The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground is the title of a documentary film about sexual assault on American college campuses. Since its release earlier this year, it has been considered a critical, if controversial, contribution to a national conversation that only recently gained ground.

Its airing last night on CNN is certain further to inflame both sides. The one side argues that the film is an essential chronicle of trauma effecting some 20 to 25 percent of female undergraduates. The other side argues that the film is a distortion of life on campus, that it places advocacy ahead of accuracy and even impugns the reputation of some who don’t deserve it.

My point in this piece is not to take sides. Rather it is to argue that even if the film is, as legal expert Stewart Taylor charged “propaganda,” it is propaganda with a purpose. I do not claim that truth should be sacrificed on the altar of political persuasion. But to exaggerate to make a point, to bring in some facts and leave out others, to ostensibly elevate the powerless while simultaneously denigrating the powerful – all these are typical of propaganda at its most persuasive.

I do not take the film’s deficits lightly. Nevertheless the producer and director of The Hunting Ground have managed to do what no one did before.

  • They gave widespread credence to the idea that sexual assault on college campuses is a major moral as well as legal issue that we must take seriously.
  • They gave widespread credence to a large group of women on college campuses who previously had no voice – none.
  • They gave widespread credence to the virtues of campus activism, to the band of sisters who, by banding together, made a difference.
  • They gave widespread credence to the charge that campus authorities – including college and university presidents – have been derelict in their duty to a large fraction of their student populations.
  • They gave widespread credence to the proposition that money and power play out-sized roles on college campuses – even when it comes to crime.
  • They gave widespread credence to the accusation that there is a yawning gap between what American higher education is supposed to do – provide a safe and secure learning environment for every single student – and what it actually does.

These are no mean accomplishments for filmmakers turned leaders. These are no mean accomplishments for Kirby Dick (director) and Amy Ziering (producer), who are also responsible for an earlier film on sexual assault, The Invisible War, in this case in the military. Dick and Ziering came, in effect, out of nowhere, determined to shine a light on rape –  and did. Whatever the errors of their ways, I defy you to watch either one of these films and deny or even discredit their main message.


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