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Who Fears Discomfort at Haverford?

Do we hear contemporary buzzwords like “terrorist,” “safety,” “comfort,” and “free speech” so often that we take their meanings for granted? Or do we stop to consider: how are they used? Who do we imagine their subjects to be? What associations become naturalized with these words, and why?

Recently, I have been thinking—raging, actually—about the activist work of Feminists United (FU) who, on Friday, December 4th, shared survey results in which students wrote about their experiences with boundary violation at Haverford. FU also projected the text, “Fucked Up Shit Happens Here Too,” onto Haverford’s most well-known building, the structure at the heart of the institution, Founders Hall. FU sought to confront the student body’s largely stable (according to the results of the deans’ Sexual Misconduct Survey) understanding of safety on this campus. And confrontation can be hard to stomach.

I have been thinking about our willingness as a student body to be confronted with unsavory, uncomfortable, and maybe even aggressive challenges. I also have been thinking about who gets the privilege of hearing that their work “challenges” what we name and accept as “discomfort.” I downloaded the anonymous bullying/“discussion” application, Yik Yak, out of an indulgent horror at the student body’s responses to FU’s work, and asked the question:

“Did you ever stop to think that if you feel confronted by FU’s project, you might do well to sit with that discomfort?”

The first response—the most popular response—read: “but discomfort triggers me and I don’t feel safe in my space anymore!” The word “discomfort” has been so coded in contemporary journalism (dominated most recently by the Atlantic) that it seems to have acquired a privileged reading, a privileged signification. Under this understanding, discomfort always already constitutes a reaction-read as unhealthy and censorious-to overt expressions of racism, sexism, etc. The journalistic vogue of criticising college students for attempting to tackle “common sense” understandings of violent language and its significations (that folks allege is a contemporary trend of youth that is anti-intellectual, while needing only to look to Derrida, Butler, and Foucault to see the strong and largely coherent theoretical basis) has codified the word “discomfort” to the level where we literally cannot imagine a meaning for the word other than an affective response to oppressive language.

Despite the rampant idea that all college students would do well to tarry with discomfort, in practice, I have found that “discomfort” is what only a privileged few cry as defense, and it is all-too-often not dwelled on. Illogically, the call for “discomfort” often only happens when students push back against “common-sense” understandings of social power, asking questions about, for instance, the ethical implications of giving a leader who condoned violent police action on students an honorary degree from an institution founded on Quaker values. These conversations would not happen without asking these uncomfortable questions, questions that force us to reckon with difference, difficulty, and institutional values, questions that do not allow for monolithic, secure, or stable understandings of how we as a community and Haverford as an institution function.

Many of the anonymous survey responses on FU’s message board in the Dining Center were not about sexual assault or boundary violation, but rather critiques of the idea that “Fucked Up Shit Happens Here.” In response to the prompt, “Please share any instance(s) in which you have experienced sexual assault or misconduct or you have felt that your boundaries were violated at Haverford,” one student responded “Never. This campus is incredibly safe. We should feel proud of it.” Other responses echoed these sentiments of refusal: “I feel violated by this survey as it is taking a strongly negative tone towards the Haverford community,” or “I would not trust the results of this survey.”

For me, these types of responses show a resistance to being challenged: an aspirational understanding that an individual experience at Haverford could cohere to a community’s, that my truth can be your truth, that a challenge can be just an overreaction or misappropriation of the facts. Rather than taking an opportunity to reflect on how we as a community can undo one another and how one person’s comfort may not be true for everyone, many Haverford students maintain an intellectually and emotionally monolithic view on comfort and respect that does not allow for others’ complex personhood.

I have noticed, in the wake of FU’s initiative, a fear of confrontation. Others have told me, “FU is too aggressive,” or “they’d do better to be less political.” While recognizing that self-criticism and receptiveness to growth are key to any social movement, what is most terrifying to me is what we talk about when we talk about FU. Do we talk about the experiences of sexual assault survivors? Do we talk about egregious wrongs that students commit against one another? And then, do we talk about the murky gray areas that the words on the board suggest, of the ways that we can all be complacent in hurting one another? Do we listen to survivors? Or do we blame an organization for being loud about its cause, ignoring the unsettling and undoing words of survivors, and taking the easier route of getting wrapped up in semantics instead of tarrying with another’s lived experience?

I have not heard a word on campus about the survivors whose bravery makes up this project, only arguments on respectability and negotiation. And this focus on the means of confrontation, rather than the content of it, makes me wonder if this critical trend is merely an excuse to not listen to survivors, to ignore their realities under the guise of “bad tactics.”

Again, every social movement can always improve and should always be self-critically re-examining its own tactics. However, I have not heard any criticisms of sexual assault on campus in the wake of this survey. I have only heard criticisms of the premise that some students feel unsafe, or, criticisms of feminism, “aggression,” and semantics. That terrifies me, and that is what makes me feel like in some ways it wouldn’t matter how FU went about its message-because we still are not talking about sexual assault, boundary violation, or how we as a community are implicated in the pain of one another. “Aggressive tactics” merely provide an easy way to shut these uncomfortable ideas out. As FU leader Kaylynn Mayo ’17 wrote, “If you have a problem with the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ more than you have a problem with the fact that people on this campus are sexually assaulted and do not feel safe then YOU are part of the problem and really, really need to evaluate your privilege.”

Reckoning with Haverford as a community that makes its students feel supported, unheard, loved, cared for, undone, ignored, alienated, important, accepted, confused, welcome, listened to, lonely, entitled, inspired, othered, frustrated, empowered, hopeless, and exuberant all at once is hard. Reckoning with the idea that “nice guys” can commit violence, that a well-liked, seemingly-happy person might be struggling the most, that you might deeply hurt another person unknowingly and with only the best intentions, is hard. But if we are truly committed to discomfort and complex personhood, we must take more time to dwell in the difficulty of what it truly means to co-exist in a community that can mean many different things to many different people, a community where we live with and alongside hurt.