Defending Dialogue

by Zeke Turner | 11/15/06 6:00am

Last Monday, Drew Lerman '10's comic, "The Still North," was set in a Dartmouth frat basement (Nov. 6). There was drinking, there was vomiting and there was sex. But there was also Nietzsche.

Last Sunday afternoon, Drew and I found ourselves back in a frat basement with Saturday's spilled beer and litter underfoot, quietly talking about the comic that fueled a week of discussion and controversy. For a freshman who received over 50 pieces of hate mail during only his seventh week of college classes, Lerman appeared calm and composed behind his thin-rimmed glasses, and spoke with the confidence of an upperclassman. In the week before our conversation, he had single-handedly challenged our campus to examine the premium we assign to free speech.

I think it is important to start at the point that other writers have chosen to ignore -- the comic. The backlash to Lerman's strip can be attributed to pervasive misunderstanding of his joke. Carlos Mejia '08, managing editor of the Dartmouth Free Press, called it a "comic that blatantly condones sexual assault." Misinterpretations and thinly-veiled agendas aside, Lerman has no problem explaining the rationale behind comic.

After a discussion in his freshman seminar about Nietzsche and rape, Lerman was inspired to extend his examination of Nietzsche's philosophy to a forum outside of the classroom. "The main joke of it to me was how absurd it is that Nietzsche is in a frat basement using words like 'dude' and 'bro,'" says Lerman, eyeing the dim walls of the basement. Ultimately, Lerman was trying to reconcile what he was learning about his values in the classroom with what he was learning about himself outside the classroom as a freshman in college. If this exploration is something we can all identify with, then why should it be kept away from a public forum? And if Lerman's intellectual curiosity outside the classroom would be lauded by any professor, why has it been so aggressively admonished by students, community administrators and even Office of Residential Life staff members?

Lerman acknowledges that, "If you go into the comic with the implicit understanding that Nietzsche is correct, then it could be seen as advocating rape." However, this is a very improbable explanation for the violent reaction to Drew's comic. It is safe to say that many students were angry about the comic before they even read it. "I got one letter screaming profanities," Lerman says without pause, "that I should do all the women in the world a favor and walk in front of a bus."

This piece of mail represents the irrationality with which many campus groups reacted to Drew's work. The Baker Tower clock had not even struck noon before a group of Sexual Assault Peer Advisors led by Leah Prescott, coordinator of Dartmouth's Sexual Assault Awareness Program, had stormed the offices of The Dartmouth demanding to speak with the editors. This sort of protest, although romantic, does very little to prevent sexual assault from happening at Dartmouth. The severity of this action not only accomplished nothing; it also highlighted the fact that many students thoughtlessly vilify The Dartmouth for having a responsible editorial policy, which encourages students to express themselves freely with due prudence.

Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of Dartmouth's SAPAs to mobilize against other student organizations; the last "A" in SAPA stands for advisor, not activist. SAPA training exists to provide interested students with the resources to support their peers by attacking Dartmouth's sexual assault problem at the most personal level. The same misunderstanding of mission can be assigned to Mentors Against Violence and the numerous other groups that took it upon themselves to express their outrage outwardly.

One of the tenets of the SAPA program and the sexual assault prevention movement nationwide is "break the silence." I am a SAPA myself, and, for me, this means that sexual assault should not be a topic that we brush under the rug. Sexual violence must be something that is acknowledged as a reality of our campus before we can take aim at its roots. However, to mobilize against a satirist who challenged our view of sexual assault in passing (remember that rape was not the focus of the comic) is to completely ignore the values that the movement has so aggressively expounded. How can you encourage a set of behaviors and then protest against them when they don't follow your narrow framework of "breaking the silence?"

However, Lerman does not begrudge this exploitation of his work. "Anything that my comic did that increased the discussion around campus about sexual assault I think is a very positive thing," says Lerman. "If they want to put me up as a pariah, I guess that's alright." One Student Assembly resolution, several protests, a handful of rhetorical flyers and a myriad of incensed organization-wide blitzes later, it is possible that Lerman has caused more campus backlash in his first fall than any freshman in Dartmouth's history.

Unfortunately, the volume of the reaction hasn't come as a surprise to anyone. It would be unwise to think that there was not discussion in The Dartmouth's office before Lerman's comic was published. But why should our campus media fear the expression of stimulating material? When sexual assault is such a broad and complicated issue that stems from institutionalized attitudes and social assumptions, no satisfaction is available for activists who fight against rape; and when the Assembly leadership festers with the expiring promises made during election season, considerable frustration accumulates. Last week, impatient campus organizations found a release for their frustration on page six of The Dartmouth at the expense of one of Dartmouth's students.

On Monday, Nov. 6, Drew Lerman's comic was set in a Dartmouth frat basement. Afterwards there was an eruption of anger, there were wild accusations and there were inappropriate decisions, but there was also dialogue. And for that, we have Drew Lerman to thank.

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