The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

Carolina has been awash with words this week — words that testify and words that incite, words that bridge and words that accuse. As a transgression that in many ways passes beyond speech, sexual assault has sparked a campuswide conversation about the University’s policies toward both accused students and survivors.

It is a conversation that the community should have had years ago.

But it is also a conversation that reveals how little we know about the specifics of particular cases — a factor that should not halt our engagement, but also one that we should not lose sight of.

So many social institutions and apparatuses of control crystallize in sexual violence:
Historical systems of patriarchy use force to subjugate women. Heteronormative ideas of gender privilege a clearly defined masculinity. Our drinking and dating culture trivializes and blurs the lines between what is OK and what isn’t.

Criminal justice institutions extract information from survivors and impugn the accused publicly, no matter the presumption of innocence. University administrative procedures are ill-equipped to deal with sexual assault.

And a proliferation of discourses, often online, incites and misinforms more often than it clarifies.

In times of crisis, the problem is often not that we lack the desire to change our world, but that we are intimidated by the tremendous task that faces us.

Political action can take many forms. We tend to think of politics as a strategic manipulation of institutions and structures. Democracy exists in the carefully designed channels that we have laid out for it — votes, petitions, public marches, letters to administrators or congressmen.

Certainly, political change can be enacted through the system and by bringing pressure on its participants. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded in overturning, to a large extent, mechanisms of deeply entrenched racial inequality through legislative and judicial means.

But we tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement’s most visible peaks without focusing also on the long, sometimes regressive, climb.

Our narrative excludes the overwhelming numbers of faceless individuals who — without any guarantee of success — chose to fight in the small ways they could to bring about a new integrated world.

I would ask then for a conversation that is as deep as it is broad, that fights not simply for a fair procedure for addressing sexual assault but also for a community that is dedicated to sexual equality and security for all students.

Often, we privilege the role of large-scale institutional forces in determining what is wrong and what is right. This is not meant to undercut the tremendous power for good and for evil that they can wield in the individual lives of students.

But a true change must concern us all. It is the power of the little things — our attitudes, our language, the friend we reached out to — that will ultimately make all the difference.

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