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Joe Salazar
(Image from Denver Post)

Okay, so this hashtag, #LiberalTips2AvoidRape, stood as the top trend on Twitter for much of today. Last I checked, the twitter page for this one contains a mixed bag of comments intended to illustrate the absurdity of Colorado Congressman, Joe, Salazar’s comments on the prospect of allowing guns on college campuses. Net dust-ups being what they are, quite a few folks are happy to fold any manner of insulting reference to liberals in there, and quite a few more folks have revealed (perhaps unintentionally) a trace of a tendency to blame the victim of rape in their approach to the subject. It’s an ugly chapter in a full book of ugly twitterage; y’all can see for yourself if you like:


Yes, those of us on the left have weighed in on the subject as well, not just at Twitter, but also in the mainstream media. The Huffington Post produced a piece on this, and MSNBC couldn’t help noting the irony that a Democrat had just put his foot in his mouth over the topic of rape.

What fascinates me about this issue isn’t the repugnant nature of the humor, or even the views expressed in some of the worst jokes; it’s the degree to which outrage over Salazar’s comments facilitates an interesting shift in the politics of common sense.

College campuses have traditionally been gun-free zones. (I remember this from my old freshman informative speech, which was on gun safety. I was allowed to bring a gun-stalk into class for a prop, just so long as I left the barrel at home.) It does appear that the law in question is a new development in Colorado, but access to guns on campus is definitely not the norm. Much of the American public and much more of us on the left (including a rather large number of folks in academia) see this as a basic common sense policy. Whatever the (de-)merits of gun ownership in the rest of the public, the conventional wisdom has been to keep guns off our campuses. Hell, we don’t even allow them at my college, polar bear alerts notwithstanding.

Okay, so conservatives want to see these policies changed, and many on the right side of the political spectrum have come to see gun-free zones as a terrible sort of policy. It is for them common sense that taking guns away from students, staff, and faculty makes college a more dangerous place. This is for folks on the right simply a common sense issue.

The gun lobby has even produced some reasonable arguments on the topic of safe-zones, in effect showing that a pocket of unarmed citizens in the context of a larger community full of weapons creates unfortunate unintended consequences. But of course much of this argument has focused on K-12 schools, which are smaller, and in many cases lack armed security. Colleges on the other hand typically employ security forces of their own along with a variety of measures such as call-boxes, whistles, etc. So, with or without a personal weapon, a college is not normally the kind of soft target one sees in a public school. Add to this genuine fears about the sorts of dangers armed students may themselves pose to a campus population (just think about well-armed frat brothers!) and you have a range of variables to look at. There is a genuine empirical question as to how all of these considerations stack up.

Are we safer with guns on campus or without them?

That is a fair question, and I can actually see reasonable and honest people coming down on either side of the answer to it. That is also the question Salazar was trying to answer in his speech, trying anyway. Frankly, it looks like he lost his train of thought and kept talking anyway, which was a bad idea. So, he ends up suggesting that safe zones were created to protect women (which is from the standpoint of a woman who wants to protect herself with a gun, …well, getting the problem backwards). Salazar’s argument that a woman might accidentally kill someone who isn’t attacking her is misplaced at best. Concerns over accidental gunfire, mistaken shootings, or crimes of passion, etc. require a much larger scope of considerations. Putting them all on the shoulders of a single woman (hypothetical or otherwise), particularly one in fear of genuine harm is foolishness taken to 11. And to hear Salazar  making this entire case while using a universal ‘you’  throughout the speech (as if he spoke from experience) lends the whole thing a real fingernails-on-chalkboard experience.

All in all, it’s a thoroughly mockable performance. Apparently, the University of Colorado didn’t help matters by publishing some truly awful advice to rape victims on its website. And of course the point of the #LiberalTips2AvoidRape hashtag is to mock Salazar’s performance (and that of the University). …and of course to cash in on the mockery so as to finesse a number of tough questions.

Many of the tweets mocking Salazar seem to miss the basic context of the debate itself, suggesting that he thinks whistles will work most anyplace. He wasn’t. He was talking about whistles on and around a college campus. Others suggest that Salazar wants to disarm women in general, which is just a blatant misrepresentation of Salazar’s actual comments. Salazar’s suggestion that women might not know if they are about to be attacked has been taken as a suggestion that they will not know when they are actually being raped. It would seem that Salazar’s own foolishness makes a good license to add to it with a range of subtle (and not-so-subtle) misrepresentations.

The hashtag serves as an excellent vehicle for abstracting the larger question, and enabling right wing net-warriors to present their own values as the default judgement. Instead of making a case that women would be safer on campus with a gun than simply relying on all the other devices available on campus, one can simply mock Salazar (and liberals in general) for believing that a whistle could stop a rapist.  And if folks would prefer to think of this in terms of an imaginary scenario where no-one else is around, well then, how many folks would check them on the fact. (It doesn’t help that Twitter tends t suspend accounts that engage in direct debate, so mistakes or distortions of this kind typically go unchallenged.) Perhaps this is one of the means by which social media seem to facilitate polarization of the issues. What can you say in a hundred and forty characters that won’t be some variety of ‘y’all suck!’

No, I’m not concerned about about netiquette here. Some people do suck, and I have no problem when folks want to call them out for it. What does concern me is the degree to which this new whipping boy for the right seems to be serving as a short-cut right through an interesting discussion about whether or not we (as a nation) want to open up a variety of safe zones to gun owners. I’m also fascinated by the degree to which the status quo for college campuses has, at least in the minds of the right wing, become a form of lunacy. Why make the case for your own policy preferences when you can simply point at Joe Salazar and watch the left squirm? And through all of this, the bulk of the public will never hear a solid case for the net-effect of changing gun-laws on college campuses.

The prospects for a reasonable discussion of gun-control have never been very good.

Today, they just got a little worse.