During Mentors Against Violence discussions at fraternities and sororities (and, beginning this term, other student organizations), facilitators run a brief circle exercise and ask students to, among other things, step forward if they have ever heard a peer tell a rape joke. In most cases, nearly all students present step forward. Facilitators then ask if they, after hearing said rape joke, voiced any objection to it. In most cases, no student steps forward. During the ensuing conversation about rape culture at Dartmouth, most students tend to agree that rape jokes are completely inappropriate. Why, then, do they fail to speak out when someone makes one?
As a MAV, I often observe a similar phenomenon with regard to slut-shaming. Most women I work with agree that they would never want to be called a slut (and those that have been affirm that it is extremely hurtful), yet most admit that they say nothing when they hear another woman being called a slut and, worse, have called women sluts themselves.
Dartmouth students have repeatedly come under fire for their general apathy to issues regarding sexism, racism, classism and homophobia at the College, and it is indeed true that many fail to display any empathy for or even awareness of the challenges faced by their peers. But what I find more frustrating than this apathy is the fear that pervades our campus. It is the fear of deviating from the norm, the fear of being perceived as an aggressive fun-killer, the fear of being alienated and deemed “extreme” for voicing any criticism (let alone having the audacity to actually call for change). This fear silences and induces conformity in students who do in fact recognize the problems of Dartmouth’s culture and existing structures but cannot seem to muster the courage to do anything about them.
I once received a blitz from a student who said he agreed with a column that I had written in which I criticized fraternities’ illogical and extremely harmful ideology surrounding pledge term. Yet he insisted — in fact, he repeatedly pleaded — that I not tell anyone that he had said so, which I would not have done regardless. I was baffled, mostly because he chose to remain in a community that was apparently hostile to his true beliefs and that he was content — or had convinced himself that he was content — in doing so.
In fact, I have had a significant number of peers approach me in secret and tell me about certain criticisms they have of the College and the behavior of their peers. When I ask them why they do not speak up, they rattle off some excuse regarding their desire to avoid controversy or refrain from offending others. But if we live solely to keep our heads down and accommodate others, then we live a sad existence. And if we live to either actively or passively perpetuate something that fundamentally goes against our beliefs, then that existence is even sadder.
This column is not for the students who are satisfied with the Dartmouth status quo. It is for those of us who ultimately believe that Dartmouth and its culture must change. Too many of us are silent, afraid or caught up in the idea that we must be a socially acceptable degree of “moderate,” and so we, perhaps unwittingly, sanction oppression and cruelty on this campus.
We need to vocally object to the rape joke, need to stand up for the girl being labeled a slut, need to challenge the use of the word “faggot,” need to call out the student wearing the shirt bearing the face of the Dartmouth Indian mascot, need to openly condemn rush and criticize pledge term, et cetera, if those are issues that we truly believe to be problematic. Furthermore, we must actively support structural, non-superficial change that abolishes — not mitigates — aspects of our culture that inspire and condone these more obvious manifestations of oppression, malice and brutality, which are not individual but systematic phenomena. Finally, we must implement changes in our own language, behavior and affiliations that align with our beliefs. For if we compromise and fail to see our beliefs through, we cannot hope to see true progress and certainly cannot hope to respect ourselves.