This quarter, online comments on Maroon Viewpoints pieces about sexual assault have called women such degrading names as “bitch” and “fool.” The Maroon’s Viewpoints editor’s email response to my request to remove the comments was: “We can only remove when a comment threatens to physically harm a user.”
In my opinion, rude comments shouldn’t need to escalate to threatening physical violence in order to be removed. I have written four op-eds for The Maroon from my perspective as an alumna sexual assault survivor, but unless the policy changes, I won’t be writing any more.
If The Maroon is going to live up to the preamble of the student handbook—that members of the University strive for personal integrity and treat others with dignity and respect—it needs to be willing to sanction people who do not act with basic human decency.
Sexual assault isn’t an anomaly arising out of an otherwise respectful society. It fits its context. A society that accepts microaggressions such as name-calling signals to rapists and bullies that they have unfettered reign.
I urge The Maroon to revise and publish its policy for online comments to make it clear that ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated. At a minimum, such comments should be removed. In addition, only allowing people with uchicago.edu email addresses to participate might enable the University community to have its own constructive conversations without the interference of Internet trolls.
But then again, it might not. Those policies are currently in place in the university-sponsored UChicago Alumni LinkedIn group where I naively posted about sexual assault. At first, I enjoyed the opportunity to dialogue with alumni with whom I vehemently disagreed in what I assumed would be a civil forum.
Unfortunately, it was not. As we’ve learned with rape, threats do not always come from strangers outside our ivory tower. Members of our university community commit verbal and sexual assaults. An alumnus made several inappropriate comments to me, one of which the University administrator removed. The man continued commenting as if nothing happened. Justice had been done, but I still felt uncomfortable: he had not acknowledged wrongdoing.
The University process paralleled the criminal justice system: The university and the state punish, and victims are simply witnesses. Fortunately, there’s another model, one that restores power to victims. In keeping with the preamble guidelines, which state that University members need to take responsibility for their behavior, I suggest that the authors of ad hominem attacks be required to apologize before being allowed to comment again.
Apologies require perpetrators to take personal responsibility for their actions. They provide an opportunity for the powerful to experience vulnerability, and in so doing, empower the offended. As psychologist Aaron Lazare explains, in apologies, violators and their victims exchange power and shame.
Like the many rape survivors who drop out of school and watch perpetrators graduate, I no longer participate in the LinkedIn group and will no longer write op-eds for The Maroon When freedom of expression extends to personal attacks, it silences voices within our community.
I urge the University of Chicago Committee on Freedom of Expression to reconvene to provide guidance for maintaining civility in highly contentious discussions, a crucial issue its recent report did not address. I look forward to rejoining University discussion forums when I can be assured of civility.
—Michele Beaulieux A.B. ’82