The Spectacle of Waste

A protestor. Photograph by Bob Mical.

UVA protester. Photograph by Bob Mical

For the second time in as many months, the University of Virginia is being asked to reckon with the fact that predatory sexual violence—so prevalent in many parts of the world—is also present in its midst. Last month, we read that the body of Hannah Graham, assaulted and abandoned, was found hastily buried and decomposed in a wooded area a few miles from the university. In Rolling Stone recently, we read that the body of another student, identified as Jackie, had also been assaulted and abandoned. And although this young woman survived, the subsequent burial of the event and the dissolution of her life felt like something close to another lethal assault.

Inevitably, the public grief has turned its attention to the university, to the question of whether events such as these are related to the institution itself. This is because the university—and not just the one in Charlottesville—remains one of the few institutions in western culture held in high regard by both parents and children alike. It is an institution set aside for the nurture of our children, of their minds, bodies, character, and future. But universities are betraying this trust, to the point that we have come to fear for the physical safety of those children who are enrolled in them.

Part of the current scrutiny has focused on the university administration, and the role of its consumer logic and bureaucratic ethos in creating a culture where predation is both present and effectively ignored.  But what of the faculty? What role do professors play in the construction of a culture in which the humanity of young women comes under repeated assaults ?

There seems to me to be a noticeable silence with respect to this question. Part of this, I suspect, is due to one of the consoling themes of academic life: Although administrators may be slaves to the logic and procedural rationale of modern bureaucracy, professors remain bulwarks against such forces, guarding civilization against the forces of pragmatic barbarism. We are silent on this question, perhaps, because we think we know the answer: We aren’t the problem. I understand the grounds for this account. But I also understand that to cling to it as though it explains reality is to risk missing the potential complicity of faculty in a culture in which our children vanish into the night.

An example: In response to the Rolling Stone article, the University of Virginia Middle Eastern Islamic Student Association hosted a rally for victims of sexual violence. Student governance is a tradition at Virginia and—given the lurid evidence of its absence in the article—is something both to encourage and to honor. So I went. The first two speakers were faculty who expressed their care for students in words of wisdom, erudition, and what can only be described as love. Next, a series of students spoke and urged their peers to stand with those who had been harmed and to strive to prevent such harms in the future. Their articulations weren’t polished and their answers weren’t perfect, but they didn’t need to be. They were students trying to do something good.

And then it happened. Another professor—a late addition to the program—stepped forward to speak. As he did, the moment became strangely electric. He was older than the other professors, but his longish hair and vague charm exuded an aura of countercultural charisma. He joked about his age and apologized that his speech wasn’t rehearsed, but we didn’t mind. We sensed the presence of a rally veteran—even a movement leader. He had been here before and could tell us what to do.

But instead, he framed our problem as a struggle between unprincipled, money-hungry administrators (“them”) and virtuous guardians of justice (“us”). Repeating the mantra about the commodifying logic of the market, he reminded us that “the university is a business” and “you are consumers” and that our consumer power was our best hope for change. If we exercised this power, we could achieve the dream of—wait for it—“a change in university policy.”

It was a spectacle of waste. What we needed was serious diagnosis–not to hear that our problem was the commodification of education but to hear, instead, that it was the commodification of people—a dehumanization in which we are all complicit. What we needed was an ascetic call to what Martin Luther King, Jr., as he wept over the graves of four little girls in Birmingham, called “self-purification”: a call to renounce every trace of predation in our personal and corporate life. We needed a vision of a social order in which the commodification of other human beings becomes not just unacceptable but unimaginable. What we got was a self-righteous soliloquy of blame, whose result can only be a contagion of self-righteousness, and a vision of bringing down The Man for the sake of a new policy-and-procedures manual.

It might be unreasonable to see the university as “the problem” behind this plague of predation, but it is absolutely reasonable to ask whether it can be a part of the solution. One would hope so. But for that to happen, we must recognize that the reductive dehumanization, the consumerist mindset, and the bureaucratic imagination that feed this plague has infected not just the one part of the university but the whole. And that it’s not enough to rally against them on a Wednesday afternoon, but to renounce them for all time.

Gregory Thompson is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia, and the senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, VA.

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