Ahn: One year later, 40 years back

I write 40 years after Yale welcomed its first female applicants, and one year after a group of fraternity brothers blocked the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center, crowding around the typewritten phrase, “We Love Yale Sluts.” I write in response to the article, “A year later, little impact from ‘Sluts’ controversy” (Feb. 16), which addressed the latter incident but omitted the ironic former.

The Zeta Psi boys’ “Sluts” escapade was not special because it was bigotry — much uglier speech has been voiced, and is still voiced, behind closed dorm room doors, on the comments boards of the News Web site, and at campus parties. It was special because, finally, there were faces to the bigotry — 12 faces, to be exact, accompanied by gestures of pride or of glee.

Hate speech makes its subjects, the harassed and the derided, a little less free in the environment that permits it. Last year Yale was beset by hate speech that went unclaimed: homophobic “NOGAYS” fliers, a swastika formed with snow, racist graffiti on residential college walls and rape threats targeting specific students on an anonymous gossip site.

With no one to blame, what was Yale to do? For lack of evidence, it could only condemn these incidents of hate speech. For lack of evidence, it held “forums” to “discuss” the “issues,” so that we could “express” our “views.”

Then came an incident of hate speech whose authorship we knew, whose perpetrators we could name. And Yale failed us. It formed a committee or two; it held another forum. It listened sympathetically as a few of us expressed our concerns, and less sympathetically when we proposed constructive action. And then, as the furor died down, it looked away.

There are many tired women at Yale right now. They are women who shrug, since boys will be boys; women who say, “You do not speak for me, Women’s Center. I do not oppose what the Zeta Psi boys did”; or women who — most powerfully — know in their hearts that we may fight male contempt at Yale, but that the real world will offer us much worse. Especially with these last women, I disagree. In the world outside Yale, a group of men who publicly rally around a phrase with the word “sluts” would be fired from their jobs, if not prosecuted, and subjected to punishing scrutiny on all sides.

At Yale, a group of men who publicly rally around a phrase with “sluts” were exonerated and protected, and their critics were called — by their peers — unsympathetic whores who had nothing better to do with their privilege. What the Zeta Psi boys did wouldn’t fly in the real world, not even at the male-dominated financial news network where I worked this fall. But last spring it was indulged at Yale, my school, which enrolls more women than men.

A student who physically assaults another student is punishable by the law. A student who drops a crucial footnote is punishable by the Executive Committee. Campus hate speech is less harmful than physical violence, but certainly more harmful than small-time plagiarism; it occupies a space between these two offenses.

Who is responsible for policing that space? A student club with few resources beyond hope, anger and words which foolishly presumed to advocate for Yale women (but who, if the backlash is to be believed, are perfectly happy to be called sluts — our mistake)? Or a powerful and storied American university that promised us much, but tolerance and safety at the very least?

This is not the Yale I was promised, or that any of us were promised. It won’t be until it defends women’s dignity as staunchly as it does its own.

Presca Ahn is a junior in Branford College.

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