The Personal and the Political

Rolling Stone's controversial article shows why individual narratives have to be wedded to a wider analysis.

On November 19, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone feature “A Rape on Campus” went viral. It was a story about the preponderance of sexual assaults at the University of Virginia that fail to materialize into formal complaints. UVA responded, suspending fraternity activities and promising to dedicate all necessary resources to the investigation of the horrific gang rape the essay took as its frame.

But before UVA could begin probing the complaint, the world stepped in, and the findings were shattering. Not because every gruesome detail turned out to be true, but because it now appears that many of the most foundational ones were not.

What began as a trickle of suspicion in blogs specializing in rape suspicion developed into a cascade of interest from venues like the Washington Post, the New Republic, Columbia Journalism Review, and more, culminating in a statement issued by Rolling Stone on December 5 effectively disowning responsibility for the veracity of the story. (A day later, without mentioning that the statement had been updated, the magazine appeared to pivot, noting that the “mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.”)

While the Washington Post led the charge, the general media critique eventually moved beyond simply bad journalistic practices. The paternalistic branch of the right-wing media complex is well occupied now with semi-tactful scolding, informing “liberal” media outlets that this is why no one believes them about anything. Meanwhile, the Right’s fratty asshole contingent is doing what it was born to do: sneer and snicker about the whole enterprise of responding to institutions that foster sexually abusive behavior.

No matter which poison you pick, the Rolling Stone piece has irrecoverably degenerated into a story about a particular event on a particular date, and it’s unlikely we can reverse that now. Erdely’s heavy-handed reliance on the narrative of one specific crime for the entirety of her argument invited this misdirection, which is the problem underlying all her other mistakes.

The damage has been immeasurable. Advocates for victims of sexual assault at UVA have already come forward claiming that their campus activism has been much discredited. UVA social media outlets are now replete with frat triumphalism, from which no possible good can come. Publications that supported Erdely’s account during the first hint of skepticism must now decide how to gracefully walk it back.

Some of them have chosen to blame the whole affair on shoddy journalism, which is a fair assessment. The trouble is that Erdely’s journalism was not only careless, but sloppy in a very predictable way: she needed to critique a system, and chose to do it by way of an individual case; compounding her disproportionate centering of a single personal account was her unwillingness to rigorously investigate it. Both tendencies — the preference of the personal story and the rigid taboo against anything that could possibly be seen as scrutinizing such narratives — will, unaddressed, continue to imperil left projects, as they so clearly have here.

Oppression can be carried out through silencing — the systematic suppression of the experience of marginalized groups. The leftist instinct to elevate those narratives is therefore neither ridiculous nor sentimental.

But the presumption that airing personal stories will capture the imagination of an oppressive class is perhaps naïve, and the notion that people are entirely reliable reporters of their own experiences is equally questionable. As far back as 1920, studies on the reproduction of memory have suggested that remembering is more an interpretive activity than a straightforward process of recording and replaying. This is doubly true, as Vox’s Amanda Taub has argued, when traumatic events are involved. There is a space between lying and telling the truth, wherein a person may be articulating precisely what she remembers, yet it may not be an accurate recording of the facts.

None of this is to say that personal narratives have no place in journalism. It is only to point out that the habit of presenting individual tales of trauma — absent any interrogation or probing — now comprises a troubling share of argumentative content in left journalism.

We should listen to personal narratives, but we should question whether they are required to bookend hard-hitting arguments against structural sexism and institutional immunity for privileged perpetrators of rape.

Personal stories that lack fact checking leave the arguments they bolster incredibly vulnerable. Worse yet, relying on one person’s testimony for the central argument invites probing of individual people, as happened in this case — the victim’s friends have turned on her and her classmates are gossiping about her trauma to a sudden flood of reporters. Self-styled reactionary cyber Sherlocks have already begun digging up and sharing personal details about her and her family. Placing the weight of entire arguments on the shoulders of specific people, especially those who have survived trauma, thus seems unfair both to them and the success of the arguments.

Leftist analysis is at its best when it focuses on systematic critiques. Erdely’s piece was arguably engaged in just such a project, though the undoing of its anecdotal obsession has undermined that thrust. The strength of leftist critique is that it concerns itself with the broad, the historical, the powerful, the structural. Contrast this with right-wing accounts of politics, which focus on individual choice and disposition, private and personal interests, and folk-legendary tales of bootstrapping.

There’s a reason Ronald Reagan preferred ticky-tacky bullshit tales of welfare fraud (such as the woeful story of Linda Taylor that gave us the pejorative “welfare queen”) to structural analysis. These days right-wing blowhards like Paul Ryan keep the ignominious tradition alive. The Wisconsin congressman has opined, for example, that free school lunches are bad because he heard of a little boy who wanted a brown paper sack to signify parental love.

The story was nonsense. But when your alternative is to refer to numerical data of how many young mouths you’d like to steal food out of, the heart-warming individual tale is your best option. The vigor of the left position arises from the fact that we do not have to traffic in one-offs and pan flashes.

It is fair to imagine that abstract analysis of enormous political and social structures is a bit dry for the average reader, but gripping narratives can be produced in a variety of ways other than memoir: Michael Perelman’s The Invention of Capitalism and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine both come to mind as examples of viscerally engaging literature without a personal bent.

And if the choice really does come down to offering strong accounts of structural injustices that are little read due to their dullness or offering similar accounts that are widely read due to their intrigue but then found to be false, the former option is the prudent one.

The Left is not strictly interested in procedural justice — our purview extends to outcomes, which is why we are concerned with lived experiences in the first place. The goal of Erdely’s piece, before it was undermined by the dissolution of her anecdote, was to identify and demand accountability from institutions that foster rape, to protest immunity for privileged rapists, and ultimately to end campus rape.

These are our goals. They are the right goals. But if leftists’ eagerness to promote personal narratives winds up irreversibly coupled with a resistance to probing those narratives, then it will continue to cause harm. In that case, we are obligated to reevaluate our commitments — not to the project of justice, but to those specific techniques. Otherwise we will wind up endangering the very people we aim to protect — as is the case now, with victims’ advocates already despairing over the effect Rolling Stone’s hasty retreat could have on future victims’ willingness to speak up.

Like the barely settled #GamerGate debacle, this meltdown will grant a predominately anti-feminist contingent yet another reason to declare itself the party of “ethics in journalism,” which means “truth.” The broad declarations that will emerge from this crowd — that rape claims are typically vengeful or hysterical, and that there are no institutional cultures of rape — are false. But it will be hard to continue calling out rank falsehood from a gallows made of our own.