Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"If we’ve learned anything . . . it’s that we need to slow down the rush to judgment . . . ."

Laura Kipnis, professor, Northwestern University, urges the Northwestern community not to rush to judgment on an alleged sexual assault. Here's a letter she wrote:
Like everyone in the Northwestern community, I was stunned and appalled to receive Chief of Police Bruce Lewis’ security alert informing us that four students attending a Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat party were possibly given a date rape drug and that two may have been sexually assaulted. Lewis cited a second anonymous report that another student may have been drugged and raped at another unnamed frat.

What I didn’t learn until I read the Chicago Tribune story on the allegations — because The Daily Northwestern story doesn’t make this explicit — is that the first set of allegations were also made anonymously. “It's not clear how the person who reported the alleged incidents knew of them,” the Tribune reports. Nor does the university know the identities of these four women. Nevertheless, the university community has leaped to action, with the Associated Student Government calling for immediately suspending SAE and another frat. Task forces are being created, social events are being suspended, there are calls to rewrite various constitutions and policies.

If we’ve learned anything from the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s now-retracted story about an alleged rape and cover-up at a University of Virginia frat a couple of years ago, it’s that we need to slow down the rush to judgment until we’re in possession of sufficient verifiable information to form solid conclusions. Students at Virginia staged protest marches too — about what turned out to be a false story. As though oblivious to recent history, the Northwestern community has become a walking demonstration of what the commission that later investigated the Rolling Stone story slammed as “confirmation bias” — that is, forming conclusions in advance of the facts to justify our biases. In other words, if we believe that campus culture is a rape culture, then any rape allegation has to be true.

And at this point, all we in the Northwestern community know is that anonymous charges are being investigated. We don’t know what actually happened. I certainly hope we get updates as the investigation continues and that The Daily Northwestern vigorously investigates the story from every angle. But leaping to action in the absence of verified (or perhaps even verifiable) complaints is at best a failure of due process, and at worst vigilantism.