Several months ago, a student in our community (who will remain anonymous) posted a video of himself to his private Snapchat story. The content of the video was a misogynistic rant in which he called women “hypocrites” and expressed his belief that women lead easier lives than men. The video was not only offensive and demeaning but demonstrated a lack of awareness of gender discrimination and the reality of women’s experiences. The student displayed an ignorance of the history of sexist and oppressive gender roles that had led to the very stereotypes he was using to support his claims.
Understandably outraged, one recipient of the student’s private story sent the video to a friend; that friend then sent it to a group chat with approximately 70 people, and within an hour the video was shared on Instagram by several people. The responses in the group chat and on social media were naturally expressions of anger and disgust. Many people who formerly saw the student as a friend or amicable colleague joined their peers in the din of condemnation. While the long-term consequences remain unclear, the potential damage is severe considering that relationships in the music world can be critical to one’s professional career.
When reflecting on an incident of this nature, we have to ask ourselves what the end goal is. Thankfully, the majority of our community seems to share similar views regarding this goal. At the end of the day, we all want a community of tolerance and acceptance, a place where everyone can feel safe and welcome regardless of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or any other characteristic. We all want a community free of any and all forms of hatred whether it manifests as racism, sexism, homophobia, or bigotry. Unfortunately, this incident and many others shine light on the fact that our community is not yet at this point and that hateful rhetoric is alive and well.
What is to be done about this? When addressing this scenario or others like it, we inevitably arrive at the word accountability. The idea is simple enough – as a community, we need to hold people responsible for their actions. But this is vague, as the term accountability is used in many ways and contexts. In order to determine an effective response to this specific case, we need to envision the ideal outcome. In an ideal world, the student would never have had or expressed these sentiments in the first place. To that end, working to educate ourselves and our community is one of the most powerful tools we have against hate. But since the action can’t be undone, the ideal outcome would be for the student to reform, educating himself and becoming an advocate for women in the future. Ideas rarely exist in a vacuum, and it would also be ideal if the student worked towards informing others who support and enable this kind of rhetoric. It is clear that if we want to hold this student accountable for his actions in a way that leads to progress as a community, then accountability has to leave room for growth.
Social media has become a very complicated platform for accountability. It is an unquestionably powerful tool, one that can cause widespread positive change but can also lead to considerable damage. One factor that contributes to this negative potential is the permanency and the breadth of the exposure. With a couple of taps on a screen, any post can be shared with thousands of followers within a matter of seconds. The immediacy of social media often fails to leave time and space for nuanced discussion, and the level of exposure can lead to very extreme real-life consequences. In many cases, widespread ostracism ensues, where those personally or professionally associated with the person condemn them publicly. If institutions punish someone because of a social media post without due process, that is another issue in itself. Regardless, we should be sensitive to the power social media holds in our current culture and recognize the potential consequences of any post as a reality.
This kind of social media exposure can set an example that discourages people from voicing those opinions publicly. However, it fails to adequately address the root of the problem, often causing harmful rhetoric to continue more quietly behind closed doors. At worst, the negative attention is empowering, fueling even more hate-filled speech and in severe cases, destructive action. Ironically, in this case it also validates some of the student’s remarks. He admitted that people would probably attack him for his remarks, and the response likely affirmed his self-perceived victimhood.
The implication of many social media call-outs is a statement about someone’s inability to change. At moments like these, people often define the person in question by a single comment or action, reducing them to a symbol of misogyny or racism. The impersonal aspect of social media contributes to this tendency and makes it easy to condemn. Equating a comment or action with the totality of any person is neither useful nor accurate. And the truth is that anyone is capable of radical change, even as it pertains to the most extremist views. The idea that someone’s views are intrinsic to who they are is both unfounded and dangerous. It stifles potential progress, eliminating the possibility for growth as a society at large. To believe in societal change, we have to understand that people can change their views.
Take the example of Megan Phelps-Roper, a writer and activist who was born into the Westboro Baptist Church. Many will be familiar with the Church since members of the hate group paid a visit to Juilliard in 2016, an institution that they claim is destructive and sinful. Phelps-Roper was indoctrinated with deeply homophobic and anti-Semitic beliefs, picketing funerals of U.S. soldiers with her family from a young age. But in her memoir Unfollow, she explains how strangers on Twitter who were willing to discuss and even empathize planted seeds of doubt that ultimately led her to leave the Church in 2012. Her story is one of extreme transformation, but it is one of countless stories of people who reformed their views and became advocates for the people they had previously attacked. Clearly, the question is not whether people can change their views but how.
Often, the most powerful change starts on a personal level. In a scenario like this, a logical first step would be for those closest to the student to have a conversation with him, using their personal connection to explain the hurtful fallacies in his rhetoric. Discussions of this nature are most often taxing. It is easy to feel unequipped for a debate, or feel emotional strain from trying to refute viewpoints that are hurtful on a personal level. Confronting a friend in this way can be uncomfortable and often takes courage, but these conversations become easier and more productive the more we have them. They require a willingness to continually educate ourselves on the needs of our community and society at large. There are several online resources that can be valuable tools when navigating these waters, including the “Hollaback” bystander intervention technique (a resource that also offers free, online bystander intervention training), which is listed below. While all of these strategies require personal initiative, they are important tools for growing empathy, building a more accepting community, and becoming better equipped to handle conflict. This is an initiative worth taking as we are all likely to encounter difficult and offensive confrontations moving forward in life.
Self-care and protection should always be a first priority. If one person feels they aren’t emotionally capable of handling a conversation that could be hostile, it can be beneficial to enlist the help of a friend or acquaintance. When hurtful messages are directed at specific groups, those who are not part of that targeted group have as much of if not more of a responsibility to intervene or address the person directly. Sometimes, it is too difficult for students to have personal discussions, particularly when they feel unsafe or personally hurt, and this kind of delegation can be necessary for self-protection.
While the administrative system may have its flaws, there are a variety of valuable resources at our disposal. People can also always reach out to Camille Pajor, the Title IX director and bias response officer, even when the grievance is not a policy violation. Title IX and Bias Response welcome any conversation with community members, including discussing hypothetical situations, rights, resources, response options, and preferences. It is also worth noting that individuals and groups can request customized training from Title IX and Bias Response, as well as other offices like EDIB, on topics such as equity and conflict management. The faculty and administration are certainly not exempt from accountability and have mishandled situations in the past. Normalizing conversations about accountability and including faculty and administrations in these discussions could be key in ensuring lasting improvement as a community.
It cannot be overstated that personal discussion is not a replacement for consequences, particularly when there are policy violations involved. When there is harassment, violence, or a violation of school policy or the law, it is not up to students to deal with the matter on a personal level. In these situations, students should consider reporting the issue by whatever means they feel comfortable. Juilliard has an array of report forms that can be submitted anonymously (see link in resources). The administration has a responsibility to take all grievances seriously and investigate and follow through with all parties involved. Its main goals are to stop, prevent, and remedy misconduct, and to do so, they aim to apply policies fairly and in a trauma-informed way. If they don’t achieve these goals, students should continue to keep the administration accountable; these instances are complex and the process of holding administration accountable should be a topic of further discussion.
Social media, like any other tool, can be used effectively or ineffectively, and the difference can be difficult to determine. Social media call-outs are part of a precarious gray area where one word or share could be life altering. This is not to say that social media call-outs have no purpose or value. In more extreme situations, often involving discrimination, harassment, or assault, social media can be a tool for garnering support when the existing infrastructure for justice has failed to address the issue. It can be a way of letting victims know that they are not alone. Beyond that, it has potential to bring down dangerous people in positions of power that are otherwise untouchable and who have not been held accountable for their crimes. The #metoo movement, for example, not only brought down powerful sex offenders, but contributed to a global movement against sexual harassment and rape. In cases like that of Harvey Weinstein, the framework for accountability failed on every account, or never truly existed. However imperfect it may be, we do have structures of accountability in place at Juilliard, and as a student body, we have the power to build on this existing framework.
If we’re reflecting critically on our community, it seems that we lack a strong, productive culture of accountability. People tend to turn a blind eye to offensive comments made by friends or laugh off jokes that are offensive to the point of being damaging. Often, people don’t want to alienate themselves from colleagues they may be working with for the rest of their lives. Sometimes people just don’t know how to respond or how to call someone out for a hurtful statement. There are exceptions, but on the whole, accountability in in-person interactions is a rare thing to see.
Changing this culture could be a powerful tool in ensuring meaningful progress as a community. Each time someone ignores or laughs off a misogynistic comment, they enable and validate that rhetoric, adding fuel to a fire that could really hurt certain members of our community. In this sense, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the way we approach accountability. This web of accountability could create a framework that protects those who are most vulnerable in our community and ensure that everyone feels more safe and welcome.
Nothing in this article is said to discount the harm caused by this particular incident to members of our community. Working to repair that harm is just as essential as properly addressing the issue of the student. The question is how to repair that harm. One idea that is common in the rhetoric in favor of social media call-outs is that it does justice to the victims by exposing wrongdoing. This is a purely retaliatory idea of justice and one that has no real foundation. The true way of honoring those hurt most is to ensure that real progress is made and work towards this rhetoric not happening in the future. Another idea is that call-outs of this nature are important since they show people that something is wrong; in this case, posting the video could be seen as a way of demonstrating that these ideas are misogynistic and hurtful, thus empowering victims. But we have to recognize that there are many other ways to make this statement that don’t involve potentially destructive consequences.
This recent incident is neither the first nor the last of its kind. Our discussion of it is not meant to harp on the past or personally attack those who shared on social media. We are using this incident to comment on a larger cultural trend and highlight the complexity of the issue. In this instance, it can easily be argued that the social media response was justified since the video was posted to social media in the first place. But what is “deserved” is beside the point, and the important question is what response is most productive and beneficial for the community as a whole. While incidents like these are disheartening in the sense that they bring to light sentiments that shouldn’t exist in our community, they also provide us with opportunities to make real, positive change and progress. In the midst of a pandemic, it is understandable that people tend to turn to social media as a tool for accountability. But as we gradually venture towards a post-Covid world, we can use this as an opportunity to reflect and define ourselves as a community. Together, we can create a stronger, more empathetic, and more robust culture of accountability moving forward.
- Bystander Intervention Techniques:
Hollaback! Bystander Resources
- Megan Phelps-Roper TED Talk:
I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left
- Juilliard Resources:
- NYC Well:
24/7 mental health support/referrals via talk/text/chat