Sunday, May 24, 2015

really, MTV?
on Emma Sulkowicz, Paul Nungesser, and @fakerape

Coming from MTV, quite possibly the dumbest thing I've read in the past 24 hours, regarding alleged rape victim Emma Sulkowicz and her "Carry That Weight" mattress-dragging art project, in which she declared she would carry around a 50-pound mattress until either (1) her alleged rapist, Paul Nungesser, left the university, or (2) she graduated:

It is undeniable that Sulkowicz created a piece of art that was so visually compelling it couldn’t be forgotten. But, it says a lot about the culture we live in that people still want to know exactly what happened that night in her dorm room, as if her art and the movement it created isn’t validation enough of the experience she endured, and a fair critique of the unjust way colleges handle victims and perpetrators of sexual assault.

How can Sulkowicz's art validate her experience when we can't even establish the experience's veridicality? This seems like such a simple, obvious, Occam-ful question that I question the sanity of the person who wrote the MTV article.

Twitter has been the scene of quite the bloody flame war between Sulkowicz's defenders and her detractors, both of whom are legion. Into the fray has stepped a mysterious tweeter going by the handle Fake Rape (@fakerape), who has made every effort to call Sulkowicz a liar, and to lump her in with other high-profile false accusers like HBO star Lena Dunham of the series "Girls." @fakerape created a series of "Liar" posters that were splashed all over Columbia University's campus, where Sulkowicz was a student until she recently graduated. Her defenders are demanding that the @fakerape account be taken down. Defenders of @fakerape argue that the evidence is all against Sulkowicz, who comes out of this sordid affair looking like the liar she's accused of being.

Personally, since I don't know exactly what happened, I think it's prudent to remember that, in America, the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Nungesser, a German national, was found innocent of wrongdoing four separate times regarding both the purported incident with Sulkowicz and some other potentially sexual altercations. This judgment was arrived at not only by the campus authorities but also by the police, whom Sulkowicz eventually involved.

At this point, to be brutally honest, I have no real sympathy for Sulkowicz. Nungesser was found innocent four times, and Sulkowicz has been shown to have sent Nungesser friendly (even vaguely amorous) messages after the date of the alleged rape, so I'm partial to the claim that Sulkowicz's drag-a-mattress campaign amounted to a form of harassment. Unsurprisingly, Nungesser, the accused, is suing various parties for having allowed this mattress campaign to happen. Meanwhile, people have also accused @fakerape of harassing Sulkowicz; @fakerape has responded by claiming freedom of speech. Sulkowicz's defenders tore down many of the posters, claiming that tearing down posters was also a form of free speech. From my perch, it seems obvious that a fog of enstupidation has settled over both parties, but fundamentally I'm leaning more toward Nungesser than toward Sulkowicz.

That said, I don't know what Nungesser hopes to accomplish through his multiple suits. Does he want money? Does he want his good name back? He might get money, in the end, but once a person is accused of a sexual crime in Western society, there's an indelible stigma. When it comes to accusations of rape, you're guilty until proven innocent.

What I find stupid about the above-quoted MTV article is that it's essentially saying, as Hillary Clinton barked when she ranted about Benghazi, "What difference does it make?" From MTV's perspective, the actual reality doesn't matter: all that matters is the "validation" expressed by Sulkowicz's "art." This is a very loose usage of the word "validation," to be sure, and MTV's argument reminds me strongly of some of the arguments I heard in bib-lit classes regarding whether Jesus actually did rise from the dead in a real, tangible, videotapable manner. Many non-literalists (like yours truly) would argue that the resurrection is best understood as a metaphor—that the historical facts don't actually matter when it comes to the gospels' existential import. Can the same hermeneutic be applied to Sulkowicz and Nungesser? I'd venture a "no." Nungesser's future is at stake; there's nothing metaphorical about his situation. For him, and arguably for Sulkowicz, this is all too real.

Defenders of Sulkowicz have tried to use the emotionally powerful argument that, "If your own daughter came to you in tears and said she had been raped, would you believe her?" I admit that this is a very compelling thought experiment, but it's also disingenuous. Of course I wouldn't expect the father to be objective. If I were that father, I'd want to hunt down the rapist myself and separate his head from his neck with my bare hands. That's a given. But the thought experiment misses the point, which is this: just because the father is incapable of thinking objectively doesn't mean that objectivity can be thrown out the window. As I've already mentioned twice, Paul Nungesser was investigated and found innocent four separate times. There is a paucity of evidence to link him to any rapes. Sulkowicz's own "post-rape" emails to Nungesser are a damning testimony against her and her campaign.

MTV's article is so utterly wrongheaded in its brazen unconcern for the truth as to be laughable. The piece might have made more sense as satire had it issued from The Onion or from Meanwhile, Sulkowicz completed her art project but failed to obtain justice from either the police or from Columbia University. Maybe she can find common ground with Paul Nungesser by also suing Columbia.

Zooming back a bit, I'll note that Instapundit has hammered on a particular issue for a while: the idea that, when a rape occurs on campus, it shouldn't be the university that handles the case—it should be the cops, and right away, too. I agree. Rape is a serious crime. What on earth is a college disciplinary board doing adjudicating such a thing? That's ludicrous. A college board isn't staffed with professional detectives, nor can it suddenly use its campus library's basement as a makeshift jail to detain accused rapists. Campuses are woefully ill-equipped for handling such crimes. There should be no question about police involvement: the police should be on the scene immediately.

People defending Sulkowicz are upset about the general concept of "fake rape." They feel that "fakerapistas," to coin a term, are obsessing over false accusations that, in the end, comprise only about 8% of all rape cases (i.e., close to 1 in 10). The defenders, many of whom probably also stand against the death penalty, ought to use their own death-penalty logic to understand the fakerapistas' point of view: it's intolerable that even one innocent man should be punished. I don't know the truth about Paul Nungesser, but he's been through the authorities' X-ray machine and was pronounced innocent on multiple occasions. If something comes out later that conclusively proves he did indeed rape Emma Sulkowicz, then go ahead and crucify him. In the meantime, he's innocent until proven guilty.

ADDENDUM: About those friendly "post-rape" emails from Sulkowicz... they were, technically, Facebook messages. This article comments and quotes some of the messages:

Yet Nungesser says that for weeks after that night, he and Sulkowicz maintained a cordial relationship, and says she seemingly never indicated that anything was amiss.

Nungesser provided The Daily Beast with Facebook messages with Sulkowicz from August, September, and October 2012. (In an email to The Daily Beast, Sulkowicz confirmed that these records were authentic and not redacted in any way; while she initially offered to provide “annotations” explaining the context on the messages, she then emailed again to say that she would not be sending them.) On Aug. 29, two days after the alleged rape, Nungesser messaged Sulkowicz on Facebook to say, “Small shindig in our room tonight—bring cool freshmen.” Her response:

lol yusss

Also I feel like we need to have some real time where we can talk about life and thingz

because we still haven’t really had a paul-emma chill sesh since summmmerrrr

On Sept. 9, on a morning before an ADP meeting, it was Sulkowicz who initiated the Facebook contact, asking Nungesser if he wanted to “hang out a little bit” before or after the meeting and concluding with:

whatever I want to see yoyououoyou

respond—I’ll get the message on ma phone

Snide Twitter commenters were quick to note that four years at Columbia University had done nothing to improve Sulkowicz's writing ability.


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