Benefit of (the) doubt

Alice Dreger’s recounting of her experiences giving a lecture last week at Wellesley is intriguing for a number of reasons relevant to understanding  the state of the American college campus.

Long accustomed to controversy (as readers of her marvellous book Galileo’s Middle Finger will know), she was nevertheless taken aback by the scale and vigour of protest that greeted her at one of America’s most prestigious liberal arts colleges.

It turns out that prior to her arrival an email had circulated with viciously anti-transsexual quotes that were — falsely — attributed to her.

The whole thing is worth reading, and Dreger does the enormous service of providing a short list of constructive suggestions to young college activists  that, one hopes, will be pinned up in college dorm rooms from coast to coast.

But I was struck by this passage (emphasis added):

“All in all, I think the engagement at the Wellesley protest went well, even if it was an ironic lesson in the social construction of identity. A number of students came up to me to say they had really had their minds opened by realizing what they’re told about someone might not at all be true. A few told me they were planning to push back against the problem of what amounts to falsehood-based activism.”

Quite apart from everything else in the article — such as the all-too-predictable combination of overbearing self-righteousness and muddled inarticulacy on the part of the protestors — the fact that several adult students at an elite college were apparently unaware that sometimes people lie about other people  (something that I think I learned in, oh,  about second grade) is dispiriting.

But given the just-about-daily regularity in which I see overwrought social media commentary on people and works that make clear that the critic hasn’t actually bothered to read or watch the thing criticised, I suppose I am myself being naive for thinking that it’s anything but the new normal.

(Again: I definitely recommend Galileo’s Middle Finger, one of the best and most moving things I’ve read in the last couple of years.)