Social Justice Week: Silver Linings on the Frustrating Unsaid

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In conjunction with Social Justice Week here at Kenyon, the Kenyon Observer will be running a series of posts continuing discussion related to social justice both on and off-campus.

The recent kerfuffle over the Kenyon Collegian‘s article on former student Stephen Zingarelli’s indictment for rape and gross sexual imposition led to a meta-debate over the motives and consequences surrounding the tone and homogeneity of the letters published in response. Members of the Kenyon community expressed varied levels of dismay and outrage for two reasons:

– With one anonymous (and therefore technically ambiguous) exception, all of the letters published in response to the article were written by men.

– Such letters stifle discussion about sexual assault on campus, creating an environment not conducive to or supportive of survivors coming forward and confronting the issue in a constructive manner.

It was argued that the absence of female reaction was a result of an already-present culture of silence surrounding issues related to sexual assault. It was further argued that our community often cares more about defending the accused than supporting the victim, leading to a culture where it becomes less socially acceptable to speak out in solidarity for survivors at the risk of presuming guilt.

In a liberal democracy defined by Rule of Law we run the risk of trading common sense for the cold formality of procedure, tying ourselves up in semantics such as “accused” versus “indicted” versus “guilty.” Nevertheless, I feel that this does not adequately explain what I agree was a very muted statement of solidarity in the Opinions section of the Collegian. The recent outrage over the lack of outrage on our campus begs a few questions:

Is it at all possible that Kenyon students feel that sexual assault being a bad thing normally goes without saying? Is it at all possible that those who found the Collegian’s coverage objectionable voiced their objections because they felt like they had an opinion that wouldn’t readily be assumed and adopted by the vast majority of campus? Furthermore, is it at all possible that those same people do not assume Stephen Zingarelli’s innocence; nor would they feel that, if convicted, he should go unpunished? Is it at all possible to defend the treatment of an innocent-until-proven-guilty person without defending the person themselves and engaging in, as was levied via allstu,”shameless rape apologism”? It’s an admittedly difficult line to toe, and I’d agree that some who wrote letters did not toe that line very well, but I still think the answer to these questions is yes.

The fact that those expressing solidarity with the victim did not feel the need to do so in their own letters to the editor, only jumping into the discourse after a meta-discussion over the nature of discourse itself became objectionable, shows that they didn’t feel that a wave of letters was necessary to affirm that we, as a campus, don’t like sexual assault. Had it been immediately necessary to emphatically restate the self-evident truth that sexual assault is reprehensible and that we, as a community, stand in solidarity with its victims, it would have been an indication that that truth may no longer be self-evident.

As evidenced by the content of our campus’ discourse over the past two weeks, I don’t feel that Kenyon creates an environment that stifles conversation about sexual misconduct. On the contrary, as venues for discussion go, Kenyon has proven to be a much safer place to have that discussion than most other college campuses, let alone the general public, and I think we should be proud of that.

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