College Activism Needs to Get Better Than This Student Accusing Dozens of Peers of Rape
I’m an alumna of Middlebury College, a bucolic liberal arts institution nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges in one of the more well-to-do towns in Vermont. In this serene, manicured setting, protests look like a blight on the immaculate body of the school. True, I think, of many liberal bastions that are very impressed with their students; they want nothing to be wrong, and so life gets muted. Life gets academic.
Which may help to explain why a great deal of campus activism at my alma mater is so extreme: in a stillness so deafening, it sometimes feels the only appropriate response is to scream. And too often, this is what student activists do: they mistake making a very loud statement for effective activism. What Middlebury student-activists – and I imagine activists at many, many other colleges, but I’ll stick with what I know – need to realize is that a careful consideration of the facts and an honest, open conversation about what can be done better is the only effective approach to change. I have seen time and time again how my peers have failed at that, even with the best of intentions, and to be honest, I’m sick of it.
The most recent example I have, and the catalyst for this piece, occurred this past December. A student-activist named Elizabeth Dunn made a Facebook post with a “List of Men to Avoid” at Middlebury with names of about 35 male students and parentheses next to their names detailing their alleged crimes. These range from “rapist” to “made fetishistic, racist, sexual comments about Black women.”
“Here’s to not being complicit in 2018, and feel free to dm me more names to add to this status because I could really give a fuck about protecting the privacy of abusers,” Dunn wrote, adding a heart emoji. Dunn did not respond to requests for comment.
Let me say this right off the bat: Publicly calling people rapists is a serious, potentially damning accusation that has the capacity to ruin innocent people’s lives. It also feels inappropriate at best to mention alleged “rapists” and “fetishistic” men in the same breath, as pointed out by someone who was named on the list and spoke with Babe about the events. That being said, when I first heard this happened, I thought Elizabeth was brave to disseminate a list of names of potential abusers. More than that, I loved the diligence required to confirm with every last one of the survivors who had been abused that the names should be published so that others might be spared.
Assuming Elizabeth had that level of follow-through was my mistake.
As the editorial board of school newspaper The Middlebury Campus wrote:
“Someone in our community felt compelled to compile this list of men who are allegedly guilty of sexual violence on multiple occasions, not to mention all the unnamed men. It’s also important to note that not all of the aforementioned survivors consented to having their stories shared, a fact that demonstrates yet another troubling aspect of the situation.”
The authors of this piece had information that I had simply presumed could not be true: not all the survivors consented to having the names of their alleged abusers published online for the public to see.
It’s time to bang my replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane. The method of distribution was highly problematic, but in a slightly modified format, not completely unjustified if you want to protect fellow students and don’t want to go through a judicial process to do so. But the survivors must always have consent. If these names were told to Dunn in confidence and she took it upon herself to post them, it betrays students’ trust and may hurt them further. Because of this, the action seems, to me, unconscionable. Secondarily, it’s ineffective student activism, because now everyone’s focused on the poor execution rather than the message.
Here’s another example of that point: In late 2012, when I was still a student at Middlebury, a group of students tried to raise awareness about the inherent contradiction of having the Dalai Lama – a worldwide symbol of peace – visit campus when the school was presumably invested in fossil fuels, which perpetuate war. They could have chosen any number of ways to bring up this concern, but they chose to send an all-campus email as a fake administrator announcing that Middlebury has divested from fossil fuels, creating widespread confusion and inviting the hammer of the administration. Students buzzed about what the group did rather than what the group stood for; people eagerly awaited the group’s judicial hearing, which they’d chosen to make public to the community, to see what they’d do next. Hundreds of students showed up to that hearing. The student group, who called themselves the Dalai Lama Welcoming Committee, used the time they were meant to be defending their actions to preach about worldwide hate and suffering instead of making their case. Many students, myself included, got up in the middle of this display and left the room in frustration. These students were given an enormous platform to explain why it was necessary to break campus rules to make the community better, and they failed spectacularly in doing so. They didn’t think; they just yelled.
Yet another example of this kind of poorly thought-out activism made national news for all the wrong reasons. Middlebury’s AEI chapter invited scholar Charles Murray to speak on campus. In his writings, most notably his 1994 book The Bell Curve, Murray posits that different races possess different intellectual abilities, a claim that the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “racist pseudoscience.” Many students boycotted the event in protest. However, a group of very vocal and very angry students filled the small auditorium almost to capacity. Save a couple of people, the whole room turned their backs to the podium when Murray arrived onstage and refused to let him speak by drowning him out with chanting. The scene later devolved into violence, mostly on the part of non-Middlebury students, and a professor was injured. I spoke with a former professor about this later, who chose to remain anonymous. That professor wrote me in an email: “Consider what was lost today. It won’t be easy to recover from it, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, which means a dangerous precedent has been established at Middlebury.”
That precedent, in my mind, is this: Whoever screams louder has the best point. It’s untrue and it’s dangerous. It undermines and insults the quality of the education I and so many others received and continue to receive at Middlebury. It absolutely infuriates me when a small group of people who think that doing something daring but not thoroughly considered become, in the eyes of those on the outside, indicative of the institution and its values. Not so. That I want to scream from the rooftops: Not. So. We were taught to be better than this, and as a whole, we are.
The students organizing in Parkland, FL set an example for how student activism ought to progress. They are working within the system to change it; they are being loud but not drowning out the opposition; they’re peacefully assembling to make their opinions known to higher-ups; and most importantly, they’re planning their steps very carefully. They’re not rushing into this debate fueled by hate and anger, even though they have every right to be. Instead, they’re using their considerable maturity and poise to bolster their arguments and their standing.
I have no doubt that college activism, if done intentionally, can be equally effective.
[image via screengrab]
Follow Rachel Dicker on Twitter @rachelmdicker
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.