Dear Mr. Murphy:
I am an assistant professor at Dalhousie University where I teach in the Department of English. Some of my colleagues are trained as Shakespeareans or Victorianists. Others are trained in Modernist literatures, or American literatures, or post-colonial literatures. I myself am a Canadianist, which means I study, research, and teach literatures of Canada. I also teach my students about Canada’s colonial legacy, about the violences of Canada’s historic and contemporary relationships with First Peoples. For example, I strive to teach my students about what an ongoing national failure to meaningfully acknowledge and address the ongoing crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women has to do with early narrative representations of First Nations peoples in settler-colonial literature. Oh yes, and I teach my students from a feminist and anti-racist perspective.
I wanted to tell you some of the places from which I teach so that you can be very clear about my deep concern with your article “Institutes of Lower Education.”
Here’s the thing: it is easy to the point of being banal and boring to take uncritical potshots at university curriculums and especially at the arts and humanities. Moreover, given that this country is in the midst of an election campaign, taking cheap shots at the humanities is a thinly veiled partisan trick at best. And you can bet that students who have been taught to close read and think critically will have seen this. It irks me that another national newspaper is willing to thoughtlessly toss humanities education out the window, but that isn’t what has enraged me enough to take time away from preparing my lectures to write to you here.
No. What enrages me, Mr. Murphy, is your seemingly blithe attitude towards gender inequity, rape culture, violence against women, and, frankly, real rape. Add to that your willingness to dismiss outright creative modes of consciousness-raising, analysis, and collaborative learning and you have me not only angry, you have me deeply concerned. If you haven’t noticed, Canada is in crisis. There are many facets of this crisis, but the one I want to draw your attention to is our national crisis of violence against women. Let me explain how your article undermines the severity of this crisis.
You begin your article asking “Who can be considered a highly educated person in today’s world?” After making reference to a few touchstone pop culture icons you quickly move from sounding like an angry old man shaking his fist at the clouds to simply being hateful. You poke fun at crucial interventions into heteronormative language as a means of undermining university education. Just in case we’re not clear, what you’ve done is denigrate linguistic attempts to make space for trans identities and denigrates the spaces and classrooms where some of those discussions take place. All in the name of suggesting that university education isn’t what it used to be back in the day with Mr. Darcy.
Are you kidding me, Mr. Murphy?
And then, despite your attempts to hinge your hateful tirade on a public figure’s woeful historic ignorance, you slut shame a young woman who was allegedly raped. In fact, you more than slut shame her. You put Emma Sulkowizc’s rape in quotation marks. You make her experience of physical violation ironic and mockable. And then you take her thesis project which, by the way, operates in a genre called endurance performance, and you mock her. You mock this young woman, her bravery, and her attempt to translate her experience of violence into both art and activism. You mock her in a national newspaper. Shame on you.
Let me tell you a bit about Ms. Sulkowicz’s project, because it isn’t clear to me that you did your research.
In the fall of 2014 an art student at Columbia University by the name of Emma Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress with her to class. This act of endurance performance entitled “Carry That Weight” was her senior thesis project for her Fine Arts Degree. It was also a public acknowledgement of her experience of sexual assault on campus. Sulkowicz was sexually assaulted in her dorm room at the beginning of her second year of university. She began carrying her fifty-pound mattress with her around campus—to class, to lunch, to study — as a visual and physical statement both of her assault and of the fact that her rapist was still a student at Columbia. He was unpunished despite several complaints of assault from Sulkowicz and other women. She, meanwhile, was carrying the weight of her assault as she moved through the same space as her assailant.
Here’s the thing, Mr. Murphy: we — by which I mean culture at large — don’t know how to talk about rape. We don’t know how to differentiate between different experiences of rape which, by the way, can require a shifting use of pronouns. We don’t know how to address the perniciousness of rape in history as a calculated tool for violence and subordination any more than we know how to discuss rape as a sometimes-facet of consensual sexual relationships. And we certainly do not know how, as a culture, to talk about rape culture on campuses.
You wrote this article nearly a year to the day that the Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke. You published this article nearly a year after the Dalhousie Dentistry Scandal Broke. And let’s not forget that nearly a year ago the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported trended to such a degree that it became the opening page of the Huffington Post. You published this article less than a week after three women were murdered in Ontario by a man they all knew. And you pretended that this article was about the failure of humanities classrooms specifically and university curriculums more generally. That is not just reprehensible journalism, it is faulty rhetoric.
There will be some readers, I’m sure, who will tell me I shouldn’t have read your opinion, that I should have known what I was in for. But here’s the thing: when a national newspaper chooses to publish openly misogynistic opinions it tells us something about our cultural climate. As my students and I discuss in our classes the historical and cultural context out of which a text is produced can tell us as much about a cultural moment as the text itself. We have incredible discussions about how language reveals systemic injustice and inequity. You’re welcome to join us if you’d like to do some research for your next article on what actually happens in humanities classrooms.
Dr. Erin Wunker
This article originally appeared on Hook & Eye.