Humanizing the Other Side of Sexual Respect

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(Craig Campbell)– Think back to your Freshman Orientation. Recall the lectures that were designed to imbue you with enthusiasm for the four years ahead of you at Amherst. How many times did you hear the phrases “celebrate diversity,” “cross boundaries,” and “conduct meaningful dialogue”? Like any cliché (or Warhol print), if presented enough times, these statements become trite and fail to make an impression on us.

In the wake of the recent uproar over Amherst College’s sexual misconduct policy, I urge readers to recall what those speakers really meant by “opening a meaningful dialogue.” By definition, a dialogue has two sides; likewise, any constructive conversation respects, considers, and synthesizes plural perspectives.

As a student body, we were appropriately outraged by Angie’s harrowing account of the College’s failure to treat her with dignity. We were appropriately outraged by Dana’s report on the previously ignored issue of the TD t-shirt. And we, the student body of Amherst College, should be appropriately excited that their stories are garnering national attention in articles on the likes of Huffington Post and Salon.

But, if our Amherst education teaches us one thing, it should be to remain critical of what we read. The testimonial of a survivor and the report of a fraternity t-shirt are two separate issues that call for fury, which as a student body we’ve provided, and serious attention, which the administration is currently addressing. But the media has conflated those two accounts, creating one image of a rape-apologetic, victim-abusing, misogynistic-at-its-core college – an institution whose Jezebel headline simply reads “RAPE RAPE.” The sentiment is noble, of course – these outlets are helping to effect change that is deeply needed. But it is all too easy to get swept up in the viral enthusiasm and become part of a mob blindly demanding action: Kony 2012 and the Arab Spring should remind us to be wary of finger pointing and immediately assigning blame.

I am proud of Amherst College. In four days, our student body and our campus leaders have demonstrated that we have the capacity to make change happen. We have demonstrated through our protests, petitions, articles, vigils, and Facebook statuses that we earnestly want to see an end to the culture of silence at this school. But rape and rape culture is not endemic to Amherst College – it is an insidious problem faced by universities across the country – and I believe that we can reframe the events of the past week to show that we can set a positive example in the discourse of sexual respect.

Anything that you read on AC Voice, or in the editorial section of The Student, is an opinion editorial, and we need to remember to regard them as such. When I read Angie’s story, I was mortified and deeply saddened. But I was also sickened by some of the responses in the comment section. Many commenters from across the nation poured out love and support for her. Many others, though, fought with one another in increasingly violent language over the veracity of her claims. As an op-ed, the “truth value” of the minutia is irrelevant: we must open our hearts in sympathy to her heartbreaking experience, and we must search for ways to prevent her experience from happening to anyone ever again. She voiced frustration over the combination of actions taken by the misguided official policy of the administration, the legally required actions taken by the counseling center, and the insensitive reactions of Amherst students – all of these disparate entities have contributed to the “rusty taste of shame” that we’ve now united to protest.

But, many commenters of Angie’s piece became fixated with denouncing her “detractors.” For every one comment that expressed – sometimes insultingly and other times apologetically – an alternate opinion on the ongoing conversation of sexual respect, dozens of others responded aggressively with scorn and disgust. I read comments that demanded the name and address of Angie’s rapist, explicitly stating the desire to smear his reputation in response to the pain inflicted on her. I read comments that wished for his penis to be churned in a blender. I read comments angrily urging readers to “teach men not to rape,” indicting the entirety of the male gender for the actions of a limited number of rapists. Do those comments deserve amnesty because they are generally supportive of survivors’ rights? Can one articulate a critique of those kinds of statements, or offer an alternative view of the situation, without being immediately discounted and labeled a victim-blaming rape apologist?

The school’s policies that stood in the way of justice for Angie have been in place since before President Martin’s administration, before even the administration of Tony Marx and Dean Allen Hart, back to the years that Amherst was an all-male institution. As we’ve clearly seen, these policies are archaic and no longer appropriate, and the disciplinary procedure is in the process of being amended. So I urge students, in their scathing condemnation of the administration and its policies, to remember that these are real people. All too often and all too easily we demonize “the Government” or “the System,” ultimately waging war against “the Man.” In the past week, I fear that we have done the same thing to “the Administration.” At this school, Biddy Martin is “the Man.” The administration is a collection of actual individuals. They have names. You’ve probably met some of them. The members of the administration who make decisions regarding student affairs are Carolyn Martin, Charri Boykin-East, Patricia O’Hara, Torin Moore, Carolyn Bassett, Denise McGoldrick, and Liza Nascembeni. President Martin has made it clear that she desires change in the school’s policy regarding sexual respect. I worry that students forget that her administration had been making efforts, before Dana’s and Angie’s articles, to be in better accordance with gender equality on college campuses as specified by Title IX.

Keep in mind that the members of TD, now finally facing the consequences of their mistake, are our peers at this school. You probably have class with one of them. Amid all the vitriol, our outrage with these people – whether fraternity members, alleged assailants, or administrators – is being heard by these individuals, who are all imperfect human beings capable of change, just like you and I.

We are right to be angry. But when we fight fire with fire and respond to violence with violent rhetoric, the “meaningful conversation” is reduced to name calling and finger pointing. In our need to assign blame to something we can view as an enemy, we risk losing sight of the heart of the problem.

I have very close friends who are survivors. I’ve witnessed panicked reactions to triggering situations and seen the fear incited by a rapist’s continued presence on campus. I share your horror at Angie’s story, and I believe that I’m a part of the fight for sexual respect on Amherst’s campus. I am a constantly evolving feminist, but I realize that despite this I am still capable of making offensive comments, and this fact certainly does not excuse my statements from criticism. But I ask, even if you do not agree, that before running for pitchforks you respect an alternative reading of the situation and allow for this dialogue to truly be meaningful.