Volume XXXV, Issue 4, May 10, 2013
It’s been five months since President Martin declared a moratorium on campus activity and 1,900 students, faculty, and staff gathered in LeFrak for a “Day of Dialogue.” Ever since, a paradox has permeated our conversations about sexual misconduct. That paradox is: We consider ourselves “complicit” in the culture that made experiences like Angie’s possible. Consequently, we—particularly the men in our com- munity—don’t feel responsible (that is, obliged to denounce the derogatory language and practices that perpetuate that culture). Instead, many of us feel guilty, regardless of whether we have actually committed an assault.
The “Day of Dialogue” testified to this sense of collective guilt. Professor Cobham-Sander lectured on privilege as something that has infected us all and has always been a presence on campus but is only now being revealed. Calls were made to steer the discussion away from implicating particular groups on campus and to implement bystander training programs. In a webcast following the event, for instance, consultant Gina Smith emphasized “the importance…of taking the keys away from someone who is about to drive while under the influence,” likening an inebriated sexual offender to a drunk driver. No mention was made of the fact that nine out of ten campus rapes are perpetrated by repeat offend- ers, nor of the possibility—to which TD’s infamous t-shirt attests—that particular campus groups have contributed more intensely to the climate of misogyny. Sexual assault was construed as more oversight than offense, an offshoot of our collective negligence, rather than a crime perpetrated by individuals. As a result, the event circled in silence the bare fact of guilt that prompted the moratorium: There are students among us who have committed sexual assault.
In Responsibility and Judgment, political theorist Hannah Arendt argues that “the cry ‘We are all guilty’ that at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting actually has only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal….‘We are all guilty’ is actually a declaration of solidarity with the wrongdoers.” In this way, it’s easier to blame “the system”—to say “we’re all guilty.” Because that way we don’t have to take the active stance of responsibility—and, in doing so, face with honesty and courage our own infractions and those of our friends. However, guilt, a moral category and not a political one, can only hope to invoke an apology or confession. To the extent that we find ourselves feeling guilty or ashamed for that which we cannot control, that which is some part of who we are—for example, being male—the apology does no good and is actually a way of circumventing action.
Now we speak directly to you, the frustrated sufferers who don’t know what else to do except feel bad. To the extent that you can, we’re asking you to step away from guilt and instead to take up the mindset of responsibility. We owe it to ourselves to try and think through the exhausted defensiveness that has overtaken our campus.
To male friends, classmates, and colleagues: Stop apologizing for being born male (or white, or straight, or American, or…). It’s not useful, and we’re as tired of hearing it as you must be of saying it. For one thing, it’s too easy to hide behind. For another, we are, generally speaking, truly thrilled you were born. We’re glad you’re here at Amherst, and we’re glad we’re all working through this together. We have high expectations for you, we need to talk to each other, and we need you at your fighting weight and not unduly burdened by apolitical guilt. There are real limits to these guilt-based arguments, according to which as long as your life exists, the stain on your soul exists too. To cease to exist would be the only escape. But political space, which shame bars all of us from entering, requires your existence, requires us to be able to interact with this shift from guilt to responsibility is asking a lot. It is asking for each other, talk to each other, push each other.
This shift from guilt to responsibility is asking a lot. It is asking for the kind of sustained self-awareness and willingness to be accountable to others that generates with its own energy nothing less than a new way of relating to each other. Beyond apologies and confessions, the best that narratives of guilt allow us is the fantastical idea of a return to the community we once were and could be again, before the stains appeared on our souls. Of course, such a community never existed and by the enduring logic of the fall from the Garden, can never exist again. Narratives of responsibility allow us to imagine a new and responsive community—not a paradise rooted in the logic of the past, but an unknown waiting in our future.