Photo: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison
My father has been in law enforcement for most of his life. When he wasn't a cop with the Miami-Dade Police Department, he was a cop with the Broward County Sheriff's Office or the executive director of Broward County's Crime Stoppers organization. As such, I spent a good portion of my teenage years being warned that the world was a dangerous place and only vigilance and quick reflexes would prevent me from ending up tied to the front of a modified pick-up driven by marauding, post-apocalyptic savages. I'm exaggerating, but he really did teach me to always keep my eyes open to potential threats and to understand that staying safe sometimes comes down to not making yourself seem like an easy target. He thought this way and shared this knowledge because he was a cop, and a cop's job is not simply to arrest the bad guys but to help people avoid becoming a victim of them, since no matter how well the police do their job, there will always be bad guys.
There wasn't a damn thing controversial about my father's advice to me and there still isn't. Teaching somebody how to keep him or herself safe isn't a tacit admission of failure on the part of the authorities nor is it meant to suggest that it's someone's own damn fault if he or she is the victim of a crime. It's simply an acknowledgement of reality. And the reality is that no matter how many criminals the police arrest or how much crime prevention and education they engage in, some people will slip through the cracks and you want to do everything possible to ensure that you don't become a victim of them.
If any of the above makes sense to you and doesn't at all sound like an unconscionable insult or unnecessary burden, congratulations, you're a pretty reasonable person. If you think that any suggestion that you follow a few easy steps to keep yourself safe is nothing more than shameful victim-blaming deserving of swift recrimination, you're probably a writer for Jezebel.
Right now over at the millennial feminist Emergency Broadcast System, there's a piece up that takes to task a new initiative by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department. According to the article, written by Jia Tolentino, yesterday the department posted something to its website titled "Shedding the Victim Persona: Staying Safe on Campus." It offered a series of tips on how to "develop a proper mindset" that will keep you from becoming a victim of crime while a student at UW-Madison. Among them: don't travel alone, walk on well-lit paths, drink responsibly ("over-consumption of alcohol will quickly make you an easy target," it said, which is a true statement regardless of how fraught with peril it may be these days), you get the picture.
Tolentino's first problem is with the word "persona" in the title of the post. "When the state's apparatus for physical protection tells you explicitly that victimhood is a 'persona,'" she writes, "they suggest a mentality much closer to the criminals they go after than the people they are charged to protect." This is a recurring theme in the piece: that somehow by pointing out the way criminals think in an effort to help students protect themselves, the police are, in fact, identifying and possibly sympathizing with them.
She goes on to not only beat the crap out of the UWMPD's assertion that kids should make themselves a "hard target" and keep their "head(s) on a swivel" -- as well as an admittedly clumsy and ill-advised warning that "if you present yourself as easy prey, then expect to attract some wolves" -- by making it exclusively about campus rape. "What a nice opportunity to think about the fact that none of the women I know who have been raped have ever reported it. Not one!" she says, seemingly from out of nowhere. I assume this is meant to imply that many rapes aren't reported because the victims believe the authorities will say that it was somehow their own fault (a fear that should always be taken into consideration). But given that the cops never once specifically mention sexual assault in the post and never even insinuate that the tips are largely aimed at women -- the image accompanying it shows two girls and a guy walking together at night -- it's a leap to assume their true goal here is to consciously or subconsciously put the onus on female students to prevent rape.
"The story is a general crime prevention piece -- for all crimes against men and women," a department spokesperson told Tolentino when she reached out for a comment. But still, she's less than pleased with, I guess, the tone of the whole thing.
Normally, a by-the-numbers expression of blind outrage from the Jezebel ranks wouldn't be worth noting, but it's become a genuinely ridiculous -- not to mention dangerous -- meme in some feminist circles that anytime someone suggests that a woman simply keep her eyes open for trouble, that person is automatically a rape apologist and a victim-blamer. That's just crap.
Last year, Slate writer Emily Yoffe suggested that women in certain settings might want to consider how much they drink because -- while it's never a woman's fault if she's sexually assaulted and it's always the person doing the assaulting -- incapacitating yourself when there are potential threats nearby isn't very prudent. At no point did Yoffe say that women should be the ones to bear the sole burden of having to change their behavior in order to stop rape from happening. She only said that if you know there are dangers, putting yourself in a truly vulnerable position probably isn’t a good idea; that while, again, it’s never a woman’s fault if she’s raped, there are steps she can take in certain situations — not all of course, since rape is by no means relegated to bars, parties, and frat houses — that can help to keep her safe. Yoffe was excoriated for this opinion, drawing no fewer than four angry response pieces from sites like Jezebel, Feministing and Salon.
At the time, I said this with regard to the backlash:
We can and should shout from every direction that it’s a man’s responsibility to know that rape is wrong, no matter the situation, no matter the time and place, no matter the person or her condition. There’s nothing wrong, though, with making it clear to women that unfortunately not everyone will listen to those shouts so it’s good to take action to keep yourself safe. It’s somewhat unfair, yes, but so is any kind of behavior adjusted for the things in life we can’t completely control.
Arguing from the point-of-view of what should be is noble, but not at the expense of acknowledging current reality. It’s good to fight for the world as it’s supposed to be, but until then you have to prepare for the world as it is...
Suggesting that women, or anyone else, alter their behavior at times isn’t the least bit controversial. Our lives are one big exercise in adjusting our behavior to keep us safe from the things we can’t control. We wear seat belts. We lock our cars. We avoid walking in isolated areas late at night. If we’re the victims of crime, it’s never our fault, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take action to help prevent it from ever happening. Despite education, positive influence, even the threat of law enforcement, there will still always be people who don’t listen and who do horrible things. If you’re prone to doing something which, at a certain place in a certain time, puts you in a position where you can’t defend against those people, it shouldn’t make someone a pariah for maybe saying you should do otherwise.
That's exactly what the University of Wisconsin-Madison was doing here: providing tips to help the people they're charged with keeping safe stay safe. In other words, they're doing their job as cops.
Because of what was no doubt a flood of e-mails and phone calls from well beyond the UW-Madison campus -- Jia Tolentino ended her piece with the e-mail address and phone number of the police -- the UWM police have now adjusted the post that drew Jezebel's ire. They've apologized for "insensitive (wording)," eliminated the "wolves" line and made it clear to everyone that the article was intended to be about "general crime prevention." As if it needed to be said by the damn cops, the piece now reads, "It is NEVER a victim’s fault if they find themselves targeted in any crime. Ever."
There's nothing all that wrong with making these changes, of course, other than the fact that they were completely unnecessary. They're purely cosmetic, made merely for the sake of political correctness and almost certainly to appease a small cadre of highly sensitive campus social justice warrior-types and an army of angry Jezebel readers. Rather than solely doing the job of looking out for the safety of the university's students, over the past 24 hours or so the police department at UW-Madison has had to concern itself with -- the wording of a completely benign set of safety tips aimed at preventing a litany of campus crimes. Even for a few moments, this was a priority.
One thing that didn't change in the post was the final paragraph. And even though Jia Tolentino had a problem with it, specifically the last line, it's good it wasn't changed.
Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Be flexible and proactive in your safety. It is an unfortunate fact of life that crime will occur. None of us are immune to the possibility of becoming a victim. The simple truth is, it can happen to any one of us. The attitude of “it can’t happen to me” is the wrong attitude to have. The right attitude is “I won’t let it happen to me!”
That's not blaming the victim. That's attempting to empower students so they don't become victims. It was the point of the whole post, and it was crystal clear from the very beginning.