The False Promise of Respectful Difference
This piece was guest written by Biz Berthy ’17
CW: This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault
The other week I was reading through a series of court cases from 17th century Virginia. My comps topic, very broadly speaking, is on gender and race in early American society. As a history major, and one who is interested in early America in particular, you get used to reading bizarre descriptions, to seeing strange illustrations, and so on. Most of the times we laugh at their absurdity, because we cannot fathom the idea of finding even the faintest trace of the same logic in our society, in our own communities, today. That is what history is: a narrative we tell ourselves over and over and over until it is finally engrained in our minds and we no longer have to even practice the act of storytelling; it is given. Yet, as I read through these 17th century documents, I found a case that I could not laugh at, not only because of the atrocious nature of the crime, but also because I saw an undeniable similarity between the way the case was handled then and the way that rape cases are handled today, four centuries later.
In 1689, a young Eliza Farrell and her husband pressed charges against Thomas Seawell for raping Eliza. According to Eliza, Thomas followed her home, sexually assaulted her with an ox horn and a lit candle, and then publicly shamed her by singing her pubic hair and shoving it in her husband’s face. Instead of Thomas facing swift and immediate punishment, the court chose to highlight the fact that Eliza was “swinishly drunk,” and unaccompanied by a man. Given that, they settled on Thomas simply paying a fine to Eliza’s husband, Brian, for “damaging” his property, and therefore, his honor.
Reading this, I was suddenly catapulted to this summer, in the year 2016, when I first read about the Brock Turner case- a rape seemingly so clearly abhorrent, so clearly violent, that I was foolish enough to believe that there would be severe consequences for his actions. And I was exactly that: foolish. Brock Turner received a sentence of six months in county jail, and was released after only three.
Then, suddenly, I also recalled the time when my American abroad program told me that violence against women was a “culturally specific” phenomenon. That my negative reaction to being groped, smacked, and spat on by men was merely a function of my inability to reconcile my “culture shock.”
And now, sitting here two days after the election, I find myself asking: what will it take for people to believe that violence against women is a fundamental aspect of American society, within our very own communities, as well? When Trump proudly defended “grab her by the pussy” people reacted in shock. Men’s sports teams wrote letters of defense: “That’s Not Our Locker Room Talk.” But not even a week earlier, some of my classmates heard the chant, “fuck her up the ass!” echoing out from a house filled with lacrosse players and frat members. Just yesterday, screenshots from the Columbia’s wrestling team’s GroupMe were published. Here are some of the highlights: “We would run the town in any state school fuck those feminist bitches,” “Columbia bitches in reality are all ugly socially awkward cunts,” and (just when you think it couldn’t get worse) “I hope someone actually gets sexually assaulted.”
Quit fooling yourselves. It is your “locker room” talk, it is your normal, day-to-day “banter.” If these examples from 1689 and 2016 haven’t persuaded you to see that, does the reality of Trump’s presidency? The man who proclaimed “grab her by the pussy” is now our president. The man who has had several women over the past year publicly accuse him of sexual assault is now our president. If that doesn’t convince you, then I don’t know what to tell you.
I feel weighted by grief. I feel disgusted that 400 years has passed since Eliza Farrell and Thomas Seawell and still nothing has changed. I worry about my own future, my own safety. I worry about these things all while knowing that I pass for white, and that there will be even harsher realities for my mother, my sisters, and other women of color.
But, most of all, I am tired. I am tired of this narrative of American exceptionalism, the belief that America can do no wrong. We are constantly pointing our fingers at other countries to divert attention away from our own violence. We are constantly making incidents like Eliza Farrell and Thomas Seawall into artefacts of the past so that we can preserve our beloved narrative of the present tense. And, if we can’t completely erase an atrocity from our history, we tweak the narrative. Racial violence suddenly gets turned into the product of economic peril, because in that scenario all we have to do as a society is fix the economy and racism will go away. Sexual assault suddenly gets turned into the product of drinking culture, because in that scenario all we have to do is stop getting “too drunk” and then women will stop getting raped. The list goes on and on.
I no longer have the patience for these narratives. I no longer have the patience to read messages from my peers that encourage me to accept these narratives by urging me to remember that, at the end of the day, “we are all members of this hill, the Kenyon community, and this nation.” The reality is that we do not all belong to single and cohesive community here, and the responses after Trump’s election that claim otherwise have only further confirmed this for me. My community does not make excuses for those who chant “fuck her up the ass!” My community does not actively intimidate the students of color on this campus. My community does not give platforms to individuals who publish articles that explicitly label the Muslim and Middle Eastern students here as terrorists. My community is not okay with the way in which the Kenyon administration has repeatedly failed to uphold the rights of survivors of sexual assault, of their student workers. I am not okay with any of these things, and if you are, I do not want to be a part of your community.
You are asking me for respectful difference and I don’t have it in me anymore. Sure, we can disagree and still like each other. You like the color purple, and I don’t. Fine. But we will not disagree and still like each other when you are arguing for a cause that is rooted in the marginalization of myself and others. I cannot bear watching my friends of color, my queer friends, my trans friends, my fellow women being asked to “respectfully” explain and defend their humanity to people anymore. When you ask for respectful difference, you are asking for the creation of yet another false narrative, because in that narrative all we have to do is tell the victims of the Columbia wrestling team’s hate speech, the people who heard the house full of men chanting “fuck her up the ass”, Eliza Farrell, Brock Turner’s victim, and on and on, to respect those people’s opinions and then racism and misogyny will suddenly disappear. Respectful difference has not, does not, and will not change the narrative. What does produce change is intervention.