Stanford Professor Calls on University to Include Chanel Miller's Words at Site of Attack
Oct. 08, 2019
David Palumbo-Liu calls on the university to include Miller's words at the site of her attack.
In this op-ed, David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon professor and professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, advocates for the university to better honor Chanel Miller's voice after her sexual assault in 2015.
Because of BuzzFeed’s publication of Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement in 2015, and now her stunning book, Know My Name , the world knows the effects Brock Turner’s acts of sexual violence, and all that followed, had upon Miller, her family, and her loved ones. But Miller’s beautifully-written book does much more than show the devastating impact of sexual assault on the survivor; it also opens a window on the systems of power that can serve to silence survivors, an experience that has resonated with the truths of countless others.
One of the things that comes out in the book is the immense, inert power of institutions. The judicial system, of course, but also, and especially in this case, universities. The attack happened on the campus I where teach — Stanford University. Miller spends some time in her book recounting the scant communication Stanford had with her during her trial, and how that changed in the aftermath. She agreed to have a memorial placed at the site of her attack so that others would remember, and people would have a place to sit and reflect on the events. Stanford agreed , and offered to place a memorial plaque at the site. Miller asked that she be able to choose language from her victim impact statement for the plaque inscription.
The statement has been read (at last count) by millions worldwide. It has been read into the Congressional record. It has been recited on television. There is nothing new to be exposed. Still Stanford refused to install Miller's words. The University did not think the language appropriate — they thought it might be too triggering.
To read Miller’s account of the back-and-forth she had with Stanford is to read the transcript of an attempted dialogue between two entirely different worlds. To call it Kafkaesque is an understatement. On what grounds can an institution rationalize its betrayal of an agreement with someone who has already suffered so much? How could it justify adding this added punishment and pain? As one faculty colleague expressed to me: “What’s triggering is the effort to silence Miller — that’s what makes me feel unsafe, like I’m in hostile territory.”
As of this writing, more than 1800 members of the Stanford community have signed an open letter urging the University to do the right thing and put up the plaque with exactly the words Miller wants. The letter was written by and emanated from our undergraduate student body government — clearly, these young people do not find the language Miller chose to be at all dangerous. They read the words as Miller intended, not as some administrator feared they would be read.
Another petition urges that Stanford make Miller’s book part of the Three Books Program — designed to have every entering student read the same three books and discuss them. We can think of no more important book for the Stanford community to read. Some have said that to require all students read this book might be uncomfortable for some. We understand, and students can opt-out of reading any course materials they find triggering. But the series has had students read powerful and wrenching books about genocide, mental illness, and sexual violence in the past — for the very good reason that at one’s time in college one should not only be exposed to harsh realities, but to understand their causes and impacts as well.
Chanel Miller was not a Stanford student. She is a Palo Alto native and went to the party on campus with her sister and friends. Those of us at Stanford nonetheless consider Chanel Miller a part of us now, not because of her being a victim, but because we feel invested in doing right by her. If our administration won’t atone on our behalf, then we will.
When our leaders model leadership in narrow, muted, formulaic language that no one really takes seriously, it sends a message — play it safe, be quiet, everything is fine. One comes to believe that that dead language is a norm. Norms harden into habits, and habits are hard to break. Passive, soulless, euphemistic language indicates a frame of mind that is equally so. One then feels unauthorized to speak, to feel differently. And that feeling percolates down from the top administration to staff, faculty and students. We become, in the full sense of the word, discouraged.
Maybe college administrators have to speak that language. But they should not insist that we do, and they should not censor us if we don’t, especially if they have agreed to let us use the language we need.
Teen Vogue reported on the remarkable efforts of some students to put in place, through Augmented Reality software, the memorial Chanel Miller requested. One of the students who contributed to the site, Alexis Kallen, rebutted Stanford’s reason for banning Miller’s words. Kallen said that when one travels through major cities in Germany, one sees memorials and plaques and signs all around remembering the Holocaust. Is that “triggering?” If so, what’s so bad about being reminded of the potential for great evil, and the possibility of hope?
One of the phrases Miller wanted Stanford to use was:
“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Miller’s last two words are key — they are both the uplift and, as my colleague Michele Dauber points out, the intellectual challenge. Those two words ask the reader to wonder, “why today?”
Of course, in the original reading it is Miller standing before Brock Turner and speaking truth in court. But as a set of words on a plaque, the words serve another purpose as well: They initiate an educational and ethical experience—something that is indeed supposed to happen at universities.
As a literary scholar I will offer my own interpretation of the lesson the words teach us. The “day” might well mean the very moment that the visitor to the garden is standing there, reading the words, and at that moment they are joined to Chanel Miller. Whatever loss she has detailed has been at least partially restored — the loneliness dissipated, by the company of the visitor. And, I would say, it places a responsibility on the viewer to carry that companionship forward to any other victim of violence.
We should not have to keep our institution’s promise for it. Stanford must keep its word and put up the plaque, as agreed, with the words that Chanel Miller chooses— it is a right you agreed to give her. Many also believe it must make Know My Name part of the Three Books program.
All around the world we are seeing brave young people lead the way on issues of climate change, gun control, fair wages, universal healthcare, and sexual violence and harassment. We elders would do well to remember that idealism is what helped our generation address issues of racism, sexism, ecology, and war in new and important ways that laid the foundations for progressive politics. We must all insist on the right to speak in language that is uncomfortable to those to do not want to disrupt the status quo.
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