Editorial: In response to George Will/Scripps Conflict

In early October, The Claremont Independent publicized the fact that conservative journalist and speaker George Will was uninvited to speak at the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program event at Scripps College after his offensive and harmful comments about the issue of sexual assault on college campuses in his June 6 column titled “Colleges Become the Victims of Progressivism.” The Scripps Voice condemns Will’s column and fully supports the Scripps administration’s decision to not finalize the plans that would have brought Will to speak on campus.
The Scripps Voice agrees with President Lori Bettison-Varga’s remarks in her statement regarding the events; we, too, believe that sexual assault is a bipartisan issue. It is not because conservative George Will spoke about sexual assault that he will no longer be brought to campus, but rather because his ideas do not align with the values that Scripps holds. In fact, the Malott Public Affairs Program was initiated to bring a wider range of ideas to the predominantly-liberal culture on the Scripps College Campus; it has been doing so since 2006 and will continue to do so. Nor is the retraction of Will’s invitation to avoid potentially uncomfortable topics of discussion. Scripps does not shy away from discussing uncomfortable subjects; Core I, a course required of all first-years, focuses on violence.  Rather, it is what Will said that influenced Scripps’ decision, and it is safe to say that an individual of any political persuasion would have been uninvited for saying such things. Scripps does not (and should not) condone opinions regarding a serious issue that are not only sexist and reflect a lack of understanding on the issue of sexual assault, but that also have the ability to cause actual harm.
We argue that George Will’s statements regarding the issue of sexual assault on college campuses are sexist in that, as discussed in a June 10 New Yorker article, saying “victimhood is a coveted status that confers privileges” implies that it is a privilege for women’s voices to be considered valid and worthy of being heard. Will’s comments can be explained, at least in part, by his male privilege; he has no incentive to try to empathize with victims when he has lived his life never having to take the voices of women seriously. Will clearly does not understand the issue of which he writes, namely, sexual assault on college campuses. It is completely inappropriate for someone in his position to be commenting on a very real issue about which he so clearly knows very little.
The idea that reporting sexual assault confers privileges is especially absurd when we consider the reality of reporting such incidents. Reporting is a difficult process, not only because of the emotional strain it poses on the survivor in the continuous relivings of the events, but also because of people like George Will who attempt to trivialize and erase the reality of the survivors’ experiences. His column adds to the harmful culture of victim-silencing that contributes to such vast underreporting. His words invalidate the emotions of survivors that would otherwise be an important impetus to the reporting of such crimes. This behavior runs counter to the actual needs on college campuses: that is, to encourage more reporting and to diminish the fear and shame that often accompanies it.
George Will’s column was harmful also in that it trivializes other forms of trauma; this is shown in his clearly misguided and uninformed discussion of trigger warnings. Of trigger warnings, or, according to the Oxford American College Dictionary, “statements at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. that alert the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material,” Will says not only that they are unnecessary (for apparently they “are begetting ... soft censorship ... to swaddle students in a ‘safe,’ ‘supportive,’ ‘unthreatening’ environment, intellectual comfort for the intellectually dormant”), but that they are sure to “multiply claims of [victimizations].” His view of trigger warnings shows a misunderstanding of their intent — in everyday context, people assume some type of risk of being triggered, but on a college campus, where triggering material is not necessarily chosen or presented with student input, one does have a right to, essentially, “know what is coming.” Furthermore, Will seems to lack the understanding that trigger warnings do not exist to protect everyone from anything potentially upsetting; they exist because traumas are very real and being triggered can have severe, often long-lasting effects on those who are triggered. The issue is much more serious than one of being upset, and treating it as though it is adds to the same harmful culture of invalidation as does Will’s discussion of sexual assault on college campuses.
In response to claims that the retraction of his invitation to speak limits Will’s free speech, The Scripps Voice points out that Scripps, as a private institution, literally is not capable of “censoring” the free speech of anyone — that action by its definition in the First Amendment is only within the power of the United States government (“Congress shall make no law…”), and any “silencing” that Scripps enforces does not fall under the realm of censorship. George Will was invited to be a paid speaker on campus, and it is entirely within reason — and, in fact, is not “silencing” him — for Scripps to decide to retract this invitation. George Will is free to say what he will about the issue of sexual assault, just as Scripps College is free to refuse to pay for him to bring his words to this campus.
The College’s decision is one that fosters a supportive culture for survivors and helps reaffirm Scripps as the safe space that it should be. The Scripps Voice stands behind — and applauds — the College’s decision.