To the Editor:
What does everyone remember about the Duke Lacrosse scandal? The kids were not guilty. Wrongfully accused. My hometown of Durham is embarrassed at having jumped to conclusions, my DA has been disbarred and Duke’s name has been cleared. End of story.
What about the hard look that Duke was supposed to take at the campus culture where strippers were hired for a house party in the first place? It’s no longer necessary because the fine, upstanding gentlemen were innocent. What happened to the critical examination of an environment where “male camaraderie” passes as a legitimate excuse for blatant misogyny and sexual harassment? As soon as the boys at the center of that cultural probe were cast as unfortunate victims, that entire culture was let off the hook.
I don’t want the same thing to happen at Yale; that’s exactly why suing Zeta Psi is the wrong action for the Women’s Center to take. As far as I can tell, the Zeta pledges are about as guilty as the Duke Lacrosse players – they were certainly doing something objectionable, but it probably wasn’t illegal. Placing them at the center of a lawsuit whose legal merits are questionable at best will only bring more people to their side. It will squander an opportunity for real scrutiny of sexism at Yale in favor of trivial arguments about the wisdom of one specific lawsuit.
Let’s examine the possible outcomes. Most likely, the suit will fail. The Zeta Psi pledges will have the last word in this dialogue – “innocent” – and everyone else will forget about it. If anything, people will feel sympathy towards Zeta Psi for having been wrongfully accused. The results would be even worse if the suit happened to succeed – people would flock to Zeta Psi’s defense, claiming that it’s not responsible for the culture that created the damning photograph.
Sympathy for the perpetrators of this blatant misogyny is the last thing that we as a society want to encourage. Sexism is real at Yale, and as much as I would like to see everyone who’s ever done or said something sexist thrown in jail, I fear that we might not have many male students left: I’d certainly be behind bars. (Lock up the racists, homophobes and anti-Semites, and you might have yourself an empty school.)
The goal of our response to these incidents should not be to legally indict individuals who exhibit the culture we’re trying to eliminate. We’re smart enough to know that “fag” and “slut” are hurtful words and that racist jokes only perpetuate harmful stereotypes. And yet, I hear them all the time. Punishing the unlucky few who get caught using them only incites resentment and backlash, and doesn’t change anything about the culture that tolerates them. When aiming for cultural change, we cannot resort to petty bickering, but must instead focus on keeping the high road and encouraging everyone else to join us.
What can be done? Shame is one of the most powerful motivators of human action. What may seem like a totally awesome rebellion against political correctness at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night might seem significantly less awesome when blown up on a 6’ x 10’ poster on Cross Campus. Our response doesn’t have to be so dramatic, of course, but whatever we choose to do, the most important thing to avoid is allowing those who commit sexist, racist or homophobic acts to be cast as victims. They are not. If we want to be most effective in avenging those wrongs, then we must be careful never to let the public forget that.
Bagg is a junior in Silliman College.