The responses elicited by David Hookstead’s controversial letter to the editor on rape culture are more befitting of a lynch mob than a university. High school dropout vocabulary aside, they make it quite clear that more is at stake than the existence of rape culture. As a university, we are now engaged in a second and equally crucial debate: freedom of expression.
Although some responses to Hookstead’s piece addressed his claims, the majority of comments and follow-up letters to the editor focused instead on producing emotional outrage. This outrage works through two mechanisms: institutional barriers and social intimidation.
One commentator, “I’m disgusted,” wrote: “Shame on Badger Herald for publishing this!” The culpability of The Badger Herald is an alarmingly salient theme in the host of comments Hookstead elicited. Do such readers honestly think it is acceptable to create institutional barriers to expression that work on the basis of ideological affiliation?
Closely related is another form of control: social intimidation. In many of the comments, and unfortunately also in the published responses, there is an attempt to discredit Hookstead’s piece by claiming that he has no moral right to even discuss rape culture. “BadgerVictim,” for example, wrote: “Someone who has never experienced the feeling of [getting] raped has no right to make your opinions as statement … Instead of posting all the comments argue back and forth, perhaps we should report it to the school, to local community.”
BadgerVictim is one of many that suggests explicitly or implicitly that instead of arguing about the idea of rape culture, we should simply block the diffusion of ideas that challenge it.
Of course, the two tactics, institutional and social, work together. Social outrage and mob mentality can be used to bolster arguments for institutional obstructions and official censorship, and historically they have been, for instance in the Red Scare. Together, both tactics seek to limit the expression of an idea, thereby eliminating the need to engage with it.
A university, however, is premised on this kind of engagement. It is a large-scale forum where discourse and dialogue should trump fanaticism and ideology. This is especially true of complex ideas, such as the notion of “rape culture.”
The source of rape behavior is not commonly agreed upon, and attempting to determine it ultimately leads to difficult questions concerning nature-versus-nurture. The expectation that all of us will agree on its existence and its features is unrealistic and even dangerous. An important function of universities is to allow us to discuss such sensitive issues.
The benefits of free speech are too numerous for me to list (and Mill already did this). However, I wish to point out that since Hookstead’s piece on rape culture was published, my knowledge of both sides of the debate has greatly benefited. Attempts to thwart this process of free discussion, whether formal or informal, leave us intellectually poorer. The “sifting and winnowing” that is characteristic of free debate — and ominously absent in most responses to Hookstead — shines though in such pieces as Hayley Young’s letter to the editor.
I suggest we emulate Young and Hookstead, and address opposing ideas with argumentation rather than institutional or emotional manipulation. This is good for the University of Wisconsin and good for us.
“All_Badgers” wrote: “David Hookstead continues to be a NARB — not a real Badger.” Reflecting upon UW’s mission as a university, it becomes quite clear that this unfortunately named commentator is wrong. High school-like exclusion tactics are NARB. Fanatics are NARB. Censorship is most definitely NARB.
But free speech is … ARB?
Alex Schaefer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in economics and philosophy.