I know the answer to the professor’s question.
The one about raping an unconscious person.
I know the answer.
But the public upset hasn’t been about that. The upset has been driven by the absolute conformity that has come to dominate American collegiate life. Nowhere outside Nazi Germany has the modern academy been so orthodox and intolerant. Free thought is practiced in lockstep, and nonconformity is punished by the loss of station and vocation.
I’m talking about University of Rochester economics Professor Steven Landsburg. Students will gather this morning outside his classroom, demanding that he be silenced.
Several hundred others, whipped up by social media – the lynch mob of our day – have signed a petition demanding he be fired.
His offense? Something he wrote in a personal blog, a loosely strung together series of ramblings and questions. He’s a deep thinker with a flair for self-promotion and academic arrogance. Probably in the world of pedantics and impressionable underclassmen, he’s quite a hit.
At any rate, he writes this blog and his shtick is getting people to think.
Which is what you figure college professors are supposed to do.
His problem is that he lives in an era when actual thinking is not something many of his students or peers have any tremendous background in.
Here’s what he wrote:
"Let's suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission.
“Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?"
It’s not a particularly well-written question, but neither is it particularly inscrutable. The answer is obvious.
But not to the pea brains gathered outside his classroom or calling for his neck on the Internet.
Those people don’t know the difference between asking and advocating. They take his question for an assertion and create a controversy from the jerk of their own knee.
In a world where extremism in political sensitivity is the Holy Grail, lemmings have presumed that Landsburg’s reference to rape was insensitive to women and reflected some attitude or culture which must be purged.
In their enlightenment, they are as blind and automatic in their thought as were the inquisitors who condemned Galileo.
Consequently, they are closed to genuine learning.
Which is what this question potentially offered them.
So let’s go back to the question.
The professor asks, if an unconscious person is raped and there is no physical injury or consequence, and no awareness on the part of the victim, should that rape be illegal?
Basically, if there is no physical or psychic injury, should such a rape be a crime? If the victim’s body was not injured, and if the victim is unaware of the rape and is consequently spared the emotional trauma, is it still a crime?
That’s not advocating decriminalizing rape, it is asking students to think. Specifically, about why rape is illegal.
Not just the obvious reasons, but beyond that.
In this, Landsburg is guilty of using the Socratic Method.
Used to be, you didn’t get fired for that.
Though many now seem eager to hand the professor the hemlock.
Back to the question.
If you are raped and are uninjured and unaware, and consequently seemingly unharmed, have you truly been raped?
Obviously, 50 state legislatures as well as U.S. military law think so. In every corner of this country we have criminalized rape by writing statutes that declare a violation even if no mental or physical injury exists.
So there must be another element beyond physical and emotional injury that defines rape.
Presumably, the object of the professor’s question was to push his readers to think through this horrible crime and find that element.
Why? Because of its great importance, to our law and to our conduct.
That element, obviously, is consent.
Rape is not just a violation of body and mind, it is a violation of will.
No sexual contact or exchange is appropriate without the full and free consent of both parties. That’s the truth the professor’s question was meant to elicit. The principle of consent undergirds our thinking about rape as well as other sexual offenses, like sexual harassment, workplace impropriety, fraternization and relationships of disproportionate age or power.
Is consent there? Is the consent truly free and fairly given? Are there dynamics of coercion or interest that cheat consent?
That’s the answer to the question.
Of course a rape such as that described in the professor’s question should be illegal. His question describes our upset at such a crime – indication of what conscience and morality say of such conduct – and calls for a logical explanation of that upset and our law.
And that explanation is not hard to give.
But no one ever got around to giving it because they were caught up in an overly sensitive sensitivity that now demands this professor be fired.
For asking people to think.
Of course raping an unconscious person is a crime.
And there’s nothing wrong with asking a thinking person to explain all the reasons why.