Emily Doe is angry. And yet, in the midst of such trauma, she created a thing of raw, powerful beauty. We may never know her real name, or hear from her again. But she is the protagonist of this story. She will go on, she will heal, and she will thrive, because of love: the love of her sister, her boyfriend, and the millions of people who have now been transformed by her words. She has reminded us of the power of shared humanity. Our job now is to not lose sight of exactly that.
We need deep and fundamental culture change based on compassion and love for people and planet.
I’ve been a strong advocate for women’s human rights for more than three decades. I know that these are the responses to violations that activists dream about. Those moments where the voice of the victim drives outrage and shifts an entire narrative about white male entitlement, a certain brand of masculinity, about rape, and about impunity.
We are outraged. And we should be.
Here’s yet another example of a failure of accountability to women — just, under the circumstances, an unusually vivid, clear, and galvanizing one. The justice system fails when it sentences a man convicted of three counts of sexual assault to only six months in county jail. Brock Turner fails to be accountable when he blames the incident on “campus drinking culture” and “sexual promiscuity” at Stanford rather than on his own choices. Turner’s father fails an entire generation when he reconstructs an assault as “20 minutes of action.”
But, most importantly, it is our culture of power imbalance and stifling gender norms that continuously fails victims of assault. As Vice President Joe Biden points out in his open letter to Buzzfeed:
“I do not know your name — but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed. Anyone at that party who saw that you were incapacitated yet looked the other way and did not offer assistance. Anyone who dismissed what happened to you as ‘just another crazy night.’ Anyone who asked ‘what did you expect would happen when you drank that much?’ or thought you must have brought it on yourself. You were failed by a culture on our college campuses where one in five women is sexually assaulted — year after year after year. A culture that promotes passivity. That encourages young men and women on campuses to simply turn a blind eye.”
We have accepted as normal an ever-growing list of damaging cultural and gender norms. This results in a world in which “power” means different things for different genders, different races, different communities. Power becomes a way in which we exercise entitlement and inflict harm, and its consequences are violent, traumatic, and irrevocable for all involved. We cannot dismantle our current patriarchal model of fear and scarcity without culture change. We need deep and fundamental culture change based on compassion and love for people and planet.
I believe that men like Brock Turner, his father, and Judge Persky are afraid. They are afraid of living in a world where the power they expect is no longer handed to them by virtue of their gender. They are afraid we will treat them the way they have been, either directly or by cultural osmosis, taught to treat women. In reality, the world we want and need cannot be one that perpetuates this “us-versus-them” norm. We need to create a world in whichall beings can thrive.
I want to be surprised. I want justice to be equitably served in cases of sexual assault. I want campuses to respond quickly and compassionately to students who report. I want young men on campus to step up and join the movement. I want culture change that establishes new norms. I want to live in a world where alcohol, revealing clothing, or flirtation are not seen as excuses for rape. Where masculinity adopts a new kind of power that is not dependent on domination and destruction. I want — and we all need — to co-create this new world.
We may not be able to create a world free of anger, hurt, or even hate. These primal emotions are part of being human. But they also remind us of the enriching part of our humanity: those moments when we experience joy, compassion, and togetherness. What we can and must ensure is an end to this pattern of harm against ourselves, our fellow humans, and our planet. And our collective response to Emily Doe’s letter has created an opening for us to do just that.
Let’s do power differently. Let’s do power with love.
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