To many, the Columbia Journalism School report on Rolling Stone’s account of an alleged University of Virginia rape case will seem to be a story about media addicted to seeking sensationalism over accuracy. But the whole sordid affair has been about something much larger: the idea that the pursuit of justice can be separated from facts; that metaphorical truth can be more important than literal truth.
In the UVA case, a young woman known only as “Jackie” claimed that she was repeatedly gang-raped at a fraternity party, a shocking allegation that the Columbia report determined was not even an exaggeration, but a fabrication. In other words, it was a lie.
Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely has been pronounced guilty of “confirmation bias”—she wanted Jackie’s story to be true because it felt dramatically emblematic of the story she wanted to write: universities’ inadequate response to accusations of sexual assault. The report notes one of her many lapses was not “confronting subjects with details”— an odd omission for a journalist.
That kind of willful noncompliance is hardly unique to this UVA debacle; it is, as one phrases it lately, “a thing.” It was also demonstrated resoundingly in the wake of the Ferguson case.
Justice Department investigators have proven that Michael Brown was not simply pulled over and shot in the back with his hands up, but shot while attacking police officer Darren Wilson. However, black Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capeheart, after urging us to admit that the initial MSNBC take on the Ferguson encounter was inaccurate, has been deluged on Twitter with vicious slander for his insistence on admitting the truth. That slander is founded on an assumption: America needs to understand how disproportionately cops kill black men, and facts incompatible with that mission are irrelevant. To stress inconvenient truths is still unenlightened, missing the “larger point.”
The gravitational pull of “story-over-facts” has a way of making the frame of mind seem like wisdom. In the UVA case, Ryan Duffin, an undergraduate friend of Jackie’s, has internalized the story-over-facts gospel: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, because whether this one incident is true, there’s still a huge problem with sexual assault in the United States.” And there is, especially on college campuses. But that is not the lesson we should learn from the UVA case, which has simply shown the fine line between enlightenment and medievalism when it comes to seeking justice, and how it pollutes journalistic culture—and therefore enlightened conversation—in today’s America.
The fact that this denialist frame of mind is rarely explicitly spelled out is itself evidence of an ideology rather than one-off response. An ideology has roots, and Exhibit A in modern American culture may have been l’affaire O.J.
When the revelations about Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman’s murders were new in 1994, it was popular in the black community to assume that the Los Angeles Police Department had planted the incriminating evidence. But after a while, it became clear that denying Simpson had murdered two people was about as solid a case as the existence of Santa Claus. As such, from about 1995 on, the black person talking uncontroversially about O.J. had two choices. One either said “I don’t think he did it, but I think he knows who did it” (on the basis of no specific evidence) or copped out with “I’m tired of the whole thing.” Pretty soon, a new mantra settled in: “It doesn’t matter whether he did it—what we really need to be talking about is the cops preying on black men. The “real deal” was that the facts didn’t matter—and this was a position heartily propounded not just by the man on the street, but journalists, academics, and fellow travelers. By 2002, Cedric the Entertainer’s character in the movie Barbershop could call on black America to admit “O.J. did it!” But this was amidst comedy—and yet still was taken as brave words.
Elevating narrative over fact is hardly limited to people tripping over their mental shoelaces in the heat of the moment. Among a school of legal scholars, critical race theory advises that we treat the long view as more useful than the close-up in our sense of the difference between right and wrong. One of critical race theory’s gurus, Richard Delgado, dismisses the “rigid” structures of objective truth in favor of a “broad story of dashed hopes and centuries-long mistreatment that afflicts an entire people and forms the historical and cultural background of your complaint.”
Under this perspective, treating the “story” as the facts becomes sign of mental sophistication.
Make no mistake—it is key to any enlightened morality that facts must be seen in context. Justice can even come in vigilante form, which is why John Ford films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance can be so satisfying: Ford famously counseled that for posterity it’s better to “Print the legend” rather than the facts. Certainly one needs the larger story to fully assess moral judgment. In 2010, John White, a black father on Long Island, shot a white teen who had come with friends to his house in furious pursuit of his son after a party altercation, shouting an epithet few will need spelled out. No one would see that murder as morally equivalent to a drive-by shooting; some thought he should have walked free.
However, there’s been a mission creep. Assessing the facts in context is one thing. However, dismissing them, or even playing them down, will never qualify as progress, for at least four reasons.
First: Neglecting facts will always seem just plain dumb and dishonest.
“Anti-empirical” is a more polite phrasing, but progressivism does itself no favors with know-nothing agitprop. In 1987, 15-year-old Tawana Brawley claimed to have been raped by white police officers and left tied up in the winter cold for days, and was loudly represented by Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason decrying the episode as evidence of the racism pervading society. A thorough investigation made clear that Brawley fabricated the story to avoid punishment for being out visiting a boyfriend (e.g. “hairs” she planted on herself to indicate rape turned out to be fibers from a sneaker she had ripped up). Yet many have insisted that Brawley’s tale was true “on some level,” with Brawley announcing as late as 1997 that “something happened to me” to a standing ovation from her audience, and a prominent law professor legitimizing Brawley’s lie in a widely read book as valuable in corresponding to black women’s general fears of rape, and undeniably “true” even if Brawley abused herself.
Let’s face it: While rape is an urgent issue, the idea that Brawley’s clumsy teenaged ploy was a teachable moment will always be at the very least goofy to the unbiased observer. The lie commands no respect and in fact, deflects it: Sharpton’s refusal to truly recant his participation in the episode is much of what keeps him from ever being taken quite seriously by so many.
People telling us to treat stories as facts see themselves as prophets ahead of the curve. However, the analogy is less with Cassandra than the creationist, similarly favoring an idea that logic becomes irrelevant at the point that it interferes with a story he cherishes. One thinks also of the right-wingers gleefully insisting that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, staunchly resistant to any form of evidence. This is what treating narrative as fact looks like, no matter the underlying political agenda.
Think about it: The centrality of story over individual is something we associate with pre-literate societies and their focus on legend and myth. A key theme in the development of the West is the increasing value placed on 1) the individual, and 2) the factual. As such, the idea that the narrative is “what we really need to be talking about” sounds insightful, but is actually a veiled argument that moral advancement means fighting the Enlightenment.
The second problem: Enshrining narrative over facts is part of the definition of a mob.
In the ‘70s, boys often played schoolyard games titled after assorted action TV shows and movies—The Six Million Dollar Man, Kung Fu, Superman. But the game was always the same—some guys chasing other guys and tackling them to the ground. A generation earlier it had been called Cops and Robbers. I presume boys are still doing it under other names.
People grow up. But they can channel their impulses into new activities. Too often, crowd fury cancels out close engagement in favor of a passion to tackle and destroy. The appropriate soundtrack would be the endlessly repeated, stabbing dissonant chords of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
I once asked a Truther, furiously dedicated to the idea that the Bush administration planned the 9/11 attacks, whether any evidence could convince him otherwise. The very question threw him. It was clear that for him the truth of the issue was beyond critical engagement. More to the point, what actually motivated him was lusty communal delight in assailing George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest. He was enjoying a sense of belonging and significance—to the point that facts were mere pawns in a game. This is testosterone refashioned as politics. When logic is in the way, neither truth nor progress is likely.
Three: Treating facts as inconvenient casts a pall of mendaciousness over legitimate cases of abuse.
The public has limited attention. Plus, theatrics last longer in memory than argumentation. The last thing progressive efforts need is association with exaggerations, distortions, and outright lies, leaving people on the sidelines with a sense that protest in general is a matter of people just “making noise.”
Date rape is an urgent matter. When I was in college in the early ‘80s, I knew a few women who were date-raped. However, the term didn’t exist yet, much less a space for discussing the concept. The further past those days we get, the better; today’s robust grappling with the issue must continue.
Yet, enshrining lies such as Jackie’s as some kind of consciousness-raising will play no meaningful role in that process. It plants a suspicion in less-committed observers—who must be engaged and convinced for real change to happen—that all charges of date rape are suspect. Also, the sensationalist nature of a case distrusted by all sources—a likely sign of its falsity—and then torn apart detracts attention from legitimate cases. Imagine being a woman who has suffered real abuse watching a nation obsessed by something a woman made up. Jackie’s “story” is no more than that of a self-indulgent liar who needs professional help.
Fourth: Pushing aside facts for stories too often means throwing someone else under the bus.
Ignoring the facts for a “story” inevitably means that a great deal of the facts must be left out. But what about the lives impacted by the lies?
For example, you likely recall the Duke lacrosse case, where a black stripper accused three white lacrosse players of raping her at a fraternity party, with a “Gang of 88” faculty writing a letter condemning the lacrosse players—and America—by extension. The accusation lit up the newswires for months, only to be conclusively judged as fraudulent. However, you are less likely to know that just before the Duke non-incident, four students (including two football players) from historically black Virginia Union University were accused of raping a white University of Richmond undergraduate after a party. Two of the students were convicted; one pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Under what conception of justice was it fair that we only heard about the lacrosse players? People were more interested in one “narrative” than the other for reasons many will sense as justified—but surely the woman raped in the second case wonders why her case was treated as negligible.
In the same way, let us recall Phylicia Rashad asserting that Bill Cosby’s accusers’ experience is less important than Cosby supposedly being railroaded for being a powerful black man. It must be said that in phrasing it as “Forget those women,” Rashad did not mean it literally— she was using “forget” in an idiomatic way we all do at times, meaning “The important point is less the women than …” But here we were again with “What we really need to be talking about is …”—as in, this time, the “story” about racism is somehow more important than the “story” about rape.
The UVA hoax is what happens when these four things are not considered. But instead, Rolling Stone Editor Will Dana wanted to “have the story be more about the process of what happens when an assault is reported and the sort of issues it brings up.”
The italics are mine: more interested in a “story” than an engagement with facts, however uncomfortable or incompatible with the desired narrative. Well—aren’t we back to the “rigidity” of details that critical race theorists are so chary of?
We must beware those teaching that when speaking up for the underserved, facts, so precise, complex, and inconvenient, are less important than the predictability, emotionality, and even coziness of stories. This is thought’s primordial state, not its potential.
Make no mistake: The idea that facts are all that matter is blinkered. True thought requires climbing past the cloud cover to a mountaintop where one understands that context matters. However, to embrace the idea that the story is paramount and facts are beside the point is not to climb higher—one couldn’t—but to roll down the other side of the mountain and wind up back on the cold, hard ground.
End of story.