Sunday, July 16, 2017

On Vigilantism

This is about the Emma Sulkowicz case. It is a response to Columbia's recent settlement with the man Sulkowicz accused of rape, Paul Nungesser. I don't feel like giving a summary. You can look up the reporting online. 

There's a rhetorical move I and many others find irritating, something along the lines of, "Well, you know, I hate extremism on the left just as much as I hate extremism on the right." Unfortunately, this post is in that territory.

I also hate vigilantism.

I've heard a lot of defenses of Emma Sulkowicz. That she stood up for herself and the rights of rape victims as a whole. That she fought for her freedom of speech when she took the mattress with her to graduation and Lee Bollinger disrespected her freedom of speech when he refused to shake her hand. That it's not her job to be reasonable or polite. That she wasn't standing up to Paul Nungesser, her alleged rapist, so much as an entire system that refused to punish her rapist. 

And I had a hard time buying it all. I wasn't sure if the laws and regulations she wanted passed were the right ones. As someone who believes in respecting the rights of the accused in all cases, I am nervous that we are heading into ugly territory in how we adjudicate campus rape cases. Columbia University disrespected Sulkowicz's freedom of speech when it told students not to bring large objects on stage during the graduation, but security didn't stop her, and Bollinger's refusal to shake her hand did not prevent or hinder her own speech. I agree that she doesn't have to be reasonable or polite. But, frankly, whatever her original intentions, Nungesser had a good case that Sulkowicz encouraged a mob of vigilantes. They plastered his face on boards. One dropped a mattress either next to or in the room of a class he was taking. If that's not intimidation or harrassment, an attempt to drive someone out from a community, I don't know what is.

Did Nungesser rape Sulkowicz? I think he did. Even if he didn't, it seems clear he has a history of being a creepy guy who sexually assaults women. He may have moved on. He may not assault women anymore. It's possible he became a better person. Did he deserve the harassment? If he raped Sulkowicz, and I think he did, the answer is, of course, yes.  Hell, he deserved a lot worse than a nightmarish two years at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, at the end of which he obtained a degree.   

But can we at least be honest and admit that vigilantism played a role here, that Sulkowicz and company were using their own methods to right a wrong the legal system both at Columbia and in the city of New York as a whole were not able to right? That's the very definition of vigilantism.

I don't like vigilantism. I don't like mobs. You may not give a damn about Nungesser, but you should give a damn about the next alleged rapist...one who turns out to be innocent.

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