~ Nathan Gusdorf
Let’s consider some of the arguments surrounding the recent sexual assault protests. The fundmental positions largely track with the following categories: those who support the protesters’ message and disagree with the means, and those who disagree with both their methods and their substantive claims. Few seem to support them completely. Now that they have been subjected to threats and harassment, many show sympathy for their plight but qualify it with opposition to their actions. I think a defense of their work is in order.
I have had to rewrite this letter numerous times, because each time I look the The Dartmouth’s webpage or my Facebook news feed (let’s not even go into to the trash on boredatbaker), some new fanatical position has become the common wisdom. This includes outrage that they have not been prosecuted for trespassing. If you look at many past student movements, that turns out to be a common suppression tactic. The administration wisely did not pursue such measures. In a strange reversal typical of Dartmouth College, it is the students who hold opinions normally reserved for aging conservatives. I turned off my internet connection and decided to push ahead, hoping that Dartmouth could stall its regressive slide toward Strom Thurmond’s political platform long enough for me to write a short piece.
To begin, no one seems to dispute the central claim that sexual assault is a problem on Dartmouth’s campus, so I will assume this is uncontroversial. Doubtless this assumption will alienate the anti–pc, anti–feminazi fans of Dinesh D’Souza and Jonah Goldberg, but that’s a welcome loss. Most of us think that sexual assault occurs far too frequently on campus and that better methods are needed to combat it. Alongside this concern we have recent stories of derogatory graffiti, slurs, and other forms of racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment. So it’s safe to say that the message of the protesters, whether or not you think it is “exaggerated”, reflects a concern shared by many students and all of the administration. This page addresses those who are already sympathetic to their concerns. I won’t bother with trying to provide hard evidence for those who are wondering whether we’re talking about “legitimate rape”, for that is a different matter altogether.
A number of arguments against the protests merit a cursory examination. If sexual assault and discrimination really are unresolved problems, then one might naturally think that some protests are in order. Although by no means a Dartmouth tradition, there have been a handful of protests in recent history (predating Occupy). The Vietnam protests and the Shanty Town protests come to mind. I think today we can all agree that opposition to both the war and Apartheid was duly merited. Why then not sexual violence and discrimination?
Those most sympathetic to the cause readily admit that sexual assault is a problem, but they don’t like the protesters’ attitude. We are mired in demands for “constructive criticism and dialogue”. Although I’m quite sure that in most cases their intentions are sincere, these maneuvers function as little more than bureaucratic stonewalling. Set up a panel, schedule a meeting, use the time to schedule the next meeting, talk about how great it is that you’re talking, and on and on. The operative principle of any bureaucratic system is that it can return any result, so long as everything is done in the right way. In reality, this means that undesirable changes can be avoided by directing their advocates into endless cycles of nonsense. This does not even touch on the fact that typically within those “dialogues” any position too critical of the status quo is seen as rude and inappropriate. These accusations– rudeness, impropriety– are typically levelled against those who say what others do not want to hear. One goes on attempting to be polite and respectful, not stepping on any toes while carefully sharing feelings of dismay or exclusion, and at the end of the day all we are left with is… well, not much, other than knowledge of some people’s feelings. Any truly critical position, any attempt to take the school or the student body to task for structural inequalities, complicity with violence, discrimination, or the like, is dimissed out of hand for not being a “constructive” contribution. We are all familiar with the typical means of bureaucratic stonewalling, not least because we are master students of the trade.
Closely connected to the notion of “constructive criticism” is the demand for solutions. In context, this is ridiculous. If everyone on campus were committed to ending these ills, we wouldn’t have a problem. Clearly there are forces at play that protect and enable offenders. The structure of fraternity–centered social life is an obvious case. There is a power struggle afoot, and the protests were an effort to shift the balance. In any case, the demand for solutions is often enough disingenuous. Any proposal for change that doesn’t satisfy the desires of parties more powerful than rape victims will meet with little success. Other methods are needed.
Finally, in the milquetoast liberal line–up, there is the “counterproductive” argument. “I agree with you! But you hurt the cause by alienating people. It’s counterproductive!” Well, first, this is normally a liberal–moderate tactic that serves, when it succeeds, to put everyone on the left back in a position of powerlessly lamenting the status quo. It is worth noting, however, that sometimes this position is correct. Terrorist tactics are generally counterproductive (and, yes, reprehensible), as left–wing extremists groups of the 70’s like the Red Army Faction or the Weather Underground showed. Those failures can be analyzed reasonably well. If you want to end capitalism and in so attempting kill innocent people, public opinion tends to turn against not just against your organization but against your political project. If widespread violence seems to be requisite for the transition to socialism, then most onlookers will grow reticent about actively seeking out socialism. This situation is markedly different. How many students now think that we maybe shouldn’t end sexual assault on campus? Is anyone actually less concerned about homophobia today than they were the day before Dimensions? Evidently the protesters are not so popular right now, but this is progressive politics, not sales. Being “well–liked” is not the key to success.
Now, to deal with the most sensitive aspect of this matter, the choice of venue. Why prospective students? Because they have an awful lot of power. Alumni have power, students have power, donors have power, but prospective students as a demographic have the most power. A student who decides not to attend dartmouth because they do not want to be raped and hazed has made a powerful decision indeed. I know that the famous Rolling Stone article made the rounds in high school circles where I’m from, and despite the beliefs of Dartmouth students that everyone would assume the article was full of dirty lies, it seriously impacted people’s decisions. Is it a coincidence that this year they made an effort to focus on Dartmouth’s “intellectual side”? Bad publicity exerts pressure, and pressure is what we need. While students are content to work towards “positive solutions”, engage in “constructive criticism and dialogue”, “think innovatively” and otherwise spew neoliberal jargon, prospies have not yet been brainwashed into complacency. Well, some of them at least. So they are the doubly perfect target group for these contentious issues that go right to the heart of Dartmouth’s social problems.
As to the concern that such protests will discourage future activists from coming to the school, one need only play that argument through multiple iterations to see that it doesnt make sense. At what point in the cycle are students allowed to get serious about political action? Must it always be subservient to our most nationalistic impulses, or the university equivalent thereof? Plus, doesn’t it seem blatantly immoral to deceive students into attending?
One more thing that, remarkably, needs to be made clear. Civil disobedience does in fact mean breaking the rules. I am floored by the number of times I have heard or read students arguing , since the days of Occupy, that protest isn’t really nonviolent if it breaks the law, or that civil disobedience doesn’t mean breaking the rules. Any competent speaker of English should be able to deduce from from those terms their proper meanings.
There is a hypothesis that we need to consider, a belief held by the protesters and rejected by the rest of the school. What if we, as a community, are in fact not trying to end these forms of violence. What if, despite the hard work of many a peer advisor and abuse counselor, the net effect of all efforts on campus is to stall change in order to protect old institutions. What if the slow progress we see on this issue is not because we haven’t had enough discussion groups and panels, but because some would rather keep things the way they are? Then wouldn’t the protests be justified?