this regard, she was no better than him.

Will’s Editorial, Before and After Publication

I have read the full text of George Will’s editorial on progressivism and campus culture. I could continue to parse it in this post, but there seems to be no need to do so. By the second paragraph, it was already clear that he had gone off the rails. In these remarks, I have discussed most of the problems that leading commentators saw in it.

When I first read some of those commentators, I had an emotional reaction, apparently comparable to the reaction that inspired Mel Robbins’s rant. My reaction was triggered by the impression that women’s groups that had railroaded Larry Summers (e.g., NOW, UltraViolet) were at it again, seemingly taking advantage of an opportunity to try to remove one more prominent male from his position simply because he is male. My reaction was no doubt amplified by my own experiences as a victim in the gender-based attacks mentioned above.

In response to that emotional reaction, I developed several posts in this blog, preceding this one, on the definitions of rape and sexual abuse, on rape-related statistics, and on the credibility of women’s advocates. What was most therapeutic about that intellectual exploration was the recurrent discovery of women, on popular and academic levels alike, who for various reasons demonstrated a commitment to honest research and, in some cases, a desire for actual fairness and compassion toward men.

I concluded that, in the George Will episode as in cases before it, there are the crazies, and then there are the people who should be guiding discussion and making policy. As noted above, the Obama Administration itself did not come out so well in that appraisal.

Neither did George Will. Once I was past the sense of being vicariously attacked, through him, by these bigoted second-wave feminist organizations — that is, as I proceeded into my investigation — I developed the impressions presented above. Will had some good points. His critics should have been more eager to acknowledge and discuss those points, instead of just piling on top of him. But his essay was badly flawed. You can’t be that lazy, that ignorant, that indifferent to reasonable countervailing opinion, and expect to keep your job as a leading national columnist.

I don’t know whether the St. Louis Post-Dispatch erred in dropping Will’s column. That newspaper had reportedly been considering such a decision for several months. I do not regularly read Will’s column, so I cannot say: perhaps he has lately been turning out a lot of defective work. In some accounts, it sounds like the Post-Dispatch might have dumped Will just because he said things that people don’t want to hear, or are not used to hearing. But I am not sure; I have not investigated that.

Nor can I say with certainty that the Washington Post erred in subjecting editorials like Will’s to an all-male board for review. I would think that any competent board of editors, male or female, should have been able to identify the kinds of flaws noted here. Perhaps the problem there is not one of sex, but rather of creeping complacency: people have a tendency to let their guard down over time. I would not agree that only a female editor would be inclined to notice the concerns expressed here. Nor would I fault Will, as an Illinois Republican apologist seems to have done, simply because his opinions disserve his political party. It seems possible that the blight of the major political parties might be at least slightly alleviated by the occasional appearance of heterodox and not always pragmatic opinions within them.

For me, the worst thing about Will’s essay was that he refused to acknowledge that he might have done anything wrong. To the contrary, as noted above, his message on C-SPAN was patronizing. He was apparently not listening; it was not clear whether he was even able to listen and learn. If I were the editor of a major newspaper, I would seriously consider issuing an assignment to Will, as a condition of retaining him as a columnist: submit a follow-up or revision that demonstrates improved understanding, competence, and engagement with critics, in the problem areas identified above.

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