George Will's Rape Blunder and Doing History by Intuition

George Will continues to be in the news for his controversial op-ed column claiming "that when [universities] make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate." He really put his foot in it when he next discussed rape, implying that there are now many flimsy rape charges being forwarded.

His host of critics called this "stupid" (this search turned up 165,000 results for me today) and have gotten him fired from at least one newspaper.

George Will seems to just know this sort of thing is going on, while his critics seem to just know that it is not going on.* What amazes me is that both sides simply bring their presuppositions to the table and state them as facts. Neither side seems to of heard of research.

I do not claim to be more virtuous than these people, but I am fortunate enough to have been trained in historical thinking. When an historian resorts to talking about the likelihood or implausibility of something having happened, that is an admission that his research efforts have failed: always, he first will look for evidence as to whether it did or did not happen. Only when he has run out of time to search will he write something like, "We do not have good records for rape charges during the period in question, but it seems implausible that women were putting forward these charges frivolously."

But unlike historians, Will and his critics both are generating the "facts" from their intuitions.

* I have not read every critic of Will, of course. It may very well be the case that someone out there is bringing lots of facts to bear to refute his column. (And perhaps will has fax he just didn't share with us in his column.) But my point is that many of his critics do not feel the need to try to discover the facts: they, like Will, already "know" them.


  1. So apparently Will thinks "nonconsensual touching" shouldn't be considered sexual assault?

  2. This is an interesting idea, but I think the central controversy here is not 'what happened' in terms of bare facts, but how to characterize it (I. E., a judgment call). I suspect that the anecdote contained in Will's column he would characterize as 'typical' and 'flimsy/frivolous', while his opponents would characterize it as typical and serious.

    You're not going to arrive at a hard number if you can't agree how to categorize events. This is more about a disagreement on proper norms of conduct than not having the facts, I think. History is a process of interpreting the evidence, and the process is breaking down more at the interpretation step, I think, not the fact-gathering. There are statistics about this stuff everywhere.

    Illustrative anecdote - - once my students were talking about this in lab, and a few had expressed the idea that rape was 'regrettable sex.' My non-traditional student (30's, two kids) responded to the idea with a shrug, and said "Well, I guess I've had a lot of rape. Huh."

  3. What I think is a matter for research is, "has there been some sort of large increase in questionable or falsifiable rape charges?"