Volume XXXV, Issue 4, May 10, 2013
It might appear to some that we’ve made progress since last semester. With the publication of multiple survivor accounts, the formation of committees, and the participation of students in targeted dialogues, life on campus has been constantly accompanied by a communal fervor to address the issue of sexual respect. To be sure, the College began to make changes at an accelerated rate compared to the pace at which President Martin acted prior to the publication of Angie’s account. The Day of Dialogue was arranged, and student meetings continued to be held throughout the semester to discuss the topics raised in those first couple months. And yet, while it seemed that the Amherst community was making progress, a crippling mistake was being made in the discourse surrounding the issue of sexual respect and freedom of opinion. On the surface, the issue of rape and sexual assault appears to be a simple one. Rape is always bad. Sexual assault is always bad. Thesethings are true, but they do not address the full scope of the problem facing our community. While we were dealing with complicated questions about how to support survivors, punish assailants and rapists, and make changes to the College’s policies and procedures, an environment was cultivated in which the problem—along with all its nuances and complexities—was presented as being as simple as right and wrong. The result was that the most active, adamant, and vocal students on campus began speaking from a perspective of the moral high ground.
I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. Rape is morally wrong. But the way the campus discussion developed based on this simplistic viewpoint may have sent the movement in the wrong direction. Despite the focus on honest discussion and open dialogue, the message coming from a good amount of the most informed and outwardly passionate students and com- munity members was somewhat suffocating.
Based on the assertion that these individuals were morally “in the right,” the tone of on-campus talks (whether in formal settings or in Val) turned condescending and even angry, and students challenging the broad assertions being made by the few loud voices were responded to in a concerning manner. Whether questioning out of doubt, curiosity, concern, confusion, or frustration, students going against the grain even a little bit tended to be answered either with an attempt to “enlighten the ignorant,” or worse, with a response that vilified them for even asking. People with ideas or questions that weren’t exactly aligned with the agenda of those on the moral high ground were sometimes labeled as victim-blamers, contributors to a culture of violence against women, elitists in denial, oblivious enjoyers of privilege, and complicit members of a community that sweeps rape under the rug.
As someone who was indirectly called a victim-blamer for raising my hand at a talk to ask how consent should be defined in our handbook, I can say that the effect of this type of discourse was oppressive. I did not feel that the supposedly open forums on campus were safe spaces to voice my ideas and opinions. In fact, I felt silenced. I don’t think I’m the only person on campus who would have been a vocal, involved, fervent part of the fight against sexual disrespect had I not felt continually shut down.
In my opinion, the alienating effects of this dynamic have hurt our progress toward eliminating rape at Amherst College. Silencing certain voices on campus has led to the avoidance of many difficult questions surrounding the issue of sexual assault and rape. It also contributed to the “quieting down” of the community on this topic. While there are still many active individuals and groups, talk has subsided since last semester, apart from a few sporadic discussions, including the one following Professor Dumm’s article (although from what I read online, that discussion seemed to suffer from the same kind of binary rhetoric). Of course, it is natural for a community to calm down after a while; not every person who walked in the rally will hold a picket sign for the rest of the year. But I strongly believe that over interterm, a chunk of campus simply accepted the assertions of the very vocal, and, discouraged, they refrained from re-entering the discussion. Nonetheless, it is my hope that the dynamic of dialogue on campus becomes more open to tackling difficult questions, and that Amherst doesn’t settle further back into silence over the summer.