By Graham Peterson
Since Christina Hoff Summers gave a recent talk at Oberlin, people have been wondering why activists call ideas they don’t like “unsafe” or why they need “safe space” shelters from offensive speech. Well, it’s an old trope, equating dangerous speech with physical danger. Jonathan Rauch belabored at length in 1993 how opponents of speech often invoke the violence metaphor to get actual, real, legalistic violence on their side.
But the new popularity of safety dialogue isn’t a conniving political maneuver. These students are completely sincere. They are convinced that criticism of their movements enables the harassers they oppose, harassers who drive transgender to suicide and make would-be rapists feel more comfortable. They are completely sincere that there’s a straight line from criticism of feminist ideas to violence against women and non-conforming genders.
Criticism of feminism does not often explicitly threaten women (although some small portion of idiots on the internet send death and rape threats to feminists — thanks idiots). But nevertheless, the idea that criticism of feminism leads to violence, and is therefore itself violence, is completely sincere and must be grappled with if we’re going to restore a reasoned dialogue.
What’s interesting — and extremely effective — about the recent violence metaphor, is that it now has the authority of the medical community on its side. Psychiatrists and psychologists are powerful people who, mainly, decide for us who are and are not morally culpable deviants. Thus advocates have borrowed from the psychiatric lexicon in order to borrow its authority.
Not all of the PTSD and safety dialogue is just rhetorical borrowing. A substantial portion of the rape advocacy community are themselves actual victims. It is altogether fair that those victims should receive more authority than they have, given the way they’ve been historically dismissed. If victims can heal wounds and reestablish their dignity through psychological treatment — let’s have more of that. Indeed let’s have more campus resources dedicated to it.
But activists have diagnosed themselves and one another with PTSD, and invited anyone who sympathizes with them (whether that person has been violently traumatized or not), to diagnose themselves with PTSD. Ergot, the definition of the disorder has been expanded to include anyone who feels psychic offense, or threatened by ideas that (putatively) lead to violence.
In order to understand the importation of PTSD rhetoric into the campus rape movement, we have to understand the history of the LGBTQ movement, and how they made friends with psychiatrists. They weren’t always. Psychiatry once considered homosexuality pathological, garden variety moral deviance (see Freud’s essay on Narcissism). But psychiatrists eventually decided that gay people had no control over their sexual desires, and that the desires are a biological — not lifestyle — domain.
Oila, gay rights: “give gay people freedom of choice because they have no choice in their desires.” It’s a paradoxical legal and philosophical argument, if you think about it. But Born This Way has been wildly effective, and it is empirically grounded.
The world would probably be better for gays if their choices were dignified as adult and free choices regardless whether their urges are inborn. For example, many people felt recently that, “ok, gay people can’t control their sex drive so let them do who they will, but they can control their marriage drive because that is social and sacred, so we draw the line at marriage.” Denoting gays Official Victims of biological necessity helped the lobby for administrative and legal protections, but it enshrined their second class citizenship.
As a matter of tradition, because of feminism’s alliance with the LGBTQ movement, that has a recent and wildly successful alliance with psychiatry, we can’t really blame campus rape activists for borrowing from the psychological lexicon, inflating the definition of PTSD and psychic harm to include include any and all criticism of their movement. It lends unassailable rhetorical authority to their claims, and in their view, brings into their fold all of the untold billions of victims who have been so far ignored and silenced. It’s really genius.
But if in the first act activists and victims on campus win the point, they will in the second act lose the debate, signing up for and reifying their own permanent second-best.