Administration must look to survivors, those who study systemic oppression for guidance

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APRIL 22, 2016

Dean Carla Hesse’s recent op-ed in The Daily Californian offers the most forceful possible rebuttal to optimism that the administration has learned from recent scandals sparked by its chronic mishandling of incidents of sexual assault and harassment. Her statement makes a deeply alarming suggestion that sexual harassment and assault are the consequences of individual “freedom” overstepping the boundaries that “respect” for others ought to constitute. This conception of “freedom” reads like a muddled encounter between Thomas Hobbes and Roman Polanski.

To assault someone is not to exercise your freedom, it is to exercise force. To harass is to abuse power, either out of ignorance made possible by the buffer of unequally distributed power (enacted in a culture of impunity for such behavior), or purely out of corruption and selfishness. If we are to “take a deeper look at ourselves,” as Hesse advocates early on in the piece, we must take a look at the twin functions of power and force — at the way that these operate within cultural structures such as patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, classism and ableism — and also at the way power and force operate within the institutional structures of UC Berkeley and the UC more broadly. Hesse indicates that instead of political analysis of power and force at work in our community, we need neoliberal self-reflection. She not only fails to acknowledge systemic forces underpinning sexual violence, but she indeed reinforces them herself.

Addressing herself in her opening paragraphs to readers who need to be persuaded that sexual violence “diminishes all of us,” Hesse signals her perspectival alignment with perpetrators and those who enjoy the privilege of moving through the world without concern for sexual violence. She moreover offers an entirely superfluous and deeply problematic anecdote about a person with mental illness: the ableist picture, for her, of an individual whose “freedom” to be “crazy” has led to a lack of “respect” for others. She makes a single reference to “minorities (ethno-racial and sexual),” without a corresponding analysis of how members of these groups have been made systematically vulnerable at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

There may yet be positive change in UC Berkeley’s handling of sexual violence. The pressure of donors, prospective students, angry faculty, students and staff and political disgrace certainly argues in favor of serious overhaul. But we have some advice for UC Berkeley moving forward: Instead of seeking guidance from ensconced administrators, seek guidance from experts in patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, classism and ableism; seek guidance from community organizers and activists currently working to dismantle these structures; and most importantly, seek guidance from survivors of sexual violence, whose first-hand experiences offer the strongest indictment of current procedures through which the institution “manages” sexual violence by silencing, isolating and disempowering survivors in a failed effort to repress scandal rather than eradicate these forms of abuse.

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APRIL 22, 2016