Racial Equity

How We’ve Misunderstood the Hurt Student Protesters Feel

December 11, 2015  • Karen Gross

In recent weeks, including through the Thanksgiving break, we have seen a growing number of college student protests, challenging campus culture as racist and unsafe for minorities. Students have spoken up and out to administrators and faculty, peacefully for the most part but with rhetoric laced with anger, hurt and disappointment. The latest round of overt protests began with the University of Missouri and the remarkable solidarity of their football team that refused to play until the campus leadership was removed. There is a history behind the issues that led up to these “race protests;” they most assuredly did not appear out of thin air.

And then, we had the showing a week ago of the documentary, The Hunting Ground, on CNN about rape on American’s campuses. These included assaults at some of our most elite universities and at least one allegedly committed by a now-well-known professional athlete. Ironically (or perhaps intentionally), the film was shown at a time that directly competed with Sunday night football. Despite threats of legal action to shut down the broadcast, CNN ran the film and in it, many students expressed their deep frustration with the blind eye that institutions demonstrate when confronted with allegations of sexual harassment. The victims felt re-victimized by processes that seem designed to discourage pursuit of campus rapists, especially those who were athletes or members of fraternities. These “rape protests” are not new concerns.

There are several things that link the race and rape protests. The reaction to both protests has been remarkably negative in many quarters. With few exceptions, the articles and comments on the race protests speak about the protesters as coddled, self-indulgent, rude, disrespectful, revolt-seeking children. It is as if college students must park their outrage at societal issues at the campus gate. Similarly, the stories depicted in the Hunting Ground documentary of campus rape highlight the institutional failure to believe the victims (mostly but not uniquely female); the film presents college administrators, among others, who believe the victims are prevaricating or at least exaggerating. These victims are treated as if they “asked for it,” and hence have no one to blame but themselves. Many of the comments on the movie have not been sympathetic to the victims.

The largely negative reaction to the race and rape protests by administrators and commentators both surprises and angers me. There are many explanations for why we want to demonize the protestors and the rape victims and for why we look down on those with privilege. This is complicated stuff — for students and those responding. But, I think that something else is going on right in front of our eyes but invisible in our conversations and actions that helps to explain why the victims and protesters are so angry with the rest of us — the college administrators, the faculty, the larger community. It also enables us to better understand how smart professors and savvy administrators fail to express empathy for the protestors, a decision that runs against every fiber in my being in terms of helping those who are hurt and in need.

Focus for a moment on the term “moral injury,” commonly used in the context of soldiers returning from war. In her newest book and at a panel discussion on soldier return related to the book’s premise, Professor Nancy Sherman at Georgetown University and her fellow panelists moved the trauma paradigm beyond our conventional notions of PTS (without the “D”). PTS is often viewed as the fear induced by trauma; the developed remedy is desensitization. It involves helping soldiers who return reintegrate into civilian life without jumping each time a door slams or a book drops or a car backfires. We enable soldiers to distinguish between war “noises” and civilian “noises,” and in the process, they can function more effectively day-to-day.

But Professor Sherman and her colleagues have argued persuasively that returning soldiers from recent wars (and perhaps all wars) have suffered and continue to suffer a different and perhaps even more disturbing and debilitating injury — a moral injury. This occurs in a myriad of ways. Soldiers in battle have been commanded to kill or to pick up body parts or to hit targets that produce collateral damage. They have seen their comrades suffer; they have behaved in ways that are troubling to them personally but they proceeded anyway: they have tortured enemies; they have demeaned women; they have been unfaithful to their spouses; they have used too many drugs and too much alcohol, to not only dull the pain but to feel a part of a group. After all, in war, everyone must look out for each other; one’s life literally depends on group cohesiveness.

Stated most simply, military culture often conflicts with civilian culture and the result of being part of one — military culture especially during war when much is at stake — produces a moral injury.

Identifying and then treating moral injuries is a relatively new phenomenon. It forces those dealing with veterans to see the injury — and it is invisible to the naked eye. Then it requires some strategies (including some still being developed) to enable the soldier to heal that moral wound. One emerging approach is to facilitate listening by civilians, so the civilians can see and hear the true price of combat from soldiers directly. Another strategy is to enable soldiers to share their stories in multiple fora so that others become familiar with the culture clash the soldiers experienced and the deep hurt they now have upon their return to civilian status. Listening, hearing, telling, engaging, sharing — these are all approaches to foster empathy in the hearts and minds of civilians so they understand the true costs of war.

Now, returning to our campus race and rape protestors, think about how campuses deal with minorities and the culture of inclusion and exclusion. Much of the discrimination is subtler than it was decades ago when minorities were not even allowed to enroll as students. But make no mistake about it: we have plenty of subtle discriminatory behavior on our campuses, much of which is coming to light now and fueling these protests.

How do professors treat athletes in their classes, especially those who are in the high profile sports like basketball or football? How many whispers and nasty cracks can one hear, see and absorb? The offensive email, the remark on a paper, the request of faculty for personal emails, the asides about grades and high school preparation, the reading assignment that seems targeted, the in-class argument that displays hostility for those who are different, the absence of certain foods in the dining halls, the nature of social events. The list of macro and micro-aggressions is long. Just spend 24 hours on a campus and you will see them — if you open your eyes and ears.

Think about the culture that exists across our nation’s many campuses that encourages abuse of women in some settings with drinking and partying and drug use. And this does not just occur on college campuses; look at the culture at the St. Paul’s School that led to the conviction of Owen Labrie who literally fulfilled a senior salute tradition by bedding a first year high-schooler.

Also, reflect on our culture in terms of how society encourages women to dress, speak and behave to be popular on many campuses — from tight pants/skirts to low cut dresses/tops to makeup that glimmers at night to high-heeled shoes. The culture of what apparently makes females attractive to men is pervasive, growing out, in part, of our vast, pervasive media culture. Pretty hard to buck that trend, especially when one is young and wants to fit in and to be cared about.

Now, minority students or student rape victims often have dealt with these offensive cultural norms. These are not one-off events. Oft-times the students do not speak up and out; they just go along — in their dress, their language, their behavior. There’s even a word for this: “passing.” But, “playing along” (acting along, dressing along, speaking along) comes at a sizable price. And this is the key: it creates a moral injury. Deep inside, the student protesters and rape victims have been injured by campus cultures that go beyond one professor acting badly at one gathering or one “over the top” frat party. These students have had to deal with subtle but constant efforts to conform, and they have done so at great personal cost. Reflect back on our soldiers.

Stated in its most clear terms, like soldiers, many minority students and sexual assault survivors have suffered a moral injury on our campuses. And, here’s the kicker: we have not and do not listen — the very remedy suggested to address moral injury to soldiers. University presidents refuse to get out of their cars to listen to protesters. And some folks who agree to speak to students seem singularly unmoved or unaffected; they are not listening well. Their hands are clasped. And, the administrators and faculty are so defensive, interested in self-protection and job preservation that they do not open their minds or ears or hearts to what students are actually saying — at and below the surface. They see the incidents from their perspective alone; they do not see or perceive the systemic harms.

At the recent panel referenced above at Georgetown, one of the speakers, Meosha Thomas, suggested that each time she tells her story of war, she feels some of the weight of the moral injury she suffered move from her shoulders to those of the listeners; her burden is lightened by sharing how she was forced, in essence, to choose between military culture and civilian culture, between survival and death, between helping her comrades and caring for her children, between answering commands and following the dictates of her heart. And we, the audience of civilians, have to take ownership for her moral injury.

I suspect, reflecting back on the videos of the campus protests at Mizzou and Yale among others as well as the Hunting Ground documentary, that the affected students suffered a moral injury and we denied them a chance to tell their story. We silenced them — whether intentionally or inadvertently. We did not give them our ears or our hearts or our minds. We did not see or hear their pain. Had we listened, had we heard, had we recognized their moral injury, we would have lightened their burden and increased our own. And we would have defused the palpable tensions.

It is obvious, at least to me, that we need to change campus cultures that produce moral injuries. Those who work and teach and live on America’s campuses have failed to see (or perhaps to name and acknowledge the gravity and consequences of) the moral injury our students have suffered. We have plenty of blame to accept for the racial issues in our midst and a culture that fosters sexual assault, micro-aggressions and overt discrimination. But even if there were agreement on that aim, it is a long-term project. It is not happening tomorrow.

In the near term, as in tomorrow, there is something we can do: we can let our students speak. And we can listen. Only then can we begin to address our failings as leaders and teachers, whether of our own making or on behalf a culture of which we are in a position to object and argue for and make change. Only then will we be able to help our students recover from the injuries that occur on our campuses. We owe that much to students as we seek longer-range remedies. They come to our campuses to be educated in all senses of the word. Let’s own our own failings so we can help our students.

We know from the war literature that moral injuries fester and hurt. Time to recognize and deal with such injuries on campuses. Now.