September 17, 2014

Humpty Dumpty, Corey Yung, and the Crisis of Campus Rape

Corey Yung asks whether there is a sexual assault crisis on college campuses and answers his own question both "yes" and "no." He gets it half right.

Most of Yung's post examines statistics. After doing so, he concludes:
So, based upon that assessment, is there a sexual assault crisis on campuses? It depends. If by "crisis" you mean an escalating problem based upon increasing rates of sexual assault, then I don’t think so. However, if by "crisis" you mean a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications, then the best evidence supports that conclusion.
As conclusions go, this is unhelpful.

Restated in plain English, the answer to Yung's question simply should be "no." For there is only a "crisis" if we redefine the word in an idiosyncratic fashion inconsistent with how educated speakers use the term. A "crisis" is "a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger." New Oxford American Dictionary 410 (3d ed. 2010). By definition, the term only has meaning with reference to other, less difficult, troublesome, or dangerous times or circumstances (i.e., it is the intensification of difficulty, trouble, or danger that distinguishes a crisis from circumstances that are not crises). The word implicitly encompasses a temporal comparison. In other words, using "crisis" to signify "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications" is not compatible with the accepted meaning of the word. Indeed, Yung's second use of the word is not even coherent. Rape (and other forms of violence) have been "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications" for the duration of human history. But it would be nonsensical to refer to the entirety of human history as constituting a rape crisis.

Through the Looking Glass is over-referenced in legal debates and literature. But the comparison is altogether apt here, with Yung in the role of Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty took the book and looked at it carefully. 'That seems to be done right —'he began.

'You're holding it upside down!' Alice interrupted.

'To be sure I was!' Humpty Dumpty said gaily as she turned it round for him. 'I thought it looked a little queer. As I was saying, that seems to be done right — though I haven't time to look it over thoroughly just now — and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents —'

'Certainly,' said Alice.

'And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'
Respectfully, I think we are entitled to presume lack of merit (and perhaps even lack of good faith) in an argument that depends on a surreptitious and unjustified redefinition of accepted terminology. Yung's transformative use of the word "crisis" is surreptitious in the sense that he matter-of-factly uses the word to mean "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications” as if this is an ordinary use of the term as it is commonly understood and unjustified in the sense that Yung provides no argument as to why this transformation in meaning is unobjectionable.


I made the preceding criticism in a more concise fashion in the comments to Yung's post. He does not cover himself in glory in his response, which I reprint here in full:
Or maybe, just maybe, "crisis" has multiple meanings. I’m at home and am limited to online sources, but . . .

Oxford English: a time when a difficult or important decision must be made

Merriam-Webster: a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention

It seems strange to presume bad faith/merit by an author when I could have simply posted part of Figure 1 and said we have a "crisis" that is getting worse. Instead, I actually say you can’t rely on the stats that, taken at face value, strongly indicate an escalating crisis. I think there is an ongoing crisis on university campuses, but not an increasing one (which I will be exploring in future posts as well). Hardly the conclusion of a blinded ideologue.

Cherry-picking one possible definition of a word, on the other hand, seems like bad faith to me.
Where to begin?

Words often do have multiple and even different meanings, depending on context. But which of the two definitions that Yung newly puts forward in his comment supports (or even bears a material similarity to) the definition that he used in his original post, specifically "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications"? Neither, I think.

The full definition of "crisis" listed in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary does not approximate the one Yung offered in his original post in any fashion. It lists the following definitions:
1a: the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever

b: a paroxysmal attack of pain, distress, or disordered function

c: an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person’s life

2: the decisive moment (as in a literary plot)

3a: an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome

b: a situation that has reached a critical phase
Note that a temporal comparison or significant change in circumstances is inherent in each of the preceding definitions. In other words, a "crisis" involves an implicit comparison—a set of circumstances can only be a "crisis" with respect to some other set of circumstances in a different time or place even under Merriam-Webster's definition.

Sure, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary does begin with the less specific definition that Yung supplies in his comment ("a difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention") before providing the full definition I have excerpted above. But a temporal or circumstantial comparison is inherent even in the less specific definition on which Yung relies—i.e., why does the present situation command our serious attention now as opposed to previously? The same is no less true of the second definition that Yung supplied in his comment ("a time when a difficult or important decision must be made")—i.e., why does a set of circumstances now require a difficult decision to be made as opposed to at some other point in time or place?

But the definition of crisis that Yung put forward in his original post—"a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications"—lacks this comparative aspect. And as a result, "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications" simply is not sustainable as a definition of "crisis." If Yung thinks otherwise, he ought to offer an actual argument in favor of the appropriateness of his usage of the word "crisis" in the context of the campus-rape debate (or in any other context for that matter).

Finally, as for bad faith, I noted that Yung's argument "perhaps" warranted this assumption. I think his citation of Merriam-Webster without noting that its full definition utterly contradicts his argument arguably is compatible with bad faith as well. But there are alternative explanations, of course. Yung simply may not appreciate the rhetorical sleight-of-hand that his argument represents. Even if made in the best of faith, however, Yung's argument that there is a "crisis" is meritless.

Second Update:

Corey Yung once again has attempted to defend his position in the comments to his original post. I don't think he makes any progress. A handful of points:

1. Yung bizarrely claims that definition 3b from Merriam-Webster's online dictionary contradicts my definition of "crisis." He writes:

Even under the complete definitions from Merriam-Webster, 3b is at odds with your narrow conception of the term.
Remember, my contention is that some change in circumstances over time is inherent in the defintion of crisis. Merriam-Webster’s definition 3b is not compatible with Yung's usage, and in fact it contains the very idea that I maintain is essential to the definition of "crisis." The notion that a situation has reached a critical phase is pregnant with the idea that it previously occupied some other phase—a non-acute phase. In other words, change over time is again inherent in its meaning.

2. Yung tries to reframe the debate to his advantage in a fashion that misstates my position in some pretty obvious ways. First, he writes that he is "arguing in favor of multiple interpretations of the same word" and that I am contending that "there is one, exclusive definition." On its face, this argument is nonsensical, given that I have explicitly quoted multiple defintions and have not contended that any of them (but the one Yung has invented out of whole cloth) are invalid. Rather what I am saying is that all of definitions of "crisis" have one thing in common—a change of circumstances over time, specifically a deterioration in situation, escalation of danger, or the like, and that this is fundamental to these definitions. Without this feature, the term really does not have any useful meaning. To reprise the theme, murder, for example, has been "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications" in all times and places in human history. If this a crisis makes, then we dwell in a state of perpetual, insoluble crisis. But that is not how anyone uses the term. We do not refer to a generic, omnipresent murder crisis. But we might refer to some statistically significant increase in murder rates in a particular time or place (relative to other times or places) as a crisis.

Second, Yung also contends that I am arguing that a "crisis" is "exclusively marked by a rapid change in circumstances." But one will search in vain for this claim in anything I have written. I have argued that a change in circumstances over time is inherent in the meaning of the word "crisis." The length of time is irrelevant. Crises may arise suddenly or result from a long train of events. Either way, some change is required over time, which is why we commonly hear that something has become a crisis or developed into a crisis.

3. Yung asserts that his definition of "crisis" is "entirely non-controversial." I say asserts, because in the end he does not provide any actual argument that it is so. "Crisis" is a frequently used term with an unambiguous, well-accepted meaning or cluster of meanings. Yung has not explained how his definition of the term corresponds to the dictionary definitions. Nor has he cited any examples of common usage that comport with his definition of the term. If his definition truly fits within the accepted constellation of meanings, it should be child's play for Yung to produce examples. The fact that he cannot do so is telling.

Yung does cite three newpaper article headlines. It is less than clear what he intends to prove with this evidence, but he appears to think that these headlines support his definition of "crisis" as "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications." Nothing could be further from the truth, and this will be plain to anyone with a basic grasp of English. Here are the three headlines he cites:
"Ebola Crisis Puts Sierra Leone on Three-Day National Lockdown"

"Utah facing affordable housing crisis, advocates tell lawmakers"

"Financial Crisis, Six Years On: Liquidating Lehman"
Let's address each in turn.

Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone headline almost explicitly contradicts Yung's usage. It indicates a deterioration in circumstances or increase in danger (whether real or merely perceived), hence the advent of the lockdown.

Utah. The Utah headline is more difficult to parse. Taking the housing advocates’ position at face value, presumably there was a prior point at which there was not an acute shortage of affordable housing in Utah. Markets are not static after all. But the headline alone supplies little context as to how the term "crisis" is being used. If you google the headline, however, the actual story is available and it confirms a worsening of circumstances over time is at issue. See Marjorie Cortez, Utah facing affordable housing crisis, advocates tell lawmakers, Deseret News, Sept. 17, 2014 ("As the demand for housing has increased, federal funding has remained stagnant, largely because Congress has been deadlocked on budget bills.").

Lehman. The Lehman article implicitly contradicts Yung's position. It does suggest that the financial crisis is longstanding. But the debate here is not about whether a crisis can endure for a substantial time; it is about what makes a set of circumstances a crisis in the first place. The fact that the Lehman headline pinpoints a time of origin—i.e., six years ago—implicitly suggests that something occurred at that point in time that made the situation a crisis. However bad the situation might have been previously, something happened six years ago—things got worse, worse enough to become a crisis.

And what explanation does Yung provide as to how these headlines support his definition of "crisis" as "a serious ongoing problem with significant ramifications"? None.

4. Yung protests that there is no sleight-of-hand in his redefinition of "crisis." He writes:
I’m not sure any agreement is possible on this, but the notion that a crisis can simply be a serious situation without a time-comparative piece strikes me as entirely non-controversial. Regardless, in my post, I clearly set out two possible definitions of the term and engage in no sleight of hand. If you choose to reject one definition I use, that is your choice, but hardly indicative of general consensus against it as a viable interpretation. Rarely will you find a blog post that so transparently offers definitions of the term used.
I have to say I honestly cannot tell whether Yung's obtuseness here is affected or genuine. Of course, he offers an explicit definition of "crisis" in his post. The sleight-of-hand, however, consists of defining the word in a fashion incompatible with its ordinary meaning and nonchalantly presenting this non-standard definition as "entirely non-controversial." Yung in effect is making a rather controversial claim about whether the situation constitutes a crisis via the redefinition of the term without acknowledging it, let alone providing some argument in favor of this redefinition of the term.

5. Finally, I think Yung makes a concession that reinforces the mistaken and inadequate nature of his definition of "crisis." Yung states:
Of course, "crisis" is a comparative term in that there must be a category of "not crisis." . . . "Crisis," as supported by common usage and dictionary definitions, can be defined solely by the potential negative ramifications ('difficult[y] or dangerous[ness]') of the situation insofar as there is a strong normative argument for acting to rectify it ('needs serious attention').
The difficulty with this definition of "crisis" is that it supplies no means of distinguishing between scenarios that are crises and those that are not. A difficulty or danger significant enough to warrant attention may or may not be a crisis—not every public policy issue that merits redress is a crisis. Under Yung's redefinition of the term, virtually any serious problem that arguably should be addressed constitutes a crisis, or at the very least cannot be distinguished from situations that are crises. And as Yung concedes, our definition of "crisis" has to have some content separating it from that which is "not crisis."
Posted by Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk at 04:56 PM | Comments (0)