Civil Liberties

George Will Was Right: Victimhood Undeniably Confers Privilege on Campuses

Unsayable heresy?


George Will
Keith Allison / Flickr

Syndicated conservative columnist George Will was widely condemned for an article he penned about sexual assault and victimhood on college campuses. Critics have signed petitions calling on news outlets to stop carrying his column, and yesterday, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch did just that.

What was the problem? Here is the section of the column that the Dispatch cited in its decision to axe Will:

Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ("micro-aggressions," often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate. And academia's progressivism has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism's achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia's turn to be broken to government's saddle.

The Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein writes that while other criticisms of Will's perspective may have merit, the above section—far from being unsayable heresy—certainly rings true:

So Will is making two points here. First, that university culture encourages students to perceive themselves as victims, and those that can credibly claim victimhood are sometimes given higher status. I don't think that's reasonably debatable, as it's exactly what the apparently common trope, "check your privilege" is about; students seen as "privileged" by dint of skin color, sex, wealth, etc., should shut up and let the more authentic and wise voices of members of societies' victim classes proliferate. And the general rule is, if you subsidize something, you get more of it, and there's no reason to think this wouldn't include self-perceptions of victimhood or self-identification as a victim. It's notable that a recent well-circulated column by a Princeton student taking exception to the "check your privilege" meme took pains to note that the author himself is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the quintessential victims.

Even back in my day, Yale Law School had a "student strike for diversity," at a rally for which students were encouraged to tell their individual tales of woe. I thought it striking that one student actually got up to discuss what a victim he was because he was a "first-generation professional." Thus, for example, while seemingly everyone else knew how to dress for a job interview, he did not. The horror of being on the cusp of a six-figure salary and having to ask the clerk at Brooks Brothers for assistance! (I could sympathize with the student–for my first "desk" job, I showed up, on advice of my parents, in short sleeve dress shirts and a tie, leading to subsequent teasing from co-workers–but a member of a victim class? No.)

Is it really controversial to suggest that college campuses encourage their students to see themselves as victims, given the policies many universities enact to prevent their students' delicate emotions from being shattered by unfamiliar ideas and troubling memories?