How ‘Emotional Reasoning’ Informs Current Campus Sexual Assault Hysteria

August 11, 2015

By Ashe Schow at Washington Examiner

The notion that one’s negative feelings reflect reality is permeating our college campuses when it comes to free speech and sexual assault.

In an informative article for the Atlantic, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tackle “The Coddling of the American Mind” — specifically how “microagressions” and “trigger warnings” are leading to mental health problems on college campuses.

While discussing the reality distortions identified by cognitive behavioral therapy, Lukianoff and Haidt invoke the concept of “emotional reasoning,” defined by adjunct psychiatric professor David D. Burns as assuming “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’ ” The distortion is also defined by other cognitive therapy experts as letting “your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.”

Internet commenters might recognize this as “the feelz.” Although Lukianoff and Haidt restrict their explanation of “emotional reasoning” to college speech codes, it also applies to the way campus sexual assault is now treated.

As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, “subjective feelings are not always trustworthy guides; unrestrained, they can cause people to lash out at others who have done nothing wrong.” This is the case for some sexual assault accusations, where feelings of regret in the weeks, months or even years after an encounter suddenly feel like evidence that another person committed a heinous crime.

We saw this in the case of John Doe at Washington & Lee University. John’s accuser attended a presentation by the school’s Title IX officer Lauren Kozak, who asserted that “regret equals rape.” This truly dangerous idea is an emerging concept being supported by various individuals, including herself.

The idea that feelings, developed over time and after the intervention of college administrators or therapists, have been shaping attitudes toward sexual assault with devastating consequences. Even one of the top advisers to colleges on the issue, Brett Sokolow, acknowledged that sometimes accusers “genuinely believe they have been assaulted, despite overwhelming proof that it did not happen.”

That belief is coming from their own negative feelings, which may be caused by other things, such as being away from home for the first time, poor academic performance (doing well in high school doesn’t necessarily translate to college success) and any number of other issues. But after attending presentations such as Kozak’s, or classes taught by feminist professors, or unscrupulous therapists, suddenly those bad feelings become someone else’s criminal responsibility.

Lukianoff and Haidt address the now-broadened definition of harassment, which is now elevated to sexual assault.

“[I]n 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply ‘unwelcome.’ Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard — defining unwelcome speech as harassment — not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well,” the two wrote. “Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.”

And in order to ensure that evidence is never doubted, the federal government has forced colleges to remove due process rights for accused students.

You can’t know how someone else will feel about an incident long after the fact, yet on today’s college campuses, those feelings can get someone branded a rapist who never actually broke any law.