US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Sunday night, Charles C. Johnson doxxed the young woman featured in Rolling Stone’s disputed story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. He revealed not only her name but posted screengrabs of what he called her “rape-obsessed” Pinterest site. Johnson justified his actions — which he coupled with calls for donations and boasts about media requests — by stating that he was acting on behalf of “victims of false rape claims.” A day earlier, National Review’s Brendan O’Neill railed against the “Ivy League lynch mob” calling for students accused of rape to be kicked off campus.

Sandwiched in between these two events was a Sunday morning interview on "Fox News Sunday" with Rush Limbaugh. Asked about the protests surrounding the failure to indict police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Limbaugh assigned blame to the protesters. “I think that there is a grievance politics in this country that’s tearing the country apart,” he told Chris Wallace. “It’s not based on real-world grievance. It’s grievance that’s being amplified and made up.”

In each case — the doxxing, the “lynch mob” accusations, the cries of “grievance politics” — victims were transformed into victimizers, imbued with far more power than they actually possess. And in each case, victim-blaming papered over the real failure that links the campus rape problem with the police brutality problem: the failure of our criminal justice system to achieve anything like justice — or even fairness.

Take the University of Virginia case. Even if we stipulate that the gang rape didn’t happen, or going a step further, that nothing happened at all — which is stipulating quite a lot, since as Slate’s Hanna Rosin points out, what we have at the moment is “in the category of mystery, not hoax” — what we are left with is a young woman who by all accounts underwent a sudden and rapid change, marked by deep depression and claims of sexual assault. Whatever else, she is a person in need of compassion and help, not ridicule and exposure.

Likewise the women at Columbia University who O’Neill likens to a lynch mob (“admittedly in a much less lethal context,” he adds, not noting that without lethality, a lynch mob is just a gathering of people) are women who feel the college administration does not take their concerns about sexual assault seriously. Which is a real problem, since the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights assigned colleges a role in adjudicating rape cases because the legal system had proven ill-equipped to handle them. Let down by both the formal legal system and the collegiate disciplinary one, women have turned to protests to find some form of justice.

The collegiate system for handling rape claims is deeply flawed for both the victims of sexual assault and those accused of it, as Emily Yoffe points out in a detailed piece for Slate. But to blame the women involved — to import metaphors like “lynch mob” in order to assign power to people who lack real power in sexual assault investigations — does real damage to people who need help with a broken legal system that for too long failed to treat victims of sexual assault with dignity and seriousness.

Victim-blaming has also crept into the cases of Brown, Garner, and Tamir Rice and the protests surrounding their deaths at the hands of police. When not doxxing women involved in sexual assault cases, Johnson has been clamoring to get his hands on Michael Brown’s juvenile record, trolling for dirt on Rice’s mom, and publishing the rap sheet of Garner, whom he calls a “street thug.” None of which explains why a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who ignored Garner’s struggles to breathe, or why an emotionally unstable officer shot the 12-year-old Rice seconds after appearing on-scene. Nor can Limbaugh, who accuses the protesters of “tearing this country apart,” explain away the injustices they are protesting against.

In his interview, Limbaugh said protesters should “respect the criminal justice system.” Respect it? It is a system that imprisons black men at six times the rate of white men, that makes police encounters for black teenagers 21 times more deadly than for white teens, that incarcerates an ever-growing number of Americans even as crime rates drop precipitously. It is this unwillingness to recognize that the criminal justice system is broken for too many Americans that leaves these conservative commentators looking for someone else to blame. So they focus in on individuals so transparently lacking in power that they must assign them outsized powers: the menace of a lynch mob, the threat of a country torn apart.

But it’s hard to convince the rest of the nation that a victim of sexual assault or a 12-year-old kid playing with a toy gun is to blame for America’s problems. As such, for conservatives like Johnson and O’Neill and Limbaugh, victim-blaming creates a double bind: It exposes not only a lack of compassion, but also a lack of constructive solutions.

This article was originally published at US News & World Report