Politics & Policy

Does Truth Matter to the Feminist Left?

The reactions to the unraveling of the Rolling Stone story suggest not.

If the champions of modern feminism are possessed of even the slightest modicum of self-awareness, T. Rees Shapiro’s explosive investigation into Rolling Stone’s now infamous claims of ignominy at UVA will have provided them with a much-needed wake-up call. For those who had stood unwaveringly behind its author as her tale came crashing down around her, last night should have been an education of sorts. The lessons that Shapiro’s work conveys: That the truth matters, wherever it may lead; that “skeptic” is not a synonym for “hater”; and that our liberal inheritance is most emphatically not for sale — especially to those would offer only a mess of pottage in return.

The rest of us, meanwhile, should have been rudely reminded that at the heart of the so-called social-justice movement is the conscious rejection of prized Anglo-American norms. Where most readers accepted with alacrity the possibility that Sabrina Erdely could have got it wrong, the tireless archaeologists of our supposedly ubiquitous “rape culture” took to remolding their position every six-and-a-half minutes and to carrying on in public like a bunch of frothy peanut-gallery-voyeurs at a backwoods 17th-century witch trial. Just a few short weeks ago, when Rolling Stone’s story was almost universally believed to be true, we were urged to read each and every sordid detail of the case so that we might better acquaint ourselves with the broader problems that are presented by “rape culture.” Today, as the story continues to collapse, the opposite view is regnant, and the very same people who pointed excitedly to Erdely’s work now contend that we should not be focusing on an individual case such as this in the first place. Thus are we being asked to accept two contradictory positions. The first: that Erdely’s gang-rape story was important enough not only to justify months of research but to serve as the hook on which her piece was hung. The second: that it didn’t matter at all. “Not sure,” Vox’s Libby Nelson asked last night in a tweet that summed up the volte-face, what the Washington Post’s “endgame is in continuing to pursue” the facts.

Such self-serving inquiries illustrate something crucial — namely, that many of those who describe themselves as “journalists” these days are more interested in moral positioning and the advancement of their agendas than in the attainment of objective truth. Where most of us are primarily concerned with whether a given claim is correct, others seem more attentive to how we react to that claim in the first place. Did you ask questions about Jackie’s story as it was reported? If so, you must hate women, work for the patriarchy, or hope to prove that nobody is ever raped. Did you believe Jackie uncritically and with a full-throated roar? Excellent, then you must be a good person who wants to help women, move the country forward, and do something concrete about the issue of sexual assault. It’s really that simple, my dear.

Amazingly, these presumptions tend to remain intact through thick and thin. In consequence, a person who incorrectly judged the veracity of Rolling Stone’s story can remain on the side of the angels, while a person who was correct to doubt the account is dismissed as a devil who just got lucky. Sure, the zetetics might have been right in a technical, factual, reality-based sense. But that they tried to investigate the matter in the first instance tells us something terrible about their character. And yes, the story may have been completely and utterly wrong. But at least its advocates took a stand for something nice. Did you? Wait, you’re not a rapist, are you?

This is an area in which we hear a great deal about empathy and kindness. But there is nothing that is nice or kind or empathetic about the subordination of truth to narrative. It would indeed have been abominable if Jackie had been transformed by hyper-dubiety into Cassandra’s cousin — into a woman, that is, who knew the terrible truths of the past but who could not convince anybody to believe her. And yet — and this, I think, is the part that the Maxwells, Kohns, and Dunhams of the world seem to struggle with — it would also have been wretched if Rolling Stone had been permitted to report as fact a devastating crime that never actually occurred. (Or, at least, that did not occur in anything like the manner in which Rolling Stone claimed it occurred.) Which is to say that there are always two sides to justice’s ledger, and that those who fight blindly and stupidly for a particular outcome are not so much seeking justice as trying to corrupt it for their own ends.

As Slate’s Hanna Rosin noted last night, we are now at a tipping point of sorts. The Washington Post’s latest deep-dive, Rosin writes, “strongly implies, without outright saying so, that the gang rape at the center of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article might be fabricated.” Indeed so. And should we subsequently learn that the Post’s implication was warranted, this will mean that Sabrina Erdely and her source have conspired a) to mislead millions of people on a matter of basic fact; b) to potentially damage the reputations of the men they accused; c) to cast a trio of Jackie’s friends as amoral, vain, criminally negligible monsters; and d) to libel the fraternity that is implicated, as well as the University of Virginia writ large. If she is revealed to be a fabulist, Jackie’s life will get worse, not better. If Sabrina Erdely’s reporting is as shoddy as it now seems to be, her career will be over and her name will live in disgrace. And, fair or not, the very notion that there is a pervasive “rape culture” will inevitably be dinged by the discovery that a major national magazine was willing to bend the truth in pursuit of its exposition.

What a tangled web we weave . . .

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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