Opinion

'Jezebel Effect' poisons conversations on gender and sexual violence

A virtual angry mob has made it almost impossible to have real conversations on campus rape. That's a shame

In the world of opinion writing, there’s something called the “to be sure” paragraph. A sort of rhetorical antibiotic, it seeks to defend against critics by injecting a tiny bit of counter-argument before moving on with the main point. “To be sure, meat has protein and tastes delicious, but most experts agree that a mostly vegetarian diet is best.” “To be sure, it rained a few times this year, but California remains in the worst drought in recorded history.”

In my last column, which asked whether the high visibility of activism around rape on college campuses has obscured the fact that there’s even more rape happening off college campuses, I trod a little lightly in “to be sure” territory. I didn’t think it was necessary; it should go without saying that there is no excuse for sexual violence. Besides, I’ve said it many times in other columns.

In fact, I’ve been writing about campus activism and women's issues a lot lately, usually with such strenuous “to be sures” that I sometimes feel like I’m spending almost as much time trying to disarm potential critics as making my point. 

In those columns, I think I’ve made it clear that even though the expanding definitions of “sexual assault” can take us into some dangerous territory (the way some colleges define it, just about all of us would be at risk for prosecution), campus rape deserves serious attention and, too often, has not been handled well by university administrations or public law enforcement. As testy as I can be about empty displays of outrage, I’ve never suggested that rape is anything less than a horrific crime that should carry the fullest punishment possible under the law.

Could repeating those words exactly have prevented the furor that erupted on social media and the feminist blogosphere in the last week? My column was fodder for LAist, Salon and Feministing, and for Twitter vengeance. I was accused of being a “misogynist feminist” and of blaming college activists for the lack of attention to the victims of Boko Haram. One Twitter user told me I was “on the wrong side of history.” Another accused me of “mansplaining,” which she said she didn’t realize women were capable of (as it happens, I’ve written about that too.) Yet another spoke of “patiently waiting for Jezebel to rain hellfire” down on me.

Jezebel, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is a popular site that began as a smart decoder of women’s media. Today it devotes much of its space to parsing and calling out any smidgen of what it perceives to be public misogyny. In fact, the preponderance of  blogospheric female wrath might, collectively, be called the Jezebel Effect.

Would another “to be sure” paragraph have mitigated the effect in this case? Would saying “to be sure, campus rape is serious and real” have ushered me past the watchdogs and allowed me to discuss my main point, which was that there’s a lot of feminist work to be done out there and I hope these young activists can take their obvious passion and energy and address not only their own trauma but the problems faced by women in the wider world?

Maybe. But given the metabolism of the blogosphere in general and the sensibilities of the feminist blogosphere in particular, many of my critics would probably still have begun piling on the second they read the headline.

It amounts to a lot of ammunition aimed at the wrong enemy.  I admit I could have more explicitly stated that local activism and global activism aren't either/or propositions. I could have made it clearer that not all young feminists are "only" inward looking, or that no one -- including me -- expects 20-year-old liberal arts students to pick up where the Obama administration and the U.N. leave off and solve the problem of Boko Haram (which I cited mostly because we were seeing lots of images of its victims in the news last week.) I could have been more careful about adequately capturing the complexity of my point.

In other words, I’ll cop to the fact that I could have done better. That said, anyone painting me as a rape apologist or interpreting my frustrations with certain forms of protest as a blanket statement that women should “get over themselves” is looking for a fight that just isn’t there.

But here is a fight I will pick. It’s not with those coming after me with pitchforks so much as my fellow writers and journalists, especially the ones who, like me, are in the business of observing the world, thinking critically about it and voicing honest opinions.

I know firsthand that a great many of them, especially the women -- some of the boomer generation, some Gen-Xers like me and some millennials who are disinclined to walk in lockstep with the horde -- are just as fascinated, confused and occasionally exasperated as I am by the current contours of female outrage. Though we may disagree on the details, when we get together in private we almost always find ourselves wondering whether the general level of feminist indignation is good for the cause or if something’s gone off the rails. Then, invariably, someone says, "But I'd never write that because I’d be crucified on the blogs and Twitter."

The Jezebel Effect strikes again.

And it’s a shame. As humans with egos and feelings, none of us wants to be pilloried. But as thinkers and writers, it’s our job to express opinions forthrightly and without qualifying them out of existence. And if doing so risks Twitter followers or getting called out by bloggers, well, that’s part of the job description. The way I see it, if you’re a columnist, you should want Jezebel to rain hellfire on you once in a while.

My goal is to invite readers to think along with me and draw their own conclusions. Last week, like most weeks, some people welcomed that invitation and others didn’t. The fact that the latter group could create the impression that campus rape is a subject that’s off limits to all but a select group is a testament to their noisy power. However, it’s also a call for those with other viewpoints to  express them rationally, sensitively and, yes, out loud.

The noisiest activists will say that any deviation from their views on campus rape is by definition an affront to survivors of sexual violence. That is objectively wrong, but given the crude misogyny on some extremist anti-feminist sites and on many comment boards, you can see where they’re coming from (to be sure).

And (to be sure) I'm certainly not the first or the only feminist-minded writer challenging aspects of the campus rape party line. (If you want a reading list, just email me.)

But the Jezebel Effect is real, and as a result too much time is being spent looking for a fight about these issues and not enough in having a conversation about them. That's too bad. Because it’s a conversation worth having. The only way to be on the wrong side of history is to avoid it out of fear of an angry -- and usually virtual -- mob.

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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