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.
Yesss Maddy!! This article is everything.
The issue I take with FU’s DC board doesn’t have to do with them being “aggressive” or “confrontational.” My issue lies purely with how the discussion was framed. A “survey” is an objective, empirical method of gathering data about the opinions/thoughts/experiences of a group of people. The way FU called their email a “survey” and had a question specifically requesting “any instance(s) in which you have experienced sexual assault or misconduct or you have felt that your boundaries were violated at Haverford,” they might as well have been just targeting survivors of sexual assault/harassment to come forward with their stories. No student of color likes in when, during a PAF discussion, an issue of ethnic or racial minorities comes up and everyone turns heads to look at that one student. In a similar light, such a targeted question was not the appropriate way to receive feedback on the issue of sexual harassment on our campus. I understand the desire to confront our student body about sexual harassment; it’s a serious f-cking issue. It’s an issue that cannot be covered up or sugarcoated. However, there is a right and wrong way to approach things and this was not the right way to approach this discussion. All I have to do is point to the more hostile or resilient comments to demonstrate my point. Something didn’t sit right with students who read the very aggressive email heading “FUCKED UP SHIT HAPPENS HERE TOO. FILL OUT THE FU SURVEY” and the “survey” included a leading, targeted question. If I were a survivor of sexual harassment, I’m not entirely sure that I would have been comfortable with sharing my experiences in this type of “survey.”
Your definition of “survey” is not necessarily comprehensive, and I would suggest you look at both Merriam-Webster’s definition of survey (“a : to examine as to condition, situation, or value”) and the software used to collect responses (Google Forms, a service that describes itself as a product to “create and analyze surveys for free”). I hear what you are saying about forcing minoritized groups to speak for their own experience, but I think the difference is that individuals aren’t being put on the spot to share, nor are they asked to speak for their entire group (and the language of “violation of boundaries” is broad enough to encompass many, many experiences). When it comes to sexual assault, all too often we only hear narratives of the law, narratives of the administration, narratives of Speak About It, rather than people’s own stories in their own words. For me, it can be hard to speak upfrontly about experiences with sexual assault because of a prevailing idea of “safety” on this campus. That is not to say that this is true for everyone, but as shown by the many people who did share, some folks found a space to express things that are sometimes perceived as “aggressive,” “probably a misunderstanding,” and “overreacting” in daily conversation productive. The project is about sharing voices, not about collecting “empirical” information, and even if you take issue with the specific word “survey” surely by the context (inviting someone to share, allowing a long text box, not asking any yes or no questions) you can tell that the signification of survey was not the empirical one.
I also would like you to look over your own writing and note that you began your comment with the idea that you did not take issue with the “aggressiveness” of FU and ended it with pointing out “the very aggressive email.” I also feel troubled by the idea that asking someone to share an experience with boundary violation is by any means a leading question. Centralizing survivors in these conversations is not leading, it is critical. If you look at the numbers in the campus safety brief sent out every year of how many reported assaults there are annually, it is not an assumption to say that people are sexually assaulted on this campus. And as community members, we all engage with personal boundaries, violence, and power in a variety of complex ways that make engaging with boundary violation a key conversation for everyone.
To use your example, this is like sending out a survey to everyone on campus that says “FUCKED UP SHIT HAPPENS HERE TOO. FILL OUT THE BSL SURVEY” and then asking students who’ve had issues with racial discrimination on campus tell their stories. I don’t think anyone in this situation would feel called out, and no one would say “well the BSL is doing this survey, which is inappropriate because obviously they’re biased. What kind of response did they think they were going to get?”. I also doubt there would be as many responses to the survey that said (to continue the parallel) “I’m white, so I haven’t faced any discrimination. Just wanted to make these results accurate :)” Like who does that? And why are we so concerned about the exact “accuracy” of these results? People who have stories to tell and wanted to tell them had a space to do that. That was the point of the survey. If you take issue with the name, that’s fine, but notice how survivors can’t even tell their personal stories without facing skepticism about whether they really have a right to be heard.
TR- I totally agree with the message of what you’re saying, but I would add that unfortunately as far as I have seen we’re just as, if not more shitty, about racism in practice. Last year, the BSL actually did a project that FU’s board is (I’m assuming) somewhat based on, called the Blackout Board, inviting students to share their experiences with/feelings about race and racism at Haverford. While I don’t remember if white students responded too much on the board, I do know that white students reacted with a similar narrative of, “this is polarizing,” and especially reacted with outrage and resistance to a comment that read “fuck white people.” I feel super grateful that the Blackout board happened and grateful for the activist work, love, and rage put into it, but I would say that some folks were disparaging about its “polarizing” work as well.
I really appreciate what you’re saying about survivors being able to speak to their experiences without skepticism and think that’s super important, so thank you 🙂
Would we as individuals, as a community pay attention to or care about this issue if it was phrased in a less aggressive way or would we have just continued on with our lives paying it no mind? From my experience, activist confrontations are viewed as either “too aggressive” or they are ignored. I have never seen responses to confrontations about systemic violence viewed as both reasonable/appropriate and effective conversation starters.
I do have my reservations about the phrasing that FU used, but you know what, I know that my reservations are not what should be focused on and are honestly not important. I think we all understood that FU was trying to start a conversation about sexual assault on Haverford’s campus and challenge the view that Haverford is a safe place for everyone (While I know not everyone believes this, I think you would have a hard time convincing me that this isn’t a wide spread belief in our community). Yet instead of engaging with that challenge and feeling a little bit of discomfort (which as Maddy points out in this article is most definitely a good thing, it is impossible to grow out of a place of comfort) a good chunk, in fact I would say the majority, of us chose not to engage with these issues and instead to push away the topic by labeling FU’s methods as “too aggressive.” I think an important question to ask is why. Why do we as a community have such a hard time confronting issues of sexual assault and safety at Haverford that when someone starts the conversation in our community our first (and possibly only) response is to push it away and delegitimize it.
I agree with everything that Maddy and the other responders have commented and would just like to point out your comment “If I were a survivor of sexual harassment, I’m not entirely sure that I
would have been comfortable with sharing my experiences in this type of ‘survey.'” Every person that has experienced sexual assault has a very different way in which they deal with it, so I am sure that many people did not feel comfortable sharing their experiences, however, many, many people did feel comfortable responding to the survey. Not only was the survey prompt open to sharing experiences of boundary violation–something that almost every human has experienced at some point in their lives–but how could you know how a sexual assault survivor would feel about the survey? I invite you to read the responses posted on the board in the DC, because your comment tells me that you are ignoring the main purpose of FU’s activism and silencing the voices of all the brave people that shared their experiences.