Rolling Stone published a mega trending article last month documenting the story of a horrific fraternity gang rape of a freshman student at the University of Virginia. The rape victim herself shared her story of the cold, calculated, and brutal events that took place upstairs at a UVA frat house and the almost more sickening callous fallout as friends, classmates, and the university seemed to gang up against the victim in the favor of not making waves. This story so perfectly fit into the current rape culture on rich kid college campus meme that it quickly went viral around the net, around the world, and smeared tons of people both named and given modest cover in the long form article. Except, yeah, the girl at the center of the story lied.
Rolling Stone just issued an apology. It’s not the kind of apology one traditionally makes after accusing the members of a specific fraternity and students and faculty at a specific university with gross charges of sexual assault and coverup. Like, my bad for calling you a rapist in an 8-page blowout article where we forgot to fact check the single most important underlying fact. It’s more like the, we tried our best but this chick just lied so good it’s not really our fault.
It’s just like the man said — as you go around the web, looking at what all the usual suspects have to say, you can’t help but notice that very few, if any, care about the specifics of what happened in this particular case. What they care about is how this specific case can be used to buttress whichever meta-issue they’re more concerned with, whether “Patriarchy and rape culture are real and they kill!”, or “Feminists are a bunch of obnoxious, whiny, man-hating bitches.” Whether she lied, or whether she just fudged some of the peripheral details (innocently or maliciously), having to admit that would feel like having to give ground on every major contentious feminist issue. It’s psychologically easier to try and rationalize this away instead. Thus people will continue arguing past each other, accomplishing nothing. Like the circus, they’ll just pack up the tents, travel to the next location, and put on the same show again. If, for you, the tragedy here isn’t that innocent people might have been publicly smeared as violent felons, but that your online enemies will be insufferable in their gloating, you are, as the saying goes, part of the problem.
As for this case, well, eternal optimist that I am, I’d like to think this might severely dampen the enthusiasm for all this faith-based “believe the victim” dogma (a perfect example of what “begging the question” means in its strict logical context, by the way) and the repulsive naming-and-shaming, trial-by-social-media phenomenon. (Even I, the eternal optimist, won’t go so far as to hope that “journalists” might learn a lesson about doing their job thoroughly.)