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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the editor: Forgiveness before any new thing

Hi, I’m Tessa Cheek ’12, one of the four survivors who talked to [President] Raynard Kington about reforming Grinnell’s sexual assault response policy in the spring of 2012.

Like everyone in the room that day, I suspect, that conversation has haunted me for three years. I remember it with a stomach-turning mixture of anger, shame and confusion. I’ll be honest and say my memory of the talk also isn’t great. Though the facts of previously reported accounts don’t strike me as wrong, I still long for the form of the thing—namely, a recording.

When I ask myself why I want this artifact, the answer is pretty simple: I want to know if I was right. Right to go into that room and fight the cause at considerable personal cost, right in my behavior, right in my moral reasoning, right to report in the first place, right, right, right.

This need for concrete evidence of my political and personal correctness has only grown over the years. It’s a heavy, sharp carry. As with so many difficult conversations, from rape to race, the discourse has swung very zero-sum: either I’m right and Kington’s horrible, or Kington’s not horrible and I’m a horrible hysteric.

This spring I had the honor of returning to Grinnell to teach a journalism workshop at The Scarlet & Black. While I was in town I also had the chance to talk to lots of Grinnell folks—particularly students and professors.

In some big ways it seems like my rightness is in vogue at Grinnell. Among students especially I heard a lot about how Raynard is bad on sexual assault response politics and possibly just bad for Grinnell.

Ok, cool, I was right all along. Finally, I can put that burden down.

But I don’t feel light and I don’t feel right. I feel sad.

I feel sad because I walked into Kington’s office three years ago to start a conversation, not to make conversation impossible.

I feel sad because the more I heard about students’ dissatisfaction with administration, the more it seemed to have veered mightily from concrete constructive aims that will reduce sexual assault and support survivors and towards tired critical tropes. Things like: Kington is tyrannical or [Title IX Coordinator] Angela Voos (who took on the task of revamping Grinnell’s Title IX policy after that 2012 talk and made every effort to include me in her work) is inept.

What I didn’t hear much about was what the fighting was for. If, for example, it’s more counselors, then Grinnell students should engage the fact that the school is losing staff this year and struggling to fill positions because the ratio of mental health professionals to residents in Iowa is alarmingly low. I worry that in the rush to establish who is right and who is wrong, we’ve lost sight of what can change.

I don’t think much convincing is needed at Grinnell, or really any campus these days, to agree that when it comes to how institutions of higher learning deal with sexual assault, new is needed. I submit to you that if what we really want is a campus and a world where people don’t rape other people, the fundamental project at hand is not to get Kington fired or to make Grinnell look bad but to fundamentally re-invent how institutions of higher learning deal with sexual assault.

I don’t have a perfect plan for how to invent this new policy, but my studies at Grinnell have shaped what I think the first step might be.

In the spring of 2012 I worked on a MAP investigating Hannah Arendt’s theory of public discourse and how it can be repaired once broken. It’s been a bit, but I’d summarize that semester of study with the following Arendt paraphrase: forgiveness before any new thing.

Forgiveness is not the same as absolution. It’s more of a truth and reconciliation thing. So here goes:

My truth is that I walked into Kington’s office in 2012 with a good-faith desire to work on solutions and trusting that I would be heard. I left the room feeling hurt, betrayed and not a little gaslit.

But I see now that the validity of my experience doesn’t depend on my rightness/Kington’s wrongness. When it comes to having tough but generative conversations about terrifying social issues, rightness and wrongness are not as important as respect, communication and forgiveness for the inevitable stumbles in that highly complex relational effort known as empathy.    

That’s just one person’s truth and this letter just one forgiveness. It’s likely that the hard work of those at Grinnell who put together a Title IX complaint about the school, and/or the investigation Kington later requested, will yield even more truths to reconcile.

New is needed, and to even get started on that work requires not one but many forgiveness. I mean for this letter to serve as an argument in favor of doing that difficult, radical work. I mean for it to serve as one repair—a thin bridge, sure, but we could widen it.

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  • M

    Megan Goering '08May 8, 2015 at 1:07 am

    This was a beautiful, thoughtful reflection. Thank you for your courage and for sharing your voice — this aspect of suffering stretches across many different heartbreaking situations, and the experience you shared informs those too.

    The Arendt ideas you mention remind me of the work of the late Marshall Rosenberg, Non-Violent Communication (NVC). It’s quite a practical/empathy-oriented method for mediation and negotiation, recurrently popular in San Francisco and utilized across many corners of the world, from post-genocide reconciliation to classrooms and families. This would’ve been a far leap from my experience at Grinnell, but it’s secular and empirically effective, so I wonder if it will resonate.

    Sample video workshop –

  • R

    Randy GleasonMay 7, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I appreciate Tessa Cheek’s good intentions, and I applaud her attempt at outreach and reconciliation.
    However, I’d like to respectfully caution about the role of forgiveness in this process.
    The offering or extending of forgiveness suggests that an individual believes he or she has been treated unfairly or inappropriately by another, resulting in harm, suffering or injustice.
    However, if the individual being offered forgiveness doesn’t feel he or she acted wrongly or inappropriately, then the gesture of forgiveness will not be one of healing, but more likely to cause resentment.
    Ms. Cheek says the validity of her experience “doesn’t depend on my rightness/Kington’s wrongness.”
    But by making a gesture of forgiveness, she is positing herself as the person who is indeed “right” – the one who has in some way been mistreated or harmed, whether through malice or ignorance. This suggests that those she is forgiving are “wrong” or have acted poorly or inappropriately toward Ms. Cheek, thus responsible for her subsequent feelings of anger, disappointment and sadness.
    Or, to put it more informally, if an acquaintance or colleague approached me and said, “I’d like to offer forgiveness,” my first response would probably be to ask what I did to harm, offend or upset him. I might agree that the two of us have had disagreements recently. But if I didn’t think I did anything “wrong” and that despite our differences, I treated this person with respect and consideration, then my hunch is that I wouldn’t be particularly grateful or encouraged by this person’s gesture of forgiveness. Instead, I’d probably be a bit upset and offended. Rather than considering the offer of forgiveness in a positive light, I’d be inclined to consider it sanctimonious and condescending.
    So what does Ms. Cheek mean by “forgiveness” and in what context? Well, she writes, “…..forgiveness for the inevitable stumbles in that highly complex relational effort known as empathy.”
    I would like to respectfully suggest that “forgiveness” may not the right word or concept to invoke in this instance.
    Forgiveness for “inevitable stumbles” is almost like forgiving someone for being a human being.
    “Inevitable” suggests that these things are going to happen no matter what we do; that we are imperfect beings, living in an imperfect world. We are all flawed and that includes our behavior toward others. Despite the best of intentions, we all make mistakes and sometimes disappoint, offend or hurt others. Often times, a simple “Hey, sorry about the misunderstanding” might be in order but otherwise I’m not sure I need to be forgiven or need to grant forgiveness every time certain expectations or standards of conduct aren’t met – for just the reasons I’ve stated above.
    On occasions when a serious offense has occurred and everyone agrees on the facts of the situation, then an act of forgiveness might be appropriate and quite helpful. However, it seems better suited as a private, emotionally meaningful exchange between the parties involved, rather than as a public declaration.
    Ms. Cheek points out the need for respect and communication. I couldn’t agree with her more; these seem to be quite important keys to better understanding and resolving conflicts. Personally, I would stick to that path and – except on rare occasions – leave forgiveness out of it.
    Randy Gleason ’82

  • T

    truthMay 5, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Kudos to Tessa for being remarkably upstanding.

    Yet I feel compelled still to raise this point:

    One can assume Kington, confident in his handling of the matter and with all the facts on his side, could weather a lone “call for resignation” letter from a single alum in the campus newspaper. You wouldn’t be a president in higher education if there wasn’t always someone calling for you to resign — usually without reasonable credibility or broad-based agreement from others. So, wouldn’t Cid’s letter (with all due respect, Cid) be the sort of thing to be ignored? Let Cid make his point, maybe even have a few others chime in support, but be the president and move forward as a leader to bring about the program changes he and others purport to desire for the college. Turn the cheek, set the example, demonstrate wisdom.

    But instead, Kington spent time to recruit and then to support the drafting of a CYA kind of letter from the BOT chair to the campus newspaper (it wouldn’t have been sent without both his input to content and approval for delivery).

    Kington is the president and, presumably, the adult here. So be president and deal with all of this. If you made a mistake, because you ripped on a student, then resign in shame or face the criticism. If you did nothing untoward, then keep looking forward. No matter what, DON’T don’t involve the BOT. Be a president and show humility, passion for the college, and civility to the community.

    Tessa has shown all of that and more — and she’s right in her letter. It is highly commendable, but disappointing we have yet to hear from the president.

  • A

    AlumMay 5, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    “What I didn’t hear much about was what the fighting was for.” As an alum following this, I’ve been upset at the discussion for this in particular. Most of what’s here is students saying that the situation is inadequate, change needs to happen, and the college must nebulously adhere to Title IX, but the S&B’s coverage has largely lacked specifics. Article after article it’s just some drama – personal slights not policy in context. Is this a problem with the S&B coverage or the student activists themselves? It’s hard to tell. Regardless, talk about concrete policies that can change, not burning the heretics.

  • C

    Cid StandiferMay 1, 2015 at 2:07 am

    Thank you for writing this, Tessa. The courage of Grinnell’s survivors continues to amaze me.