MERCER-GOLDEN: The right questions

Parenthetically

As I look at the recent headlines in national newspapers and in the News, two words come to mind: sex and responsibility. The two are, of course, profoundly connected, and each is devastating in its own way.

The revelations last week that Patrick Witt’s ’12 Rhodes candidacy may have been in question even as the media and Yalies were celebrating his heroic, self-sacrificing gesture to play against Harvard have been a stunning display of the way in which different narratives can be spun depending on one’s perspective. The fight over dates and emails between the New York Times and Witt’s representatives seems, particularly now that the dust has settled somewhat, less relevant than the challenging questions of integrity that are raised by these differing claims and by the situation as a whole: questions of sex and responsibility and what different institutions and individuals owe to each other. There are many young men and women who have felt alone on this campus because of experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape. We as a community are more comfortable not talking about these experiences, and we sometimes seem invested in protecting the reputation of the institution that we love deeply instead of sharing these stories and helping people to feel safe again.

As ever, Yale is afraid of publicity. Consider the tragic events we as a community have survived in only the last two and a half years, the deaths, the scandals. It is only right that we want to end our collective agonizing and public grieving for the people we have lost and the people we have failed. But we have, I hope, learned that the price of silence is often more pain and a greater sense of betrayal when the truth outs itself.

After the New York Times published a story about Witt last week, attention turned to him and the coverage of his story in the News and the Times. His victim has now been violated twice: once by sexual assault, and a second time by the media storm that has made her story — which I’m sure is confusing and painful — about questions of journalistic integrity and personal character.

The questions, of course, are valid. But Witt’s story is compelling for most people not because of the questions about journalistic integrity it raises, but because it is sexy: The story involves power, prestige and yes, sex — not to mention football.

Instead of feeling betrayed by the News or wondering whether the New York Times should have published a story based on a handful of anonymous sources, the questions we should be asking ourselves are why we, our college and our media can’t seem to handle the problems of sex and responsibility. We should be wondering why the conversation isn’t about why Witt felt entitled to pressure a woman in the first place, and why everyone — the New York Times included — seems bewildered by Yale’s complaint process.

Recent articles and statements have tried to put some of the guilt on the woman in question, saying that everything that passed between the woman and Witt was consensual and that their relationship was on and off, as so many are at Yale. I’ll speak for myself and for the many friends that have struggled in the wake of sexual encounters that occurred in environments of low personal responsibility: Sex can be an emotional minefield, hard to navigate and hard to recover from.

Witt’s behavior is consistent with the behavior of many men and women who participate in low-responsibility sexual encounters, which can be as damaging as they can be fun. This is not a problem just with Witt: This is a widespread problem deeply ingrained in the college landscape.

Yale owes it to its students to make its complaint processes easier to navigate and understand. Recent reports, emails and committees have made strides in the right direction. But I worry that the system still feels too hard to navigate and access. We shouldn’t feel betrayed because Witt appears to be less of a hero than he once seemed: We should feel betrayed because we live in a world in which we are afraid to talk about sex and responsibility and insist instead on making the conversation about other things — journalism, the Rhodes, football.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    “We should be wondering why the conversation isn’t about why Witt felt entitled to pressure a woman in the first place, and why everyone”

    Is there any EVIDENCE that this “pressuring” occurred? Or is there ONLY a confidential informal complaint to a committee that such “pressuring” occurred ?

    PK

  • Y86

    I second PK’s comment; the author writes from the implicit assumption that Witt did something wrong, and we know only that that has been alleged, not that it has been established.

    I’d also question this sentence:

    “Recent articles and statements have tried to put some of the guilt on the woman in question, saying that everything that passed between the woman and Witt was consensual and that their relationship was on and off, as so many are at Yale.”

    Actually, I don’t think that anyone has tried to place “guilt” on the woman, and I think the media and all the various commenters have been admirably and appropriately restrained about not dong so. The gist of the reaction I sense is that many people think that the accused—who is, after all, the only one whose name has been made public—shouldn’t be convicted in the court of public opinion when the facts of the dispute aren’t known. Pointing that out is not to cast doubt on the character or integrity of the accuser, but to insist on fairness.

  • Chavez

    “His victim has now been violated twice”

    It’s jumping to conclusions to say that an accuser is a “victim” before that has been determined.
    The default is to presume the innocence of an accused person, not to presume their guilt.

    • ernie

      Comments like these are why this column was necessary. Yes, Witt is of course legally innocent until proven guilty in court, and he should not be considered a criminal. But it does not follow that the accuser should not be considered a victim; it’s disgusting to withhold sympathy for her until a legal verdict that will never come. The tendency in the comments to turn Witt into a martyr and to turn away from the victim’s suffering is the problem; suffering a sexual assault is worse than any reputation damage, and the degree to which the discussion has lost track of that fact is why we’ve needed columns like this one over the last week.

      • morse_14

        Those of us who believe Witt should be considered innocent aren’t simply talking about a legal verdict. A finding of a University Committee would be good enough for me.

        We’re talking about a principle. The principle that being accused shouldn’t mean that you’re guilty. The principle that you should be able to confront those who speak ill of you in some way. The principle that you should be able to defend yourself from those who accuse you of wrongs.

        If Witt is found to be guilty, let him suffer the consequences. But the fact that this destruction of his reputation is happening to — publicly — as a result of a nebulous “informal complaint” that, in effect, has no more validity than an unproven rumor, is completely unfair and unjustified.

      • Bouchet

        “the accuser should not be considered a victim”

        How do you know? I am not saying the accuser is NOT a victim – we simply don’t know. I am an alumni, so I have not been on campus to hear rumors of what purportedly happened.

        • ernie

          My point is that it’s unseemly to be more concerned about the possibility of a damaged reputation than about the possibility of a sexual assault.

          • Bouchet

            Both are problems that have been exacerbated by this strange process, the leaks, etc.

            Also, as I said in one of the other articles, the gravity of being accused of sexual assault (at least as I understand the term – a Harvard columnist today suggests that the term itself needs to b reformed) is comparable to being accused of bigotry, murder, etc. It is a serious accusation that can lead to closing of many doors in the future. It needs to be handled appropriately.

      • The Anti-Yale

        I don’t care a wit about Witt.

        He isn’t a being turned into a martyr.

        He is a symbol, an emblem, of a world gone mad with political correctness.

        Accusations are NOT facts.

        Withold sympathy?

        For whom?

        There is no “there” there.

        Anonymous is anonymous.

        The confused thinking here is mind-boggling.

        PK

        • ernie

          “Withold sympathy? For whom?” This really makes my point better than I could make it myself.

        • River_Tam

          whit, not wit.

  • JE14

    I agree with all that’s been posted here. I think you are asking all the wrong questions. One question that should be asked and this is a very important one is HOW DID THE INFORMAL COMPLAINT LEAK?
    There are only 3 possible scenarios. Yale or Rhodes administrators, the accuser, or Pat Witt.
    If it’s a member of the Yale Administration or Rhodes Fund, heads should roll.
    If it’s the accuser the case should just simply be dropped and she should (in a perfect world) lose any credibility on this topic and Witt’s name needs to be cleared.
    If it’s Witt, well I’m gonna go ahead and say no one can possibly be that stupid, so I don’t think it’s him. I may be wrong though. I hear Football can mess with your brains.

    • alsoanon

      I don’t think you can trace the “leak” back to a single source that directly. I’d been hearing rumors about Witt for months before this happened (that he was being investigated for sexual assault here and at his old school among various other unsavory things) and I assume a lot of other people had as well. If those rumors did originate with the complainant in this case, I think it’s perfectly natural for someone who’s been assaulted to tell people she cares about that it’s happened and that she’s pursuing an informal complaint. What they chose to do with that information may have been less fair, but have fun rounding up all the gossip mongerers at Yale and castigating them…

    • Bouchet

      Could be parents, friends, etc. The only people that know the identity of the “leakers” are the Rhodes committee, the New York Times and other newspapers (YDN?) that received tips.

      • penny_lane

        The New York times specifically stated the young woman who made the complaint is NOT the one who told the Rhodes committee, or the NYT themselves.

  • The Anti-Yale

    There’s a fourth possible source: GOSSIP, RUMOR, HEARSAY——–all the language of “Anonymous”.

    PK

    • Goldsmith11

      We get the point, thanks.

      • The Anti-Yale

        BTW

        It is profoundly ironic that I find myself defnding a football player, since I have zero interest in the sport ( I thought the Superebowl was LAST week) and am repulsed by the Good Ol Boys mentality which propagates football.

        Nor am I engaged in gender allegiance, i.e. defending males with romantic disabilities. I think most males are puppets of macho cultural indoctrination.

        It is decency and the presumption of innocence which are a stake here and journalistic integrity.

        And I also am concerned for your generation which seems lost, even dazed, in a lugubrious world in which the joy of flirtation has been replaced by the fear of litigation.

        PK

        • Quals

          Seems like I find myself either completely at odds with antiyale or completely in his corner. This time it’s the latter.

    • JE14

      There’s still someone working the machine behind it, and someone (although not willing to admit it) who started the process. It’s like a crazy wild fire, it doesn’t start on it’s own, someone still instigates it. And that person, cannot be that hard to find, since only a very limited number of people are in the hearings.

      • Justine

        Keep speaking out JE14, You zeroed in on the core issue. The only way to reconstruct what really happened is for an independent third party to investigate. Short of that, the Department of Education or the Department of Justice. I suggest Yale STRIKE FIRST and assemble an independent panel before the accused files a defamation or libel lawsuit that can drag Yale through the mud and cost it millions of dollars.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Just sayin.

  • River_Tam

    > We should be wondering why the conversation isn’t about why Witt felt entitled to pressure a woman in the first place

    BECAUSE YOU AND I DON’T KNOW IF IT HAPPENED. THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO FACTS (TRUE OR DISTORTED) ABOUT THE ACTUAL ALLEGATIONS (TRUE OR DISTORTED) THAT HAVE BEEN RELEASED IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM.

    Sorry, but this really pisses me off. You can’t simply convict a man in a perfunctory clause halfway through your precious op-ed on how “we need to talk about sex”.

    Honestly, everyone needs to stop piling onto something that they don’t know jack about.

  • Bouchet

    Does the writer know what happened between Witt and the accuser? The article implies she does.

  • The Anti-Yale

    That’s the whole point. Sloppy language and hidden sources imply knowledge which ain’t there.
    PK

  • SquirrelMan

    I don’t understand this thread’s kneejerk hostility to people who make accusations of sexual assault and rape. Due process is not necessary to label someone a victim; only for assigning guilt. And I’d say rape is a larger problem on this campus than false accusations of rape, and I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to offer proof.

    • JE14

      It’s not because it’s larger that the other is non-existent. Most importantly though, it’s just a rumor. Yes, a RUMOR. No one knows (at least no one openly admits to knowing) anything about this case, yet everyone is ready to take a dump on Witt. The guy already lost a job opportunity because of this story, I think at some point we need to think enough is enough and the gossip, at the costs of another human’s future needs to end.

    • River_Tam

      > Due process is not necessary to label someone a victim; only for assigning guilt.

      Labeling someone as a victim implicitly assigns guilt because it assumes that her presentation of events is true and that the accused’s is false.

      > And I’d say rape is a larger problem on this campus than false accusations of rape, and I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to offer proof.

      I don’t see how this is relevant.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “If it weren’t for anonymous sources, Richard Nixon would have served the length of his presidency without detection.”

    The Pentagon Papers? The White House tapes?

    Specific persons, places, dates, times, events, conversations.

    The leakers may have been anonymous, but not their evidence.

    What you have at Yale and NYT is vague characters assassination. No names (other than Mr. Witt), no times, no places, no events, no conversation.

    Absolutely nothing to confirm or refute.

    Just vague generalities: “sexual assault,” “pressuring.”

    Scandalous irresponsibility.

    Paul D. Keane

    • River_Tam

      > The leakers may have been anonymous, but not their evidence.

      Boom. And Paul D Keane drives it home for the win.