Washington Post Opinion Editor Defends George Will’s ‘Survivor Privilege’ Column As Twitter Backlash Continues

Controversial piece ‘well within bounds of legitimate debate,’ says Post’s Fred Hiatt.

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Critics say opinion piece by George Will trivializes the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. Sigrid Estrada/Washington Post

The editorial page editor of the Washington Post is standing by George F. Will following a widely criticized opinion column in which the conservative commentator said colleges and universities have turned victimhood -- particularly in regard to rape and sexual assault --  into a “coveted status.”  

In an email to International Business Times, the Post’s Fred Hiatt said Will’s Friday column achieved the goal of a good op-ed by sparking a conversation. “I think George’s column was well within bounds of legitimate debate on an important topic,” Hiatt said. “I welcomed his perspective and I think the ensuing debate, including responses we will publish, is very healthy and exactly what a good opinion section should be offering its readers.”

Hiatt’s comments reiterate a statement from a Washington Post spokesperson who told IBTimes on Tuesday that the paper is planning to publish “a variety of responses in op-ed and letters.” 

Will’s column, “Colleges become the victims of progressivism,” sparked a backlash on social media and elsewhere, with critics saying Will trivialized the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and belittled the suffering of victims -- all in the service of a vague, poorly executed argument that progressive attitudes are coming back to bite colleges and universities:

“They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous ... and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate. And academia’s progressivism has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism’s achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia’s turn to be broken to government’s saddle.”

As a case in point, Will goes on to cite a 2013 incident in which a Swarthmore College student reported that she’d been raped by a man she’d been seeing after she ended the relationship. In citing this example, Will uses the term “sexual assault” in scare quotes. He also challenges statistics that only 12 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported, calling them “preposterous.”

Criticism of the piece exploded on Monday and was still ongoing as of Tuesday afternoon. Jezebel’s take, “Ladies Love Being Rape Victims, Says A--hole,” sums up the tone of much of the criticism. That Will is a 73-year-old white male conservative did not help the widespread view that he is out of touch with the issues that young women face on college campuses. Even some politicians, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have weighed in on the column.

The piece also sparked a hashtag, #SurvivorPrivilege, through which rape and sexual-abuse victims are sharing their stories on Twitter, with many of them tweeting directly at Will.

This is not the first time in recent memory that criticism of a Post opinion writer reached fever pitch. Late last year, a similarly vociferous firestorm erupted after columnist Richard Cohen wrote that people with “conventional views” would be turned off by the interracial marriage of New York’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio:

“People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York -- a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts -- but not all -- of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

The column sparked numerous calls for Cohen’s job, including an online petition on Daily Kos. At the time, Hiatt defended that column as well, saying it was misinterpreted. He took responsibility for not editing the controversial sentence in question more carefully.

Will himself has so far not commented on the current backlash, which has spilled over into his Facebook page.

At present, the original article has more than 2,300 comments.

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