Here at Knox, we are rigorous in our engagement of texts. Regardless of if you’re in a great class, participating in a rich discussion or writing an extensive paper, we pride ourselves on our detailed, multi-valiant approach to texts. We never take a source at face value, but dig deeper to find larger meanings in the context of our sources. This approach gives us the tools to comprehensively comprehend the hidden messages of texts: How was this received when it was first published? What previous dialogues is this text responding to and taken as givens? What narratives are prominent at the time and place of its creation? What assumptions and dynamic relationships are at work within the text? We find these probing questions throughout our senior seminars, and we struggle throughout our time at Knox to form answers to these questions throughout the body of our collegial work. Yet, we rarely afford one another such attention and patience.
When we try to engage the confusing and painful conflicts on our campus, we often are quick to judge – and fail to sincerely give an ear for – the truths of a conflict that we have not yet engaged. By assuming, or even thoughtfully deliberating and then choosing, one perspective of a conflict to be the de facto narrative, we shut ourselves off from other possibilities, doing a disservice to ourselves and our fellow peers. I am in no way exempt from making such human errors, as my empathy has on occasion led me astray from stepping back and conceiving of the larger dynamics at play. Our sympathy for and friendships with one party in a conflict often blinds us from seeing our most beneficial roles within a conflict.
Let me present a short synopsis of a real-world example of this from recent Knox history*. A tight crew of same-year students who have spent years forging and affirming interlocking friendships receives shocking and painful news: Sexual assault has taken place between two people within the friend group. The survivor tells a small handful of friends within the circle, and as is the case with such sensitive information, prohibitions on “who can know” are immediately put in place. Despite these boundaries, those who do know discuss the incident among themselves in the privacy of concern, and in the uncontrolled anger, grief and distrust of confusion: “How could they have done this?” The friends are distraught by the pain; immediately feeling drawn into a conflict between the perpetrator and survivor, they experience the conflict between their two friends as a conflict requiring their involvement, almost demanding that something must be done! Questions of personal identity quickly surfaced: “Can I still trust the perpetrator? Did I ever really know this person?”
Through their deep empathy with the survivor, the friends experience a deeply personal agitation, in addition to the overt conflict between the two students in which some core relationships are shaken, their very validity called into question. As information fluctuates from friend to friend in a multi-week-long game of emotional telephone, sides are formally taken, though a pervasive informal side-taking occurs as the majority of the group socially isolates the perpetrator by circumstantial avoidance.
This isolation comes from an assumption that the survivor not only does not want contact with the perpetrator, but even more so needs to be reassured that they have support; the friends attempt to enact what they think is the implied will of the survivor. Ultimately, this actually contradicts the survivor’s expressed preference for people to act “as if things are normal.” Instead of serving the preference of the survivor, these actions are actually enacted for the individual friends to engage and process the hideous fact of sexual assault, particularly among intimate friends.
This impulse of “shouldering the burden” for one another yet again stems from empathetic connections, but the heaviness of the conflict prompts a diverging of the tensions from purely the two students onto a larger social context. In this way, a conflict can become diffused through a community while enflaming the dynamics of a conflict and perpetuating socio-emotional stalemates. For over a month these tensions and pains of socio-emotional stalemate are exhaustive, weighing heavy on the tight bonds knit amongst the small, now fragmented, community.
Their bonds, deeply woven with authentic friendships and camaraderie, were also formed and maintained by the very mere fact of their physical proximity and the overall size of our student body. They, and all of us at Knox, are constantly crossing paths in a diversity of situations, and there are so few of us that the ‘personal-public’ self is always on display, nearly devoid of anonymity. When we are at our best, the vast complexities of our interwoven relationships with one another lend themselves to strong solidarity across boundaries, and when we are at our lowest, we fall into socio-emotional stalemates; we dig trenches of bitter sorrow to isolate ourselves from the dynamic and personal pains of conflict.
When we forsake the context of multiple accounts, or multiple perspectives, to satisfy our immediate emotional discomforts, we consign ourselves to be ignorant in our struggles. Here we can see how the intimate nature of our struggles can blind us to the truths of others. When does your own courage falter in the face of truly intimidating conflict? In my next homily we will explore this group’s final attempt to salvage friendship.
*I consulted the primary parties within this conflict and received their blessings to include this anonymous recounting.