The Open Letter has hurt and offended many people, particularly women, but many men also, who view it as a top-down directive to women telling them to be quiet about sexual assault or misbehaving professors. The writer and academic Zoe Todd, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the Open Letter, has said that the unsung heroes are editors: “They needed an editor.” I could not agree with her more.
There is a ton of privilege in that list and in our names. There is no doubt about that. Yet no one who signed the letter wishes to silence or denigrate women, especially young women who are aspiring writers. The letter is directed at the university, not at the complainants, and does, in fact, state that the complainants themselves were ill-served by UBC. As they most certainly were. They were used by the UBC administration in the grossest way.
Yet that doesn’t let us off the hook. So many people’s pain and anger is deeply affecting. Some of the best exchanges I’ve had are with young women I don’t know who are ‘on the other side’. Which is very close to me. I am listening—I am always trying to learn. What does this conversation mean for us as a community and as a society? After a good friend removed her signature from the Open Letter, I thought deeply about her action and reasoning behind it. I made an apology on Facebook and I make one here: I am sorry this collective action hurt and offended people, probably my own former students among them.
Like many women writers, I’ve worked and written through a lot of my own pain and anger about sexual violence. It’s an explosive, important issue and I never want it to be silenced. My last book sprang from the need to confront violence against vulnerable women and children and it was met with (what a surprise) mostly silence and editorial eye-rolls—and advice from both men and women publishers that I didn’t need to write about this stuff anymore because it’s all been said. (Seriously. I thanked them all in the acks.) In the last week, women have forcefully assured us all and each other that that is not the case. It has not all been said; we are only at the beginning. Women and men and trans people who have not had the power of whiteness and heterosexual privilege, especially, are just getting started. Their power and passion give me enormous hope. They are, in fact, my examples, my inspiration, so yes. I am listening.
My commitment to precisely that—to listening, to encouraging people to speak, criticize, express, shout, protest, write—has defined my life. And my commitment to freedom from censorship—political, social, moral censorship—has defined my work. This past summer in Vancouver, I listened to students, former students, tenured and non-tenured professors describe a bizarre wall of silence, secrecy and intimidation at UBC about the complicated layers to the Steven Galloway case. No, they were not all his friends; some of them didn’t even know him. The silencing and intimidation they experienced came from both the administration and from professors with power. It was hard to believe that a university in Canada could clamp down on its faculty and students in this way—yet many people described the silencing to me in detail. As a citizen who also happens to be a writer, I found and I continue to find this deeply disturbing.
As more and more writers learn, study, and work in universities, we have to interrogate the modern institution. What does it expect from us? What will it have us do to each other to preserve its good name and the inevitable status quo that is part of that name? What happens when students and professors—both sets of people being our fellow writers–are grievously harmed in obfuscating, underhanded acts of institutional aggression, acts that protect no person, only the institution itself? What can we do? This—all that’s happened in the last couple weeks—is part of a much larger, painful, and important conversation.