This week Christina Hoff Sommers and Roxane Gay took the stage for two much-anticipated debates in Australia, under the auspices of This is 42, “a handful of young folk who have this crazy, really radical, kind of idealistic belief that we can play our part in human progress.” Their debate in Australia proved to be something of a popularity contest, where Gay spoke most of the words, Sommers was primarily on the defense, and the audience was more interested in cheering for Gay’s flippant takes than considering the nuanced, logical positions Sommers put forth.
Gay, an American author and professor, is a vocal Twitter user who has loads of fans internationally. She is something of a progressive activist who is vocal on the Me Too movement, and was presented by This is 42 as an opponent for Sommers. Sommers, a feminist philosopher and author, has been deplatformed on college campuses due to her free thinking on free speech issues, and is a strident defender of the value of critical thought and rationalism.
It would be interesting if there could be a debate between two women that was not about feminism, women’s issues, or a topic primarily related to women’s status. While these are definitely interesting and essential things to discuss, they are not the only things women like Sommers and Gay are qualified to talk about, although these may be the only things they are qualified to talk about together.
Whiffs of a Setup
The women have substantial international fan bases, but it was Gay’s fan club that showed up en masse, to boo Sommers and cheer Gay. About halfway through the debate, Gay admits she agreed to the event without knowing who Sommers was. One must wonder what kind of rigorous academic would agree to debate an entirely unknown individual, then fly nearly around the world to do it. Once she found out from the Southern Poverty Law Center that Sommers had done work in “male supremacy,” Gay intimated that she had made a mistake in judgment in agreeing to the event.
She guilts Sommers by association, insinuating that since Sommers has appeared on stage with Milo Yiannopoulos, her perspective and judgment is in some way suspect. What she doesn’t realize is that Sommers is more concerned with an open, free exchange of ideas, and does not hold the stage accountable for those who stand upon it.
This dynamic, wherein Gay used the tactics of progressive media to attempt to discredit Sommers, gives the debate film, spliced together from a stop in Sydney and one in Melbourne, both hosted by Desh Amila, the feeling of a setup. Sommers never had a chance with what was essentially Gay’s crowd.
Who Cares If They’re Truly Guilty
The topics broached included the definition of feminism, bad dates, Me Too, female bodily autonomy, the wage gap, rape culture, intersectional feminism, and international feminism, but what was perhaps the most essential for American discourse was the conversation on due process. Me Too is not even remotely concerned with due process, because the crimes for which it holds men accountable are not, for the most part, legal or criminal infractions.
While there are the misogynistic, entitled men who cross lines of decorum, professionalism, and criminality, much of the Me Too stuff is much more nuanced than that. Men are taken to task for bad dates, bad sex, serial sexual comments, misunderstandings, lack of consideration for the caveats of enthusiastic consent, and regrettable drunken encounters.
Me Too holds men accountable for misconstruing a woman’s intentions when she invites him up to her hotel room, or accepts an invitation to his. The idea of Me Too is that all women should be believed, but this simply replaces the male bias with a female one.
“You don’t replace male chauvinism with female chauvinism,” Sommers states, noting that replacing one set of innate prejudices against sex with another does nothing for honesty in discourse or process. If men and women have equality, or if it is even something our culture is moving toward, then neither set of sex-based biases can be the standard for action.
Gay responds, “I don’t think telling men to stop talking and listen to women is chauvinism.” At this, there were riotous cheers from the crowd.
“I think that we’re at the very beginning of ‘me too’ even though we’re about a year and a half in,” Gay continued. “This initial thrust has been about women bringing voice to the very real issues they’ve faced in the workplace and their personal lives. Men have plenty of platforms. This idea that we need to cry for men, or worry that they’re being silenced somehow simply because women are speaking is not true. They’re gonna be okay…. There’s something to be said for men just taking a step back for a few years and just being a little quiet. It’s okay. We’ll still make progress. They won’t be left behind in some material form or fashion. They’ll just listen and learn…”
While the Australian crowd whooped and hollered at this popular idea that men simply need to “take a step back,” Sommers looked aghast. What does this mean? To tell an entire sex of the human species to sit down and shut up?
People Aren’t Cogs In Your Political Machine
Each of us on this earth only has one life. We don’t live our lives in service to some broader mission for human kind—maybe a little, but not entirely. We don’t go out every day wondering how we should take a back seat to culture and the causes of the day. Maybe that’s in there—that’s humility, that’s teamwork—but we each have to be the leaders of our own lives, the heroes of our own stories, the narrators of our narratives. If we are not that, we are living as a reflection. That’s no way to live, in subservience to another’s cause or ideation.
Gay continued, because she, by far, had the highest word count of this conversation: “I don’t think we need to have this degree of panic about ‘oh my g-d what about the one innocent man.’ Again, we’re prioritizing these like needs of men. Nobody should be falsely accused of sexual assault, and anyone who does that I just think ‘what is your problem.’ Clearly they have something seriously wrong going on and we should condemn it roundly. But I think that we often times disbelieve women as a default. So ‘she’s lying until we can prove that she’s telling the truth’ and that’s dangerous. And I think why don’t we worry about the women who are not believed as much as we worry about the men who might be falsely accused.”
This goes against everything that is reasonable and rational in law and public ethics. There can absolutely not be a standard wherein every accusation is believed without evidence. The difficulty in defending one’s self against crimes for which no evidence has been brought is nearly impossible.
And Gay brings no understanding of how these women who have “something seriously wrong going on” can be identified. Is it their crazy eyes? Their crazy accusations? The relative status of the men being accused? The higher-up the man on the power structure, the more believable the accusations?
A Concern for the Rights of the Minority
Sommers got a chance to speak. “I have heard so many stories now… and it’s psychologically annihilating for these people. You get accused, and you lose everything.” She continued:
Just last week I was speaking to a journalist who became a non-person because someone wrote a story, he says it’s not true, and it’s nothing that could ever go to a court of law, but it made it seem like he could be- he lost his job, he lost friends… it’s devastating. We have to be careful. We have to be protective of everyone, and have a system. There are ways to improve it, but what’s happening now is people are so desperate to protect the women, mostly women, they’re making secret lists, and you get anonymous informants circulating lists and there have been innocent people on the lists who find it impossible to defend themselves. And we have a bad history with black lists, going back in the United States to McCarthyism, calling someone a communist. You have to have evidence, you can’t have anonymous informants that have the power to take someone down.
For those of us steeped in natural rights-based legal processes, where the highest standard is that it is better for a hundred guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be jailed, and although the American criminal process does not always live up to that ideal, it is horrifying to hear an American activist speak without concern for an innocent man presumed guilty. The only thing we have is our process, and it must be a sound process.
Of course no process is foolproof, but it wrong to believe that a process can be inherently unfair to one group of people just because it has sometimes been unfair to a different group of people. We have our standards of due process, or we have nothing.