Fighting Bias with Bias

Protesters outside the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at UVA.
A widely circulated rebuttal to the UVA rape story is problematic in its own right.

I take it that readers by now need no introduction to the Rolling Stone story alleging fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia, a story that has taken by storm media old and new. Now a rebuttal of sorts has surfaced from writer and editor Richard Bradley. In the past few days, it has been widely circulated by journalists, mainly conservatives. Among them, Bradley’s blog post is on the verge of being accepted as an outright debunking — “A Gigantic Hoax?,” asks Reason — or at least as planting sufficient doubt to consign the story to yesterday’s news.

Bradley does raise some important points. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the article’s author, did not quote any of the alleged perpetrators, nor did she indicate whether she interviewed them or tried to. Erdely said in a Slate interview that she “reached out to” the fraternity “in multiple ways” but they were “kind of hard to get in touch with.” Rolling Stone told the Washington Post in a follow-up interview, “We did not talk to them. We could not reach them.” In an earlier interview with the Post, Erdely stated that she had been “bound to silence” about the identities and accounts of the accused, owing to an agreement with Jackie, who “is very fearful of these men.” The wisdom of Erdely and her editors’ acquiescence to this agreement is dubious: Once Jackie issues such a public accusation, will she really be safer from those she accuses by denying them a chance to speak in their own defense? And it’s troublesome on grounds of journalism and justice.

Bradley also raises some legitimate questions about the physical details of the story. I would add that I found Erdely’s invocation of studies rather slanted and uncareful — many are described without the details necessary to track them down; statistics that are quite debatable are offered as straightforward fact. Erdely also offers no distance from the account — the word “alleged” is a journalistic mainstay for good reasons.

But these questions do not amount to the demolishment of the story that Bradley hints at and that some of his champions have proclaimed. There is no smoking gun in this post, only various uncertainties, which can be met with equal uncertainties. A few examples:

‐Bradley and others find it implausible and suspicious that Jackie was allegedly assaulted on broken glass but did not suffer severe injuries that absolutely required hospitalization. But, as Bradley acknowledges, the article does after all say she was cut enough by the glass to be bleeding afterwards. There are any number of possible explanations for why the injuries weren’t worse: Safety glass. Thick carpet. The article says she was wearing a dress, which would have offered some protection. Moreover, details in memories of sexual assault are bound to be imperfect — under the trauma, a few shards of glass might seem bigger, more dangerous than they were. This would be neither surprising nor obviously damning of the story as a whole.

‐Bradley writes skeptically that “Jackie remembers every detail, despite the fact of the room’s pitch-blackness.” But people have other senses. The room was only described as initially pitch-black, and eyes adjust to darkness.

‐Bradley and others also find it implausible and suspicious that Jackie escaped from the party in a blood-stained dress, “surely look[ing] deeply traumatized,” and nobody noticed. But Jackie’s dress was red, the party presumably not well lit, and so blood would not have been likely to stand out. And it is not so hard to imagine any frat party at 3 a.m., surely dark, rowdy, with very inebriated people, in which a woman leaves looking distressed and someone does notice but doesn’t find the situation so obviously out of the ordinary of these parties that he or she can’t rationalize following the desire to look the other way. This would be consistent with the story’s allegation that the campus culture encouraged looking the other way.

‐Much the same point applies to the argument that Jackie’s friends discouraging her from reporting the rape in order to avoid social fallout in Greek society is too callous to be believed. It’s misleading to read the article as suggesting that Jackie’s friends simply accepted what she told them and were too villainously self-interested to care. Their statements strongly suggest that they took her to be exaggerating and overreacting, because they wanted to avoid the many burdens of fully believing her story and defending her claims.

‐To the claim that the perpetrators laughed after one of them punched Jackie when she bit his hand, Bradley replies, “Really? A man punches a woman and people laugh?” Numerous others have seized on this detail as revealing of the story’s implausibility, or its basis in a sinister belief about the true brutality of men. But it’s not hard to imagine that the men didn’t clearly see what had just happened. Or that something else prompted the laughter. Or that one laughed in earnest and the others, egged on by the situation, joined. More to the point, this is hardly a situation in which a sense of decency is in force. And the idea that men capable of sexual violence would also be capable of laughing at it during the act, whether owing to nervousness, guilt, sadism, or a combination, is not a leap.

#page#‐Jackie alleges that one of her assaulters said, “Grab its motherf***ing leg.” This detail, Bradley suggests, is too nightmarish to be easily believed, and sounds tellingly like an infamous line from Silence of the Lambs. But young people watch movies too, and reference and mimic them constantly, especially as a substitute for responding to situations directly. Numerous mass shooters have deliberately modeled themselves after movie characters; the 2012 Aurora theater shooter is one notorious example. And again, the straightforward interpretation — that among the perpetrators of monstrosities there might be some through-and-through monsters — is not a leap.

Bradley also gets wrong numerous details of the Rolling Stone article itself: who was and wasn’t interviewed; the claim that all of Jackie’s friends discouraged her from going to the hospital; Jackie’s ostensible lack of identity; Jackie’s inability to identify the perpetrators. He changes a line from the article without noting it, adding quote marks around words that didn’t have them. He mischaracterizes Jackie’s claim that one in three women at UVA are raped. He also invokes the claim as evidence of a broader cultural climate surrounding rape in which “emotion has outswept reason.” The slip here is strange: The emotionality of an alleged rape victim is offered as evidence of the irrationality of those who would believe her. These are not minor problems for any argument, but they are particularly problematic for one that sells itself as a scolding in journalistic carefulness.

Most significant, Bradley says that if fraternity gang rape were so prevalent, “One would think that we’d have heard of this before.” But the article describes other instances of the practice, from two current allegations besides Jackie’s to a conviction in a court of a law for a prior gang rape by members of the very same fraternity at UVA. All of this is also easily verifiable outside of the Rolling Stone article. And the Washington Post, among others, has detailed the extensive history of gang rape at fraternities nationwide.

Much of the post is based on skepticism at the descriptions of peoples’ behavior surrounding rape. Bradley’s post about the trouble with indulging our preexisting beliefs heavily invokes the story’s failures to accord with his and his readers’ own pre-existing sensibilities, uninterrogated by evidence.

Then there are the repeated allusions to other stories that this one “reminds” him of, to urban legends, to Tawana Brawley and Duke, to his experience as an editor of the plagiarist Stephen Glass, to the spurious idea that the story could never be falsified. The post does far more than just ask questions, as Bradley and many others claim. It’s also a series of insinuations misattributed to those it purports to debunk. It claims to reveal an article sealed off from evidence, and so frees itself from the same. It claims to reveal the tropes of the rape-culture narrative, and in doing so equally invokes the tropes of the anti-narrative, the one that holds “rape culture” to be no more than media exaggeration or feminist fabulation. Bradley is fighting bias with bias, artfully concealed behind . . . a critique of bias.

So there are indeed some questions to which Erdely and her editors ought to respond. But Bradley and his champions suggest that if this is indeed a hoax that Erdely and Rolling Stone were duped into perpetrating, they are insulated from this fact ever coming to light, and if it did, from suffering any consequences. Both of these claims are bogus. Rolling Stone’s reputation would suffer immensely from such a revelation, and Erdely’s career would be over. There are very strong motivations for other journalists to dig up any such evidence, and ample details in the story that would allow them to do so. In the meantime, the claims that the story has been discredited are as yet unfounded, and the obvious thirst by so many to seize on any rationale for inflating dislike of this story into doubt and doubt into hoax is troubling.

As B. D. McClay notes in her response to Bradley, the main point of this story is not about the particular allegation anyway, but about a much broader pattern of behavior by UVA’s students and administration. Jackie’s story could turn out to be substantially wrong and the administration would still need to be held to account for their woeful response to a series of such allegations. (On this matter there is sure to exist a trail of evidence, written and otherwise.)

This, after all, was the most significant lesson of the Duke Lacrosse case, which Bradley and his supporters have repeatedly cited: not the fabrications of the accuser, but the irresponsibility of the various authorities in their responses. For the justice system and the media and the culture alike, overzealousness is most certainly a dangerous response to dismissiveness. But so too the other way around.

— Ari N. Schulman is a senior editor of The New Atlantis.

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