The Emma Sulkowicz Generation


Columbia University recently held its commencement ceremonies, which gives us all another reason to talk about one of the worst people in America, Emma Sulkowicz. For those who are unfamiliar with this particular sordid tale, Emma Sulkowicz was a Columbia university student who claimed that she was brutally raped by a friend named Paul Nungesser. There was only one one problem with Sulkowicz’s tale – it was manifest and absolute bulls***, as detailed by a lengthy and thorough Daily Beast article which pointed out the numerous inconsistencies and implausibilities in Sulkowicz’s tale, along with Sulkowicz’ reticence to be forthcoming in response to Nungesser’s offers of proof that the rape never occurred.

But, in keeping with the Churchill adage that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on, Emma Sulkowicz became a hero to the generation that was raised without critical thinking skills before the dust had settled 0n any sort of actual investigation into her claims. And when that dust had settled, it showed conclusively that Sulkowicz’s story was, in fact, a brutal fabrication that had unjustifiably wrecked the life of a young college student. Nungesser was ultimately cleared in multiple university investigations despite the fact that the University was so eager to believe Sulkowicz’ initial claims that it took extraordinary measures to make Nungesser’s life on campus difficult before even informing him of what he was charged with. Nungesser was subsequently also cleared by the NYPD after Sulkowicz decided that she wasn’t done attempting to destroy the life of another actual person in furtherance of her own personal fifteen minutes of fame.

To this generation, however, such meddlesome questions as “Did Paul Nungesser actually rape Emma Sulkowicz” are completely beside the point. What matters is that Sulkowicz is “brave” for having told a story that expresses something that they just know is true, even if the story itself is completely fabricated. It’s a nice bonus if the person in question has a flair for the dramatic and comes up with a catchy form of protest like dragging a mattress around campus for several years.

This is essentially the same phenomenon we saw unfold in Ferguson. As it happens, I’m a firm believer that black men are frequently the victims of excessive force at the hands of police. However, after an exhaustive investigation by the Holder DOJ, it turned out that Michael Brown was not one of them. However, “Hands up, don’t shoot” was simply too good of a protest slogan to give up, the facts be damned.

At this point, anyone who still thinks Emma Sulkowicz is a hero or that Darren Wilson was a criminal has simply closed their mind to the subsequent facts that have been revealed after the initial claims were made.

The real tragedy here is the way this generation processes this information and treats it as though it is irrelevant. Even if you believe that black men are disproportionately the recipients of excessive force by police (probable) or that credible rape victims are routinely ignored by institutions of power (dubious), the actual question of whether Emma Sulkowicz was raped by Paul Nungesser or whether Darren Wilson was actually justified in shooting Michael Brown matter, for at least two reasons.

First, the stories told by Sulkowicz on the one hand and the friends of Michael Brown on the other, have real life consequences for actual people. The lives of Paul Nungesser and Darren Wilson have been irrevocably altered – possibly forever – by the casual slander of people who are trying to sell an agenda. These people essentially justify this behavior to themselves by saying that the public policy goals they are after are worth more than the lives of people they have destroyed. One wonders, though, if these stories are really as widespread as their proponents suppose, why they couldn’t find an actually guilty person to destroy their lives.

Second, in both cases, there are actual, real life people who really do face the injustices in question – and pushing a dubious narrative on behalf of a cause makes it more difficult for those victims to have their stories believed by an increasingly skeptical public. The unraveling of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative made people primed to disbelieve that the police did anything wrong in the case of Eric Garner, or to believe the police were justified in shooting Walter Scott repeatedly in the back, or that Freddie Gray probably somehow broke his own spine. Similarly, the Crystal Mangums, Trelana Brawneys, Jackie from UVA and Emma Sulkowiczs of the world have made it easier for actual rapists to get away with their crimes – because when a public celebrity’s rape narrative falls apart, it lends credence to the suggestion that rape claims are fabricated on a routine basis.

Facts, as they say, are stubborn things. And regardless of the fervent wishes of this narrative-driven generation, they still matter. And the folks who are responsible for attempting to create these narratives had better learn to respect them, or accept the marginalization of their causes to the corners of the Internet echo chambers they inhabit.