By William K. Black
Quito: May 26, 2015
Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal attacks and mocks a victim of a sexual assault and four of her classmates at Columbia University who supported her in an op ed in the school paper. Here are the facts as Noonan presents them.
- A female student in a literature class at Columbia is “a survivor of sexual assault”
- Her male professor assigned readings from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Ovid’s epic poem describes a number of rapes of exceptional brutality.
- She complained the professor focused “on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text [that included the description of rape].” He did not apparently notice her feelings, or their urgency. As a result, “the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class.”
- Later the student told the professor how she felt, and her concerns, she said, were ignored.
- Some of the student’s classmates wrote an op ed in the Columbia University newspaper that called for “a space to hold a safe and open dialogue” about classroom experiences that “traumatize and silence students,” with the aim of creating environments that recognize “the multiplicity” of student “identities.”
- For that detestable proposal, Noonan labels the student authors “idiots” and suggests that the student who was sexually assaulted “need[s] a lot of therapy” because her professor’s presentation of the material on rape and his ignoring her trauma upset her.
- Noonan then extends her argument to all young victims of rape:
I notice lately that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?
Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?
- Noonan’s advice to young rape victims is: “If reading great literature traumatizes you, wait till you get a taste of adult life.”
- Noonan then presents a “Catch 22” – if you object to your professor’s means of presenting passages about rape (1) you can’t really be traumatized and (2) you are the “bullies” “intimidating” the professor entranced by the beauty of Ovid’s language and ignoring the trauma of rape victims.
If you were so vulnerable, intimidated and weak, you wouldn’t really be able to attack and criticize your professors, administrators and fellow students so ably and successfully, would you?
Are you a bunch of frail and sensitive little bullies? Is it possible you’re not intimidated but intimidators?
- Noonan ends her attack on the students with this revealing passage quoting approvingly these “on-line comments” on their op ed:
By the way, I went back to the op-ed and read the online comments it engendered from the Columbia community. They were quite wonderful. One called, satirically, to ban all satire because it has too many “verbal triggers.” Another: “These women are like a baby watching a movie and thinking the monster is going to come out of the screen and get them.” Another: “These girls’ parents need a refund.”
The biggest slayer of pomposity and sanctimony in our time continues to be American wit.
The Far Right’s Bizarre Embrace of Making Life Miserable for Rape Victims
There is something about the extreme right-wing writers and politicians on the subject of the rape victims on campuses. Like a moth in the presence of a candle, they cannot resist attacking rape victims. As they enter into the final death spiral the amount of light the candle’s flame casts on them just before they self-immolate illuminates their ugliest and most callous nature. Who else would be mad enough to target as their purported demons girls and young women who have been raped?
Note to Noonan – teenage undergraduates who have been raped have had more than a “taste of adult life.” They were frequently raped by adults while they were young children.
Noonan’s column may have put her in the lead in the race to the bottom with the odious George Will whose attacks on female rape victims are infamous.
Yes, the victims of rape often need “a lot of therapy.” They also need not to have their psychological distress mocked by the likes of Noonan and Will. Similarly they need to have therapy for psychological trauma encouraged rather than mocked as a sign of being a “Snowflake” with “Victorian vapors.”
Noonan: the Snowflack who tries to demean young women as “Snowflakes”
It is awesome that a flack like Noonan whose job was snowing the public would use the term “Snowflake.” As Jon Stewart memorably showed, Noonan is the Snowflack whose administration’s lies about Iran-Contra melted under the even the dimmest light of truth.
What if Noonan’s had mocked the psychological trauma of U.S. troops with PTSD?
Noonan would never mock U.S. troops suffering from PTSD in this manner, and the WSJ would never print such a column. She wrote previously in the WSJ to decry the “psychological” strain on our troops.
The U.S. military is overstretched in every way, including emotionally and psychologically. The biggest takeaway from a week at U.S. Army War College in 2008 was the exhaustion of the officers. They are tired from repeat deployments, and their families are stretched to the limit, with children reaching 12 and 13 without a father at home.
Notice that Noonan thinks our officers are all males – ignoring the mothers who are not “at home” with their children because of repeated deployments.
Noonan: the rape victims’ classmates’ display of empathy makes them “idiots”
Classmates who support rape victims are not “idiots.” They are people with empathy, a trait that Noonan lacks. Read her entire column. She does not even bother with a perfunctory “my heart goes out, of course, to all victims of sexual assaults and I recommend that Columbia actively seek out victims and offer counseling.” No, she is in full George Will mode – the victims of rape are the perpetrators.
Noonan: Kids today are growing up to by mass murderers of ruling elites
Noonan has entered the cranky phase of life in which the entire generation of younger Americans appalls her – as in “the kids today” complaints I remember hearing 50 years ago. But when Noonan goes cranky on the kids today she goes cranky crazy. “You kids today” are “quite a bunch of little Marats and Robespierres,” by which she means you represent the right’s primal fear. Marat published the popular paper that called for workers in Paris to combine to take the heads of what he viewed as the corrupt ruling class. Robespierre led the “Terror” to power in France after Marat’s assassination. Noonan thinks that “you kids today,” represent the budding leaders of a vicious mob that will soon terrorize Wall Street through the beheading of hundreds of establishment elites. That puts her way past old and cranky to the level of crazy that Murdoch publishes on his WSJ editorial pages.
Noonan is enraged that rape victims are wusses who feel “anxi[ety] and [are] frightened”
The context in which Noonan mocked the need of rape victims for psychological support is even more disturbing.
But if you constantly feel anxious and frightened by what you encounter in life, are we sure that means the world must reorder itself? Might it mean you need a lot of therapy?
First, what these young women – often as teenage or even younger girls – “encounter[ed] in life” was rape, often combined with fear of pregnancy and STDs plus a terrible violation of trust by rapists who were family members, family friends, or boyfriends. Second, a common result of rape is that the victims often “feel anxious and frightened.” No the world will not “reorder itself” to aid the victims of rape. That speaks poorly of us as a society.
Noonan’s Catch-22: trauma from rape is only real if the victim is left catatonic
Noonan’s claim that if you are strong enough to tell your professor that the manner in which he presented materials on rape traumatized you – you cannot be suffering from trauma is a variant of throwing women tied down with rocks into the river and watching them drown to prove that they were not actually witches. Noonan’s life is that of a wordsmith. When she crafts such a “Catch 22” to devalue a rape victim’s trauma it is a deliberate, despicable act. In Noonanland if you are not so traumatized by rape that you are nearly catatonic you are not traumatized.
Repeating on-line comments mocking the four Columbia authors and the rape victim is a cowardly smear-by-proxy by Noonan. The first comment calls, satirically, for banning satire. But satire has nothing to do with the trauma of rape victims or her classmates’ op ed. Ovid’s description of vicious rapes is not “satirical.” The first on-line comment is a pure straw man invention. The third comment uses the dismissive “girls” to devalue the students and has no substantive content.
The second on-line smear that Noonan endorses is the truly evil one.
“These women are like a baby watching a movie and thinking the monster is going to come out of the screen and get them.”
Infantilizing (“like a baby”) women is a very old means of devaluing their views. This comment, logically, can only refer to rape victims, not the writers of the op ed. Some U.S. troops (male and female) suffering from PTSD do suffer at times delusions. It is inconceivable that anyone in the WSJ would cite with approval some anonymous on-line commenter claiming that “These [men and] women are like a baby watching a movie and thinking the monster is going to come out of the screen and get them.” Why did the WSJ allow this obscene smear of rape victims?
It is the norm that our soldiers suffering from PTSD were not physically wounded during their service. A rape victim (1) is rarely rendered delusional and (2) was subject to a form of physical trauma that is for most victims particularly traumatic. Their attackers did “come … and get them.” Many of those attackers were family members, adding the special trauma of incest and betrayal of trust. Many were boyfriends. Some were co-workers or their managers. Some were strangers, predators that lay in wait for their victims or seized an opportunity in the course of a burglary. Sadly, far too many of our female soldiers were sexually assaulted by their fellow-soldiers and officers. Yes, females who have been raped often fear that they will be raped again – not by “monsters that come out of the [television] screen” but monsters in disguise in the form of men (sometimes women) they trust and even love.
Mocking the victims of rape as delusional “bab[ies]” should be below even the non-existent standards of the WSJ editorial pages under Murdoch. Noonan’s use of some anonymous proxy to smear rape victims demonstrates her cowardice. Literally blaming the victims of rape as “bullies” who purportedly “intimidate” their professors is shameful. Noonan, of course, presents no evidence that the rape victim bullied or intimidated her professor. On the facts as Noonan presented them, the student simply tried to explain to the professor why the way he presented materials on rape was insensitive to rape victims – and was rebuffed out of hand. What exactly did the student purportedly seek to “intimidate” the professor to do? Noonan’s column does not even try to claim anything she said (1) was intended to intimidate the professor or (2) in fact intimidated the professor into doing “X.”
Noonan’s embrace of even vile smears in the form of on-line comments is also a failure. She, of course, celebrates the smears as proof of America’s greatness.
The biggest slayer of pomposity and sanctimony in our time continues to be American wit.
But neither the rape victim nor the students engaged in either “pomposity” or “sanctimony” and these comments are simply nasty or irrelevant rather than “wit[ty].”
Noonan also misrepresents what the students who wrote the op ed said – as one can see by comparing her quotations to her mischaracterizations of what the students wrote.
Noonan’s invented claim of censorship
Safe is the key word here. There’s the suggestion that a work may be a masterpiece but if it makes anyone feel bad, it’s out.
The students did not write that. Recall that this is how Noonan (selectively) quotes from the op ed. Some of the student’s classmates wrote an op ed in the Columbia University newspaper that called for “a space to hold a safe and open dialogue” about classroom experiences that “traumatize and silence students,” with the aim of creating environments that recognize “the multiplicity” of student “identities.”
The students proposed a dialogue about how to avoid gratuitously traumatizing students who had, for example, been raped when presenting materials about rape. That is their terrible proposal that sent Noonan ballistic. Noonan never opposes such an eminently sensible dialogue.
If the Facts Noonan Presents are Accurate, the Problem is the Professor
I stress the “if” in the statement above. Neither Noonan nor I have talked to the professor or the student. My point is that if Noonan’s presentation of the facts is accurate then her problem should have been with the professor rather than the rape victim or the students who wrote the op ed.
Spoiler alert: If you have not read Chaim Potok’s wonderful book The Chosen I strongly recommend that you do so. I discuss below the key plot secret that is revealed near the end of the book.
Noonan is talking about teaching undergraduate students. A majority of those students are women in the United States. If one is teaching a class of 25 students in a subject like literature that is not a male ghetto, then the odds are good that one or more of your female students have been the victim of a sexual assault. Others will have had a narrow escape. The odds of a male in your class having been the victim of a sexual assault are considerably lower, but far from trivial as I can personally attest. If you are teaching a significantly larger undergraduate class in literature the odds become prohibitive that you have multiple victims of sexual assault in your class. Many sexual assaults are stopped by adult interventions, self-defense, or good fortune before they progress to rape.
Because we know as professors these facts of life most of us try to be sensitive to the victims when we lead discussions of rape and other forms of sexual assaults in our classrooms. This is not simply a common courtesy and respect to our students, but also an opportunity for teaching about the reality of sexual assault, how the subject is handled by the authors, and how rape and the victims and perpetrators are treated by the author, other actors (non-fiction), other characters (fiction), and society as a whole whether the society is an actual society or a literary construct. But this approach requires empathy, preparation (including research on the subject of rape), and a focus on not simply the mechanics of criminology, the criminal law, or literature – but the ethical component. We read a great work of fiction, as Noonan stresses, in large part because it causes us to focus on what forms of conduct and thought bring out as Lincoln phrased it “the better angels of our natures.” We read great works of fiction in part because they illustrate what conduct and beliefs diminish us as human beings and do grave harm to other people and our society.
Rape is one of great sins of human kind. It is now routinely used as a weapon of terror against civilian populations in many parts of the world. Even in our great country George Will and Peggy Noonan demonize rape victims. Standard legal defense tactics of criminal defense lawyers still seek to put the victim on trial – why was she wearing that sexy dress? Why did she invite the man up to her apartment? Why did she drink too much? Candidates for positions as senior as the U.S. Senate tell us pregnancies resulting from rape are God’s will (and, inconsistently, that rape cannot cause pregnancy). The first claim perverts God into a rapist’s accomplice and the second claim deserves the term “idiots” that Noonan used to attack the four students at Columbia for standing up for their classmate.
Ovid’s myths about rape should be used to prompt a serious, sensitive discussion of rape
Ovid’s treatment of rape, and the reaction of his fictional characters to being raped offers a professor teaching Ovid great pedagogical opportunities and students who are the victims of sexual assault could greatly contribute to the development of those themes. Consider Ovid’s treatment of the myth of the rapist, torturer, and kidnapper Tereus. Tereus was married to Procne and together they had a son, Itys. Tereus kidnapped and raped Procne’s sister, Philomela. He cut out Philomela’s tongue to keep her from telling anyone of his crimes, held her captive, and told Procne that Philomela had died.
Philomela should be Noonan’s hero. Despite the trauma of the repeated rapes, mutilation, kidnapping, and captivity cut off from human contact (other than with her rapist and torturer), Philomela tricks Tereus and embeds the message of his crimes in a tapestry that she secretly sends to Procne.
Now the plot becomes spectacularly gruesome. Procne is so enraged at Tereus’ crimes that she goes mad. Procne kills her own son, Itys. She then secretly serves his flesh to Tereus (Itys’ father) as a meal.
Tereus reacts by deciding to kill both sisters. The Gods intervene by turning all three of them into birds (hence the inclusion of the myth in an epic devoted to “Metamorphoses”).
The myth cries out for a series of discussions. It illustrates that rape is a crime of violence and a sick desire for total dominance. Tereus wants a mute, helpless slave, not a lover and spouse. The myth shows the great trauma rape and its commonly associated brutality causes. It shows the destructive consequences of rape.
The myth shows the enormous differences between male and female life even in an intimate family setting. It shows the temptation to abuse men’s generally greater physical and political power.
The myth exemplifies female resilience even in the face of one of the vilest characters ever created. The Gods react with a classic false equivalency and a refusal to punish even the vilest of rapists.
Procne is a victim and someone who does something monstrous to an innocent – her own child. She illustrates how severe the trauma of rape can be to a relative of the victim. She also shows the terrible pain caused by betrayal by a spouse.
Neither the law nor the Gods protect Philomela, Procne, or Itys. The Gods do not intervene to stop Tereus’ rapes, torture, kidnapping, the captivity of Philomela, or the murder of the child Itys. It is only when Tereus seeks to kill the adult sisters that the Gods act. Justice, the rule of law, and the ability of the powerful to abuse that power with impunity are all subjects that leap off the page.
Some sexual assault victims may find it too painful to participate in this kind of discussion of rape, but I think that number will be tiny. Their concerns can be handled with prior notice to the class of the coming discussion and excused absences for those who believe they cannot handle such a discussion at this point in their recovery.
The great mystery in the novel is why Reb Saunders treats his eldest son, the brilliant Danny, with “the silence,” refusing to speak to him except in religious instruction. Reb has never explained to Danny or his friend Reuven why he imposes this silence. Finally, when Danny has decided to tell his father that he will not be his successor as tzaddik and will instead go to Columbia to study psychology, Reb Saunders explains to him through Reuven why he imposed the silence. He relates the story of a very young Danny who reads a book that should be beyond what a child his age could read. Danny comes proudly to his father to show him his accomplishment – but is utterly unaffected by the great pain revealed in the story’s narrative. The Reb is horrified. The Master of the Universe has given him an eldest son with the kind of intelligence, analytical abilities, and memory that appears perhaps once in a century, but it is a “mind in a body without a soul.” “It could not understand pain, it was indifferent to and impatient with suffering.” And so Reb Saunders imposes the silence (as did his own father on him) not out of cruelty but to try to save and develop Danny’s soul. The Reb accepts Danny’s decision to work in the secular world.
“I have no more fear now. All his life he will be a tzaddik. He will be a tzaddik for the world.”
And that, to the best of our abilities, is our mission as teachers. We are to attempt to be “a tzaddik for our students” and help them develop. A teacher who “could not understand pain” and was “indifferent to and impatient with suffering” would be a very limited teacher. He would be Peggy Noonan and George Will.
And that was the Columbia student’s complaint. Her professor “could not understand [her] pain.” When she tried to explain the special nature and depth of her pain he was “indifferent to and impatient with [her] suffering.” He was in love with the beauty of Ovid’s language and forgot its content and its relationship to his students’ lives, which is his fundamental mission.
According to the facts as presented by Noonan, the student offered the professor a priceless gift – honest feedback about an issue that the professor had not considered. This is not “bullying” or “intimidating” – it is something we constantly encourage the students to provide. The student’s candor, in circumstances that must have made her highly uncomfortable, allowed the professor to think of the question of how to present materials about rape in both a far more intellectually advanced and sensitive manner. According to Noonan’s presentation of the facts, however, the professor spurned the feedback. If that is true, it was unfortunate. But unless he is actually hostile to traumatized rape victims the way George Will and Noonan are, which is highly unlikely, it is a temporary setback that his colleagues can help him to remedy by meeting with the student, listening to her concerns, and devising a much more sophisticated and sensitive presentation of materials dealing with rape that draws on Ovid’s depiction of the terrible pain of rape.
Noonan’s Vision of “True Freedom” is “Lord of the Flies” and Ovid’s Darkest Tales
Noonan is a devotee of toughness. Her vision of what a classroom should be is:
And you are especially not safe in an atmosphere of true freedom. People will say and do things that are wrong, stupid, unkind, meant to injure.
I don’t know of any professor who actually seeks to create such a classroom of “true freedom.” As with the nasty on-line comments Noonan about the Columbia authors and the rape victim that Noonan cites with such relish, if students are left to their own devices the result will often be a handful of aggressive males that try to completely dominate the discussion through saying things that are “wrong, stupid, unkind, [and] meant to injure” anyone who would challenge their dominance. This kind of hostile work environment develops, frequently, among financial traders and prep school and fraternity males. They rely almost entirely ad hominem attacks in order to become and remain dominant. The result is the not “true freedom” but the destruction of freedom and the rise of a kind of “Lord of the Flies” dynamic. Ovid should have taught Noonan that lesson scores of time.
As professors, we do not stand by and allow students in our classes to use any of the myriad slurs for women. We do not allow them to act like a bad news host and yell to prevent the women from being heard. We do not allow ad hominem attacks on people or the use of ethnic, religious, racial, and similar slurs. It is in fact part of our job to maintain a “safe space” to be open about exchanging one’s substantive views. That is precisely what allows a free clash of opposing views, rather than a screaming exchange of insults.
Noonan is also wrong about the law. Maintaining a work environment hostile to women violates the law precisely because we recognized that allowing employers’ officers and employees to “say and do things that are wrong, stupid, unkind, [and] meant to injure” women does not produce “true freedom.” We know from long personal experience, and from reading Ovid, that allowing the powerful to abuse women in the home or workplace creates another ring of hell for women. Nor is this legal protection of “safety” that Noonan rails against limited to women. You can’t, as a white fire captain, place a hangman’s noose on the black firefighter’s locker. Though Noonan despises us as weak for doing so, we expressly seek by law to ensure a “safe” environment in terms of preventing rapes and coerced sex and those who “joke” about such acts in the employment sphere.
The Columbia students do not want to avoid studying Ovid. They would like to study the issues presented by Ovid. Beauty in language is a wonderful thing, and I can appreciate why a classicist fluent in Latin and Greek would develop a special love for Ovid’s language and his retelling of the classic myths. But discussing rape sensitively and realistically when presenting Ovid’s poems about rape would add substantially to, not detract from, what students would learn from studying his epic. Indeed, part of the horror of rape in the epic poems, is Ovid’s ability to combine beautiful language and the vilest of crimes.
The professor should accept the gift that the courage of the Columbia students provided him and actually talk seriously and sensitively about rape when he presents passages from literature about rape. He can defuse the entire matter in a private 15 minute discussion with the student and a little additional lecture preparation he should want to do of his own accord now that he has had a chance to think about how to present the subject of rape to a class that will typically have at least one victim of rape.
Leave Noonan and George Will to plumb new depths in the circles of hell they are so intent on entering with their abuse of victims of rape and those who stand up for their friends and classmates who have been raped. Ovid will point the way for their descent. I thank the WSJ removing any vestige of journalistic standards from its editorial pages, thereby giving Noonan the rhetorical rope she used to hang herself so publicly.
In twenty years, the four authors of the Columbia op ed will proudly be able to show their children or younger relatives, their students, and the people they mentor at work that they took a principled and humane stand on behalf of a classmate even though they knew the trolls would ridicule them and their classmate. I hope they frame Noonan’s screed next to a copy of their op ed.
There can be no higher badge of honor for a student than being attacked by George Will or Peggy Noonan for standing in support of classmates who have been the victims of rape.
When your friends needed you – you listened to the better angels of your nature and stood up for them in the face of the certain scorn of the trolls. You were not indifferent to or impatient with the pain your friend was suffering. As Reb Saunders said to Reuven, it is not easy to be a real friend. The demands of real friendship are great and sometimes terrible precisely because life deals out so much pain.
In seeking a safer environment for your friend you consciously took on the risk of making a public call for constructive change. You thereby refuted Noonan’s smear that you were cowards who were unwilling to face opposing views. Her blindness to that fact testifies to the wisdom of Reb Saunders’ observation of the horror and waste of her “mind in a body without a soul.”
Empathy is what makes us human rather than sociopaths. Empathy leads us to a life of Tikkun Olam – seeking to reduce the pain others are suffering – rather than the tragic choice that George Will and Noonan have made to spend the waning years of their lives mocking the suffering of rape victims. Rarely has such once strong writing talent been applied to such a sad and unworthy purpose. What is it about the far right that makes them nuts on the subject of rape? Is there no one in the Republican Party that call an end to the madness?
A Technical Note
I am well aware as a criminologist and human being that males and females are both rape victims and that there are heterosexual and same-sex rapes. Solely for the sake of brevity I discussed overwhelmingly the form of sexual assault that Noonan discussed – male sexual assaults of women. I am also aware that many sexual assaults are prevented from proceeding to rape. I use the word “rape” here because it is shorter and it is overwhelmingly the goal of sexual assault as well as a frequent result. The degree, type, recurrence, and length of trauma experienced by victims of sexual assaults can vary tremendously. Some victims are exceptionally resilient and some forms of sexual abuse are stopped early enough in the molestation phase that many of the victims may not experience serious trauma. Even though Noonan finds the fact traumatic, a fairly wide range of events can trigger the recurrence of trauma among sexual assault victims.