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Getting Personal

By Madhavi Sunder

THE MOST DANGEROUS aspect of the high-flown rhetoric of those who dismiss others as "politically correct" lies in the power of their language--specifically in the power of two words that have been perverted and tossed around, sometimes carelessly, most of the time connivingly, at the expense of understanding and justice for all. The two words--"objective" and "political"--have become the most dangerous weapons yet of the "politically incorrect," what those who oppose any challenge to the status quo would call themselves.

During the recently recharged debates on several women's issues--in particular, date rape, Take Back the Night and abortion--the use and misuse of these words has been at an all-time high. In almost every forum, from the publications of the campus Right to The Crimson and The New York Times, the two words have been set against each other in dramatic, yet false, opposition.

The word "objective" is used to describe the present legal system. At Harvard, which as yet has no formal policy on date rape, the term has been recently applied to the date rape policy recommendations made by the Undergraduate Council. The word "political" is used to describe and subsequently deride any opinion that admittedly seeks to posit a "personal" or particular viewpoint in interpreting, or drafting, law or policy--as if the former does not do the same.

Dianne Reeder '93, for example, in her recent Salient article entitled "The Politics of Rape," says that the Date Rape Task Force, because it defines rape from the woman's/ victim's perspective, makes a policy recommendation that would not be "objective college policy"--as if such a policy could exist--but "merely a modern feminist political statement."

Liam T.A. Ford '92 and Matthew J. McDonald '92 of The Crimson (and Peninsula) similarly cast aside Take Back the Night because of what they call the "bizzare political agenda"--equal rights and safety from violence against women--of its female organizers. The editors deride the organizers of the event for not subscribing to a policy of "ideological neutrality"--a policy which Jessye E. Lapenn '93 and Heidi I. Siedlecki '93 rightly termed "both impossible and oxymoronic" in their letter to The Crimson published yesterday.

The Right is not the only group guilty of falsely presenting women's voice and viewpoints as more political--i.e., more tainted, subjective, unreasonable, dangerous and evil--than those of others. Just this week, for example, The New York Times argued in its editorial on Roe v. Wade that pro-choice feminist activists were wrong to "raise doubts that we are a government of laws, not men." Just as The Times continues to hold that journalism is completely "objective"--forgetting its own biases in covering the William Kennedy Smith trial--in this case the paper illustrates what is either a naive, unflinching trust in the law as an objective arbiter of "right" over "wrong," or a willingness to play the deceptive politics of the pot calling the kettle black.

Many on the Right and the Left fail to acknowledge or realize that the present legal system (including many of its most fundamental precepts, such as the notion of protecting the accused over the accuser) is one made by men and for men. Liberals and conservatives often both fail to understand or admit that the debates about date rape, abortion and violence against women are debates that are personal and political on both sides, not merely one. Thus, most importantly, they cut short any discussion that could in the end bring about laws that are more just for all.

Without a question, in is women's and men's personal experiences with these problems that translate into their political approaches to them. In the most simple terms, women are more likely to identify with the victims of such crimes--men, on the other hand, identify with the accused. To be sure, more men talk about rape as a "serious charge" than a "serious crime," and women, vice versa. And, not surprisingly, they draft laws coming from these various perspectives.

IT IS TOO LATE in the game for us to be dismissing voices that have hitherto not been represented or heard because they are different or challenging. What we should be doing at this point is accepting the fact that the personal is political and that objectivity is an ideal not reflected in reality. Then we must go on to embrace the expression of varying personal viewpoints, which would then enable us to create law and policy that is more just for all people.

To some extent, the Undergraduate Council has attempted to do that. They have taken the issue of date rape seriously and have engaged an interesting dialogue of women and men on the issue. But they could have done more. Had they, I believe they would have been able to look past the idea that the Date Rape Task Force's recommendation was too "political" to pass. Had the U.C. invited members of the Task Force to explain why they defined rape as they did, for example--i.e., had they heard the personal stories behind the political--they may have been less willing to dismiss it.

It is easy to do what the U.C. and the Salient did, which was to assume that because the Date Rape Task Force's recommendation called for the initiator of sex to acquire consent from his or her partner before intercourse, unfair burdens were placed on men and not women. Reeder wrote in her article that while "ideally, no man would have sex with a woman unless he is certain that she wants to do it," the Task Force's recommendation that men ask before engaging in sex is a "call for male sensitivity" that is "a moral command, not a legal one. We can't start expelling men for being jerks," she wrote.

BUT THE FACT is that under the law, nobodyhas a right to do anything to another person's body without asking. That is really all that the Date Rape Task Force is saying in requiring the initiator to be the one who is responsible for gaining permission before sex.

At a Take Back the Night panel on rape and the law this week, Nancy Gertner, a feminist defense lawyer in Boston who specializes in cases of violence against women, offered a fitting analogy for this debate. Doctors, she said, are not allowed to operate on a person simply because the patient does not say anything. An operation requires a yes. Not similarly requiring a yes for sex somehow implies that an initiator has less responsibility with his or her partner's body.

The point is that what was conservatives and liberals argue to be a political agenda is political--but it is not antithetical to another's rights.

Still, proponents of the status quo are often successful at exploiting people's trust in the ideals of objectivity and justice. The words are misleading and prevent real understanding and compromise between two distinct but not incompatible agendas--"his" and "here."

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