Phrenology, the attempt to explain brain function and activity through analyzing the size and shape of a subject’s skull, was seriously discussed within neuroscience circles as late as the mid-19th century. Its adherents can be forgiven for their ignorance based on what was observable and evident at the time. But it’s now known definitively as baseless, and thus would not be discussed seriously in a news article by a reputable media source in some attempt at giving equal time to an opposing view point.
But might an opinion piece- on why phrenology should be not only seriously considered but in fact applied in order to meet societal challenges- still merit consideration by, say, the nation’s financial newspaper of record? Of course not; it’s a theory that is not only thoroughly discredited but dangerously misleading and potentially harmful if adhered to. Similarly, we no longer give serious voice to the opinions of those who would persecute azimuthal map-makers, who view their race as genetically superior to others, or- and strictly relevant to the matter at hand- who argue that communistic, central planning is a terrific tool for economic growth.
And yet the Wall Street Journal has given a tremendous voice to a collection of ideas just as thoroughly discredited and potentially harmful with the publication of James Taranto’s remarkably ignorant opinion piece on non-stranger sexual assault. The backlash against Taranto has been harsh, but it is richly deserved. In short, there is no excuse, after years of replicated, respected research on the topic, not to mention the observations of hundreds of thousands of victims (and many offenders), to give a voice Taranto’s opinions under the banner of that publication. This is not about “feminist” or “liberal” censorship; it’s not about censorship at all. Taranto is more than entitled to his opinion and he may offer it to the marketplace of ideas like anyone else. The issue is the responsibility of the WSJ editorial staff to make better decisions on what merits publication within its pages.
A belief that alcohol creates the urge to commit rape, that offenders and victims are “colliders” in alcohol-fueled sexual situations and thus generally of equal blame, and the claim that false accusations are anything more than rare and usually easily detected events, are all ideas that have been thoroughly discredited.
Dr. David Lisak is often rightfully credited with the ground-breaking research that first shed light on the motivations and methodology of the relatively small group of sexually deviant offenders (mostly male) who commit most of the non-stranger sexual violence we endure (his work was replicated with startlingly similar results in 2009). But decades before Lisak, other pioneers (Mary Koss and Joan Zorza come to mind) were making keen observations about the true nature of predatory behavior and the reality of the experience of sexual violence. Their work has proved out convincingly and continues to do so. The further we lessen the stigma against victimization, the more we hear from courageous women and men willing to give accounts that confirm, overwhelmingly, the observations of these experts.
In my experience, the only remaining groups that cling to the ideas Taranto was able to espouse to millions are some (not all) so-called “men’s rights advocates,” interested criminal defense firms, and men who have been charged with rape. True, there is still ignorance about the topic in not only the general population, but within the law enforcement and prosecution communities as evidenced by the dubious quotes Taranto printed by members of both. But that’s not a reason to proliferate ignorance further.
Taranto may or may not choose to educate himself on the dynamics of alcohol-facilitated, non-stranger sexual assault as it actually and typically plays out: In a premeditated, methodical fashion by pattern offenders who identify, manipulate, attack and then discredit their victims, aided before and after by a larger society still ignorant of predatory behavior and punishing of female sexuality. Either way, I would never seek to prevent him from continuing to hold and espouse his views. My issue is with the major media outlet that chose to showcase them as serious editorial discourse. It’s anything but.