The Crimson posts this chart comparing Harvard policies on sexual assault to those of peer schools—hilarious, because, when it comes to rape culture, it’s all about how you compare to the other Ivies—and a group called Our Harvard Can Do Better suggests this demonstrates how poorly Harvard is doing.
(Sorry, Crimson, I can’t find the link to this on your site.)
To me, though, it looks like everyone is doing more or less the same…
Meanwhile, the case of the anonymous letter writer to the Crimson has now been decided in the court of public opinion: The anonymous woman is a martyr and there’s no question that she was raped.
So, anyway, writes a Harvard grad named Winnie Li, who is herself a rape survivor, and writes this on the Huffington Post:
Some might say my own experience of sexual assault is very different from that of the anonymous Harvard student. I was raped by a stranger in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who followed me when I was walking in a park in the middle of the day. She was raped by a friend in his dorm room, after a night of drinking. My rape was the stuff of lurid headlines — newspapers afterward screamed: “Tourist dragged into the bushes and brutally raped.” Her rape was the kind no one wants to talk about, even though it happens all the time, behind closed doors.
Note how the anonymous letter writer’s story has now evolved and settled into a cultural paradigm; I don’t think that even she described what happened to her as “rape.” But in some ways, Li writes, what happened to the Letterwriter is worse than what happened to her.
My point: We still don’t know for sure what happened to the Letterwriter. Only one side of the story has been presented, and it was presented with a significant degree of ambiguity. And yet, people with their own agendas have hijacked her story for their own purposes. (They may think they’re helping Letterwriter, but how do they know?) Linking what happened to another person with what happened to you may seem like an act of solidarity, and I’m sure it can be. But it can also be an act of narcissism.
Nonetheless, a narrative has been created, based on one person’s ambiguous and anonymous story, that is now assuming cultural power. A lot of people read the Huffington Post—particularly when the words “rape” and “Harvard” appear in a headline.
Li, for example, concludes with this admonition:
I’ve heard a lot recently about the success of the Harvard men’s basketball team, the launch of HarvardX (the online learning experience for alumni), Harvard’s Global Month of Service. Yet, for all this outward broadcasting, Harvard should be looking inwards, first and foremost, to its own students, to make sure they’re offering the right kinds of services to them, no matter what the situation. It’s time to replace a culture of success and winning, with a culture of justice and understanding.
Our educational institutions have failed to truly offer an honest, safe, nurturing environment where students can explore their potential and not be afraid to speak up. In that sense, they have failed in their primary purpose. Because if universities like Harvard pride themselves on shaping the world’s future leaders and thinkers, then they need to start by teaching the right lessons.
So there are a lot of issues embedded in this manifesto. First to me is the idea that Harvard lacks and ought to have a culture of justice and understanding. I’ve wondered often of Harvard: Can it be the world-beating institution that these young people are desperate to attend, sacrifice their childhood to get into, and still satisfy their emotional needs for “nurturing” and “empathy”?
Because Winnie Li isn’t being entirely honest here: She didn’t go to Harvard because she was looking for on-campus understanding. She went to Harvard, as does pretty much everyone who goes to Harvard, precisely because of its culture of success and winning–and she got what she came for. Just look at her blog, which is more or less a recounting of her various successes. Lis is one of 25 women who contributed essays to a small book called Sushi and Tapas, a fact which appears on her blog under the tab “Books.” She describes its publication in Singapore as “my book launch.” Is that a rejection of Harvard values or a display of them?
Li also writes a blog called “The Fag Hag,” a term which some people think should be abolished. But Li explains that “The Fag Hag” is the title of her “forthcoming” novel—though the book does not seem to be written and there’s no evidence of it having a publisher. More power to Li for her confidence in describing an unwritten novel as “forthcoming.” But again—is that presumption a rejection of Harvard values, or an internalization of them?
Does Harvard actually lack a culture of justice, as Li says? I don’t know. I do wonder where is the proof of this serious assertion? It’s not in the chart above. Is it in the Letterwriter’s story? We can’t know, particularly as long as she remains anonymous. But nothing in what I’ve read establishes that she was done an injustice by Harvard officialdom. One of her biggest complaints is that Harvard administrators didn’t seem to feel her pain, but the complaint presumes the validity of her story, and that assumption is not compatible with the administration of “justice,” a term that Li equates with the presumption of guilt.
Third: Are people afraid to speak up at Harvard? I guess…kinda? Since the Letterwriter hasn’t identified herself, we don’t know if she’s faced harmful repercussions—she’s certainly received a lot of public support. Is she protected? Well, The Crison disabled comments on her letter—a newspaper censored free speech, think about that—in order to protect her; it presumed that someone would name her; it presumed guilt. If, after this kind of response, she still doesn’t feel safe, is that Harvard’s fault? I don’t see how it could be. Maybe students who don’t speak up are afraid of jeopardizing their career prospects. But if there’s somewhere in the world where it is safer to “speak up” than at Harvard, you should move there instantly.
As a general matter, yes, every student on every campus should feel safe, nurtured and protected. And it takes real courage for Li to speak so honestly about her horrifying experience of rape—that can not be easy, and I applaud her for doing it. She put a name and a face to her story.
Which reminds me—and should remind Li—that we still don’t know for sure what happened to the Letterwriter, and we should be careful about drawing conclusions about Harvard, American universities, or “rape culture” based on emotion rather than knowledge. In the long run, this kind of caution will only help the cause of justice and understanding.