By Jessa Orluk
Last Tuesday, President Obama won Amherst, MA with 80% of the vote; democratic senator-elect Elizabeth Warren won with 83%. These results fit in perfectly with the decidedly left-of-center culture Amherst is known for. It makes sense: we’re the number one college town, part of the Happy Valley, and the Sustainable Knowledge Corridor, next to Northampton, the ‘Paradise City’. Students flock to the local colleges in part to participate in the town’s progressive culture—or at least, that’s partly why myself and a few other students I know chose to come here. The general sentiment seems to be: I was excited to have a safe and supportive community that shared my political views. Or, at the very least: I was sold at ‘Extravaganja’.
Dozens of clever slogans exist on stickers, mugs and t-shirts supporting this, ranging from ‘Amherst: Where reality is an option’ to ‘Amherst, MA: Where only the ‘H’ is silent.’ I used to heartily agree with these sentiments, but recent events have forced me to re-examine. Are we really as progressive as we think we are, or has our reputation just forced certain systematic oppressions even deeper underground?
After all, there seems to be an incredibly strong tendency to silence survivors of rape and sexual abuse at our educational institutions. Ask Angie Epifiano, who a health services counselor told, ‘Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup…You should forgive and forget.’ When Ms.Epifiano asked to leave campus to study abroad, the sentiment of the college seemed to be that the rest of the world, “…is different from the people at Amherst, they won’t be well-educated, and they won’t understand you. You’re going to a backwards place. Do you realize how bad it will be?”
This narrative, that Amherst is a safe, progressive, educated place, was used as a way to silence this survivor. The administration used it as an excuse to ignore Angie Epifiano’s experience. As students, we perpetuate the same notion. Another survivor that came forward was told by a student representative at a disciplinary hearing, “…if I hadn’t wanted to ‘have sex’ with my rapist, why was I sitting on his bed a couple of weeks prior?” (A statement I find just as ridiculous as former Senator Akin’s assumption that the female body can stop pregnancy during rape.) Despite our education, despite our centers and programs and degrees and conferences, when instances of sexual abuse, rape, and sexism become localized, the blame is placed on the individual instead of structural or systemic causes. The logic becomes, more or less, “We are progressive and those things don’t happen here. Therefore, it must have been the fault of the individual.”
And it’s not just instances of sexual abuse and sexism subject to this erasure. The culture of silence is much more ingrained; we are trained, collectively, to ignore that which makes us uncomfortable. Just as we take our trash out to the curb and send it to landfills or incinerators, we pack up our ugly social, economic, and environmental ills and send them off to places we can’t see. All to keep up appearances—and it works! After all, a doctor at Cooley Dickinson told Angie, ‘I really don’t think a school like Amherst would allow you to be raped. And why didn’t you tell anybody?’
Our progressive reputation is blinding us from injustice in our community. Our assumptions, oppression does exist here and we are tricking ourselves into complacency. Our inclination to silence rape, sexual abuse and sexism is beginning to come above ground.
Why not take the anger and confusion and pure emotion from these incidents and funnel them into an organized effort to break the silence? Take this as an opportunity to start a strategic dialogue in our community. What else are we silent about? Transphobia? Homophobia? Racism? Economic inequality? What other injustices do we try, intentionally or unintentionally, to hide? What can we do about it?
It’s time to reconcile our academic values of social, economic and environmental justice with our political reality. If we don’t learn the tools to fight our own unique brand of subversive oppression in our own community, in every academic discipline, then our graduates will simply perpetuate these injustices when they move on from college. As a community, we need to create a space where those who are silenced can come forward, speak to their experience and have people truly listen.
There has always been silence in Amherst. Personally, I pine for the day when all of those ridiculous bumper stickers have an ounce of truth. The only thing silent in Amherst should be the ‘h’.