Let me start by saying I know that the world is an unkind place. I’m perfectly aware that there are cruel people who go unpunished and kind people who suffer needlessly.
But that doesn’t stop me from being disappointed when I see those truths in action.
This semester, multiple friends of mine shared with me very real instances of cruelty on my campus: physical assault, racial slurs, rape. Each new story made me more incredulous and angry. How could this be happening at my college?
What I found to be the most disturbing, however, was the way other listeners reacted to the stories. I watched as my friends told other friends what their fellow students had done to them, and noticed a pattern develop.
Once the name of the perpetrator came up, the listener became visibly uncomfortable. They would shuffle their feet, shift their backpack from shoulder to shoulder, crack an uncomfortable smile. When the story was finally over, they would shrug and say, “Well, so-and-so’s always been really nice to me.”
I watched them made the decision, consciously or unconsciously, to put their faith in the supposed “good nature” of someone who may have seriously harmed their friend rather than in the real words of their friend’s story.
I couldn’t believe it. Really, how could this be happening at my college?
How can so many people be working to preserve the good reputations of others at the expense of their friends? Why is it that a survivor of violence or discrimination not only suffers from the attack, but also from the judgement of peers and the pressure to keep the attacker’s nature a secret? Why is maintaining the illusion of a person’s goodness preferable to accepting to the truth? How can people look a friend in the eye and say, “thanks for sharing your story, but until it happens to me, it doesn’t matter”?
The culture of silence on my campus is frustrating and dangerous. While students refuse to change their image of a person until they turn on them, they allow the “good people” they defend to continue hurting others unimpeded. When people don’t speak up, they essentially tell perpetrators that what they’re doing is okay, and tell survivors that their experiences aren’t valid or aren’t important enough to address.
It shouldn’t be the case that more survivors of sexual assault leave this school than attackers. It shouldn’t be the case that racists and rapists get to continue to build friendships and enjoy their time on campus, while the students they harmed cecome disconnected from friends and disheartened with the campus culture. People should want to prevent cruelty from happening to their fellow students, not to wait to act until that cruelty happens to them. We should encourage survivors to speak out and help them get the word out across campus so that attackers can be identified and properly dealt with. We should demand to hear and respect the truth, however ugly it may be.
It may be easier to push away facts that make us uncomfortable. It may be blissful to maintain the idea that anyone who is friendly and respectful in public can never be otherwise. However, I believe it is worth it to face a degree of discomfort in order to create a better environment for our peers and, ultimately, ourselves.
I hope that when you read this, you don’t choose to shrug it off.