Naked man at Wellesley College
How’s that for an SEO-friendly title, huh?
For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to have heard the news already, there’s a statue of a balding white dude in his tighty-whities at Wellesley. It’s part of an art exhibition by Tony Matelli that will be hosted at the college until mid-June. The statue is placed at a high-traffic area on campus — right near the main sidewalk connecting the student center and the academic quad — and suffice to say, it’s garnered quite a bit of attention.
Students at Wellesley have started a Change.org petition urging President Bottomly and the Davis Museum to remove the statue; they claim that it is a “source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community” that has “already become a source of undue stress for a number of Wellesley College students.”
The whole ordeal has drawn an unprecedented amount of media attention from all over — within one day of the statue’s erection, we’ve been featured on the Boston Globe, Washington Post, USA Today, CBS News, Time, Buzzfeed, The New Republic, New York Magazine, Business Insider, The Daily Mail…and my personal favorite, PerezHilton.com, which so eloquently referred to Wellesley as “an all GIRLS school!” (caps included) and advised students to “cover [their] eyes, ladies!”
It seemed odd to me that all these news outlets were talking about Wellesley and its crazed, ultra-feminist student body while the only prominent representation of the student body voice remains manifested in that Change.org petition, which has been signed by only 1/5 of the student population. Now granted, I spent most of my day yesterday eating frozen dumplings and watching Star Trek Voyager reruns in my room (hey, snow days don’t come often around these parts), and didn’t get a chance to see the statue in person until fairly recently. But as a board-certified Armchair Keyboard Warrior, I feel compelled to insert my two cents on an issue that matters to me only peripherally.
Which is what this is all about, isn’t it? Of course, the issue is far more complex than that, but there’s a lot going on in this conversation about what the presence of this statue could do and the people it could be triggering and harming. The thing about triggers, though, is that they are highly dependent on the individual and their own personal traumatic experiences. Triggers can be anything. That’s why trigger warning tags on the internet can seem so overly comprehensive and nitpicky; they try to cover all the bases but can ultimately only address a handful of the countless number of triggers that exist for a diverse human population. In that sense, trigger warnings become more of a courtesy than a useful warning for those who might be affected.
The world is a difficult, ugly place, and it doesn’t ask for our permission before assaulting us with triggering material. Human decency affords us the luxury of being warned before encountering particularly gruesome and graphic material, but let’s face it — as a society, our standards for what is considered appropriate for uncensored public viewing are set pretty low.
We can’t expect others to conform to our standards — no matter how noble we think these standards are, and no matter how much we think society ought to conform to them in order to support the greater good. It’s just not realistically possible. People have different moral codes, different priorities, and different perspectives on what is offensive, harmful, or triggering. And they won’t become convicted to change these perspectives simply because we tell them to. The world is a difficult, ugly place, and in the end the only things that can protect us from this ugliness (in a purely secular context) are our friends, our loved ones, and ourselves.
Wellesley College administration and the Davis Museum have made it clear that they have no intentions on removing the statue. But this doesn’t make them bad people who are horribly insensitive to the opinions of those students who have expressed their discontent with the statue’s presence on campus. Nevertheless, much of the student reaction surrounding this controversy is shrouded in an air of indignant disbelief: “How could anyone be so utterly ignorant of how triggering this statue is? How insensitive do you have to be in order to not see why we have a problem with this? Why are you not as offended as we are?”
There’s no doubt in my mind that the students who vocalized their dissent over the statue’s presence did so because they believed it was the decent thing to do. They were looking out for their fellow students on campus who might be triggered by this realistic-looking statue of a near-naked man on campus, because the statue presents an image that — within this particular socio-cultural context (educated, American, socially liberal, predominantly female) — is considered shocking and offensive. Then, drawing from this socio-cultural context, they assumed that this image would undoubtedly, unquestionably, and irrevocably prove offensive and triggering to survivors of sexual assault. Armed with this infallible certainty in their convictions, they took to the aforementioned petition (and Facebook posts and tweets and Tumblr reblogs) with an air of disgust that says “Why can’t you ignorant, privileged swine see how offensive this is?”
The thing is, though, no one asked. If a Wellesley student were to (bravely) admit that she is triggered by the sound of bells, would that be enough for students to petition for Galen Stone Tower to be torn down? There’s a sculpture of a giant vulva right outside my residence hall. It’s usually interpreted as a symbol of feminist power and identity, but even within our current socio-cultural context — the same one used to deem the naked man statue as being unquestionably triggering and threatening — a statue of a giant vulva placed right outside students’ living quarters could be considered equally triggering and threatening.
No one has the right to speak on behalf of survivors apart from the survivors themselves. To declare that certain images are triggers based on assumptions derived solely from their placement within a limited socio-cultural context is a disservice to those survivors and their sense of self-determination. It’s the same as someone going to a protest on my behalf — without my consent — to fight for my right to practice my Buddhist faith based on an assumption that I am Buddhist simply because I am Chinese. (Plot twist: I’m a Christian, and no one has ever stood up for me whenever people harassed me for “abandoning my identity” and “clinging to an oppressive white people religion.”)
I’m not addressing the survivors who were triggered by this statue (if there indeed were any). They have every right to petition the College to move the statue and fight for their right to feel safe on campus. But I’ll be willing to bet that those survivors are also the ones with the most realistic outlook on this situation. They know what it’s like to have to exist in a non-Wellesley utopia where triggering material is strewn everywhere, and they know how to cope with that. This isn’t, of course, to say that we who have never experienced trauma are free to be as careless and callous as we wish, because survivors ought to be able to care for themselves. We take care with our words, thoughts, and actions around survivors, because we are decent people. We help maintain the safe space. But we aren’t entitled to make the rules. Our job is to follow those rules, not enforce them.
If we — as privileged people who have not experienced sexual assault — are fighting so hard for the removal of the statue in the name of protecting the rights of survivors, but we don’t even know what those survivors actually think of that statue, we need to reconsider our priorities. If we haven’t even taken it upon ourselves to open up to survivors, care for them, and make our own personal company a safe, welcoming space for them – then we ought to think hard and deep about why we are fighting in the first place. Are we fighting as “allies”? Do we deserve to that title?
There’s always a lot of controversy and hurt feelings that come with debating the definition of allydom, but I think it boils down to one simple concept: love. Loving someone is a lot more than simply being a decent person to them. Loving someone is not waiting until a polarizing controversy pops up on campus and remembering to take the “right” side of the debate. Loving someone is not signing a petition nor “speaking on their behalf” when you haven’t even spoken to them to begin with. Loving someone is not detaching yourself from the emotionally nuanced gravitas of a situation in order to feel like you’ve done something right or good.
Love means empathy without pretext. Love means reaching out to others and earning their trust. Love means sitting down and shutting up. Love means letting them speak first. Love means giving them the strength to enable them to be the fighters. Love means sacrifice and vulnerability. Love is costly. Most of the time, love comes with few rewards.
Love is hard. But I would exchange a metric ton of Wellesley’s politically correct “human decency” for one more ounce of true, sacrificial, costly love on this campus. The reason why the media reports mock and ridicule* the petition fighting to take down the statue isn’t because the media is filled with horrible, ignorant people who want survivors of sexual assault to suffer. It’s because the tone surrounding that petition makes it very difficult to see that the people supporting it do so because they actually care, not because they have an axe to grind with the universe.
We’re stuck in a rut where we’ve figured out how to be decent, but we haven’t figured out how to cross that bridge and learn to love. So instead, we’ve settled on being the most decently decent humans we can be. We’ll be so decent that the world will get sick of our decency, and we’ll probably be too busy honing our decency in order to actually care about other people, but that’s alright — at least we have the comfort of knowing that we are the most decent, most inoffensive, most mediocrely compassionate people on the planet.
I challenge Wellesley to be more than decent. The courts have spoken on the statue ordeal, but perhaps that is our cue to start figuring out how to extend ourselves in other ways. Triggers exist everywhere in this world, and they always will, so maybe instead of trying to ensure that every last trigger for every last survivor disappears off the face of the planet, we should learn to be people that survivors can confide in whenever they are triggered. Maybe we should learn how to become safe spaces ourselves: caring, empathetic, and supportive to those from whom we have earned their trust and who are willing to come to us. Maybe we should invest ourselves in ensuring that survivors — our friends, our siblings — are able to heal.
One ounce of love requires much more from us than one metric ton of human decency. It’s easy to make a Facebook post and watch the likes and comments roll in. It’s that much harder to sit down with someone and take the time to listen, with no expectation of praise or affirmation. It’s that much harder to love, but it means that much more. How will you do it?
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:3-8
*On a somewhat unrelated note: it’s really funny and mildly infuriating to consider why this news of students at a women’s college freaking out over a naked man statue has done such a great job of blowing up in the news. Crazy feminists at an all-girls school who have been so man-deprived that they shudder and scream at the sight of a male figure, much less a naked one? Imagine the Facebook shares!