Julia Horowitz: Why We Believed Jackie's Rape Story
At The CD.
Ms. Horowitz suggests that so many UVA students believed the Rolling Stone story because it "rang so true" about UVA.
I don't think she's right though, for several reasons--one of which being that she seems to confuse thinking that the story was true with thinking that it was possible...
I do think that Ms. Horowitz has a point worth thinking about It should give us pause that we live in a world in which we couldn't all simply dismiss Jackie's story out of hand. Although I lived in Charlottesville for...um...seven years?...and spent a lot of time around at and around UVA, I have no idea whether students at UVA have particularly good reason to think Jackie's story plausible. Though even gang rapes are not unheard of at UVA. It always seemed like an unnaturally safe place to me, even by the standards of universities, which are unnaturally safe places. But, with respect to rape, things are complicated, as we know.
However, though UVA is a place in which Jackie's story--or almost any story--is possible, it isn't a place at which Jackie's story is likely. It could happen, and that's awful. But it's very unlikely to happen, and that's good.
But, furthermore, it wasn't just UVA students who believed the story. It was an internet phenomenon. On the sites I saw, there seemed to be near-unanimity in accepting the story. So, since it was accepted by UVA students and non-UVA students alike, and we have no reason to believe there was a difference in the rate at which the story was believed inside and outside of UVA, it's unlikely that anything about UVA explains why people believed the story.
Also, consider the following quotes:
What does it say that we read an article in which an 18-year-old girl was pinned down, graphically violated by multiple people in a house we pass almost every day — and we thought, “That just may be right?”and
“If we are being honest with ourselves, no matter if specifics of the article are true, …reading the article as a college student, you were thinking, ‘This could happen,’” said Rex Humphries, a second-year who pledged a fraternity last spring. Your first reaction is not, ‘This is preposterous.” I asked if he thought Jackie’s story could be true. He paused and said, “Yes.”This kind of point has caused trouble on the interwebs before (remember when a poll seemed to show that most people thought that it was possible that the Holocaust never happened? But then it turned out that they just meant logically possible, i.e. non-contradictory..?. These two people seem to be saying what almost everyone admitted, even myself and other skeptics: it was possible that the account was true. The story was possible but unlikely. These students seem to simply be agreeing with the first part, but not specifically addressing the second part. However, one doesn't tend to address the question of possibility unless one has already concluded that the relevant event isn't probable. If, say, we agree that it is probable that the GOP will retain control of the House, we don't discuss the question "is it possible that the GOP will retain control of the house?" That's what seems to be going on here. Possibility is under discussion because, post-semi-retraction, everyone...or...almost everyone, anyway...now admits that the story is not true, ergo not probably true... But questions like this get thorny and confusing because nobody's really sure what senses of "possible" are in play.
To cut the Gordian knot, I'm worried that what's going on here is that Horowitz (and others) are so committed to their conclusions that even when those conclusions are refuted, they simply cast about for ways to turn disconfirmation into confirmation. "Yes, sure we were wrong...but we were still right because we might have been right...and the fact that we were possibly right shows that we were actually right after all."
But instead of trying to spin defeat into backhanded victory, the people who believed the story should be reflecting on the likelihood that their judgments of plausibility have been distorted when it comes to this topic. Because that's the more likely hypothesis.
Not: (A) it was a preposterous story. But we believed it. So it must not have been that preposterous! And that shows how right we really are!
But: (B) It was preposterous. But you believed it. Which is at least some evidence that your judgments of what kinds of events are likely has been distorted. Perhaps by a theory that seems dedicated to promoting what one might call a rape crisis theory.
So far, I haven't read a single person who believed the Rolling Stone story making a (B)-type argument. Instead, they seem to be trying to put all of the blame on Rolling Stone--ignoring the fact that if huge numbers of people had not believed the story, things would have been completely different. And ignoring the role that they and their theories have played in cajoling and bullying people (liberals, anyway) into believing something very close to: every rape accusation, no matter how implausible, must be believed... Which is absurd enough that we didn't need an actual case like "Jackie's" to recognize its absurdity.
But look, the less willing you are to admit error the more likely you are to end up in error. But before you can admit error, even to yourself, you need at least consider the possibility that your theory might be in error--you must at least entertain that as a possibility... Which means, even more minimally: you must not automatically try to show that/why the fact that you were wrong means that you were actually right...
The refusal to admit the possibility they were in error is exactly what motivated so many believers to shout down questions and accuse the questioners of misogyny--the assumption that they couldn't possibly be wrong. The belief that only a misogynist could possibly suggest they were. So...we just went through an event that gave us extremely strong evidence that rape crisis theorists are bad at telling whether or not they might be wrong--at least with respect to the topic at hand. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that they're hardly exhibiting epistemic heroism when it comes time to ask how it is that so many people thought that a very unlikely thing was likely.