A reflexion on the harsh realities, mechanisms & driving forces
of discrimination & sexual assault especially within academia.
In this paper the topics analysed are those of discrimination, sexual assault, and the mechanisms and institutions around them. While discrimination is a prejudicial treatment of a human in reference to a certain socio-physical trait; sexual assault is a non-consensual act that usually involves coercing a human into sexual activity. Both practices are irreversible and psychologically damaging to the victims. However, these traumatizing and unjustifiable behaviours are awfully recurrent among us humans.
Why are discrimination and sexual assault such common phenomena, especially within Academia; and what happens after their occurrence?
The subjects at hand will be tackled through a parallel analysis of three distinct works. Michaela Coel’s 2020 series ‘I may destroy you’, Sara Ahmed’s 2021 book ‘Complaint!’, and Karine Tuil’s 2019 book ‘Les choses humaines’.
The approach consists of linking Coel’s introspection on rape and racism along with Ahmed’s scrutiny of academic institutions with Karine Tuil’s thorough depiction of the ‘mechanisms’ of Justice.
PARALLEL ANALYSIS OF A TRIPTYCH
With her TV series ‘I may destroy you’, Coel shook small screen viewers by boldly tackling rape, racism, and institutional agencies around them. This artwork is an autobiographical fiction that challenges the status quo and faces TV viewers with touchy subjects that were long avoided on the small screen. Coel’s introspection on rape is thus a daring endeavour. Her choice to present these topics on screen was not of an easy task since they are based on events she had experienced. Yet she did it so beautifully throughout the 12 episodes of 20 mins each. Her work is a cry to make people see what they are avoiding.Much like Ahmed and Tuil did with their books; these three women chose to publish, broadcast, and be vocal about the awfully traumatic experiences of sexual assault and discrimination.
The prevalence of sexual assault & the normalisation of rape in society.
The three works at hand show us how prevalent and common sexual assault is. For instance, in Coel’s series the narrative is inspired from real life events that personally happened to her. And Ahmed’s book is a collection of heart wrecking stories that occurred in educational institutions around the world. Despite Tuil’s book being a fictional novel set in Paris France, some parts of it are openly inspired by the famous 2016 Stanford student rape case: ‘People v. Turner’. Sadly, all these testimonies are as real as it gets and occur more often than we imagine.
With the protagonist, her friends & acquaintances, Michaela Coel creates a vibrantly diverse spectrum of multidimensional characters, who all have experienced some sort of sexual assault or discrimination, and in some instances have also been the offenders. The intensified flow of information and traumatic stories sets viewers on the edge. It also uncovers the bitter reality that anyone is prone to be a victim of sexual assault and discrimination, and anyone is also capable of doing it.
Throughout Ahmed’s book one can see how easily and organically borders between public and private get crossed. How blurred together academic and intimate lines get. One complainer tells Ahmed the following:
“[…] so at the time, and especially because it happened so gradually, I didn’t really read that what he was moving through was actually a grooming process, trying to see how far he could push that boundary. It moved from on campus to slightly off campus, to his house, to dinners out.” Complaint! p.112.
It is in this grey ‘academic’ sphere that people gradually tend to abuse and get abused. Through this intimate ‘educational’ proximity, the notion of consent gets lost between the blurred lines of academic complicity and authority. Sexual assault becomes somewhat of an unspoken statement of power and dominance amongst familiar academic relationships.
When sexual relationships between members from different bodies of the academic hierarchy are somewhat normalized what happens when something goes wrong? Does the banalisation of sex, banalize sexual assault or as per Sara Ahmed: “enable it”? And if so, does this disable any form of complaint over sexual assault?
“Hierarchies can make handling harassment hard, which is how hierarchies enable harassment.” Complaint! p.120.
Remembrance & rape.
When it comes to sexual assault, most victims go through the painful process of ‘reliving the trauma’ repeatedly, especially if they want to file a complaint. This explains why so many complaints are unpronounced, unvoiced, and sometimes unheard. They are so because the victims find it very difficult to go through the process complaining. Because it requires one to remember the events of the assault which means reliving the trauma. And when institutions ask victims for ‘proof’, they forcibly re-immerse complainers back into traumatic experiences. The notion of remembrance and traumatizing memory is a common theme amongst the three works studied.
The introspective dive into the protagonist’s memory sets the pace of Michaela Coel’s series. Arabella is slowly picking up bits of memories, visions, scents of the night during which she got assaulted. The young woman is struggling to bind together pieces of her fragmented memory. She is battling between figuring out what has happened to her and staying in this limbo state of confused ignorance. And when it settles in it’s so sad and so painful to watch.
Picking up the pieces of traumatic experiences is a big mountain to climb. With every description with every flashback, complainers relive the trauma. They not only have to relive traumatic experiences but also, they’re faced with having to prove them in front of demanding ‘truth seeking’ institutions. The agonizing struggle of one having to prove their version of events is meticulously depicted in Karine Tuil’s book. This fictional novel is set in Paris around rape accusations made by an 18-year-old middle class girl: Mila Wizman against a 21-year-old upper class Stanford student Alexandre Farel. The book is a sort of an arm-wrestling match between two diametrically opposed perceptions of the same occurrence. The psychological assessment of Mila Wizman during the trial in chapter 7 shows the impact of the assault on the young girl and how hard it has been for her to be expressive about it:
“She sometimes has a hard time exteriorising her feelings, which explains the psychological collapse in reaction to the events of which she has been victim. […] She developed a very severe anxio-depressive syndrome, punctuated with anxiety attacks; she gained weight” Les choses humaines p.240.
“Elle a parfois du mal à exprimer et à extérioriser ses sentiments, ce qui explique l’effondrement psychologique réactionnel aux faits dont elle a été victime. […] Elle a développé un syndrome anxio-dépressif très sévère, ponctué de crises d’angoisse ; elle a pris du poids.” Les choses humaines p.240.
The impotence of institutions.
There is something undoubtably wrong and perverse about the mechanisms of ‘prestigious’ institutions, the values they cherish, their hierarchies and their ways of addressing (or not) discrimination and harassment. Academia, being part of these high-status establishments, is sometimes mistaken for what it truly isn’t. Just like sports, academia has always been an exclusive arena. Whilst in sports the benchmark is a certain physical ability or capability. In the latter being ‘educated’ and pertaining to a certain intellectual tribe is the prerequisite. However, academics proactively participate in the perfected art of burying their heads in the sand and ignoring the mammoth in the room. Academic institutions are torn (or seem to be) between the pretence of a renewed all-inclusive diverse image and what they historically and prestigiously stand for. This paradoxical conflict of interests between inclusivity and exclusivity is hypocritical.
“This is how turning equality into a positive agenda can become part of an institutional agenda.” Complaint! p.65.
Complaining about the impotence of institutions and their hypocrisy is asking for some sort of an academic revolution; a drastic change in the core values that constitute the essence of academia. Educational institutions are still very reluctant to endeavour in the process of rigorous effective, well implemented and meticulously followed up equality reforms. Several excerpts from Ahmed’s book show how flagrant this reluctance is:
“She also described diversity work as a “banging your head against the brick wall job,” suggesting the ease with which diversity travels has something to do with the difficulty of getting through.” Complaint! p.54.
“And that is a good way of describing what complaint often feels like: so much work not to get very far.” Complaint! p.58.
“We need to learn from this: the people who head equality initiatives can be the same people who try to suppress complaints, often by threatening and silencing those who make them.” Complaint! p.64.
In addition, in our hyper capitalistic world, academia is gravitating towards a corporation like structure. Academics are feeling less powerful and more dependent on funding and investors. This makes money and investments the agent driving all values. Funding means power, and since money is agglomerated with a handful of decision-making individuals, the shape of academia is thus in the hands of a restrained number of high-profile people. These individuals pertain to tribes that are used to a certain preferential treatment and have no interest in changing the way the world is already established. Therefore, expecting equality initiatives within academia to be fruitful and rightfully implemented is some sort of wishful thinking. We ought to start looking at academia the way it sadly is an enterprise not an inclusive charity. It has become a results-demanding economic body, an organism that invests in diversity initiatives just to create an illusion of equality.
On racism, tribalism, & the mechanisms of truths.
“wir machen die Warheit”
With all the impotent trials regarding sexual assault and the abuse of power around the world, be it in academia or outside of it, one cannot but question the system itself and the dysfunctional way society chooses to deal with such matters. The ongoing masquerade that is the Epstein, Maxwell, Prince Andrew case perfectly portrays how awfully wrongful prestigious institutions are. The mutism of institutions when it comes to certain crimes committed by the mighty powerful is just abominable to follow up with.
When pictures become irrelevant. Who makes the truth?
When testimonies are rendered to null. Who says the truth?
When people with power get away with it. Where is the truth?
“The story of what happens to a complaint is often the same story complaints are about: who controls the situation, who controls the narrative.” Complaint! p.128.
As it was mentioned earlier, control is within the hands of the rich and powerful. Money is the main agent in power relation nowadays. One can use Noam Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing consent’ as an analogy in terms of discrimination and harassment. Institutions manufacture consent and truths that less powerful individuals are rendered incapable to contest. Institutions are not in the position to understand nor protect people at the lower end of hierarchies. This dynamic is flagrant in Tuil’s book, through it all one can see how members of the elite are capable of bending and distorting the truth in their own favour. They form a narrative out of the madness that is beneficial to them. The socio-economic & ethnic background of an offender is an incredible factor affecting the outcome of their sentence in the eyes of ‘justice’.
“It can be difficult from the outside to identify who is bullying because bullies often represent themselves as bullied.” Complaint! p.150.
At some point in the series Coel brings up the topic of racial agencies in dating. Specifically, when she talks about how appalling it is when her white female friends nonchalantly say that they prefer dating black men over white males because of the way black men treat them. This brings up the notion of preferential treatment in terms of race and how it still is an agent in human relationships. This brings us to the unanswerable question: Can we ever do or undo race judgement and discrimination?
Ahmed’s book shows us that there is “[…] that idea in people’s heads that we’ve done race, when we very clearly haven’t done race.” Complaint! p.60.
Tribalism in academia is real, the discrimination is real and so is the harassment. A specific set of people have the edge. And believing that it is becoming a unconditionally welcoming ground of diversity and inclusion is expecting too much out of it.
Looking at academia with a high regard is the wrong way of looking. One should actually focus on the rotting structures supporting the beautifully crafted facades on display.
This reflexion not only showed how critically linked power, discrimination and sexual assault are, but also how extremely common this type of abuse is. The recurrence of these damaging phenomena within academic and non-academic environments is bound to the hierarchies of institutions and the power relations these structures behold.
Power legitimises sexual assault, since notions like truth and consent can be easily fabricated or manufactured by those ‘lucky’ few with the adequate set of controlling strings. It is time to call out prestigious institutions on their wrongdoings. Complaining about the horrors of discrimination and harassment within academia is a big step forward. Now more than ever people are being vocal about their traumatic experiences and resorting to ‘unconventional’ ways to share with the world their version of events.
‘[…] or it is not true that the work of man is finished,that we have nothing more to do in the world,
that we are just parasites in this world,
that it is enough for us to walk in step with the world,
for the work of man is only just beginning and it remains to conquer all,
the violence entrenched in the recess of his passion,
and no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength, and,
there is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory.’
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal – 1939
Notebook of a Return To My Native Land