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System failure report

When I first started watching Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, I was struck by his comment that women who had quit their comedy careers because Louis C.K. masturbated in front of them had “brittle spirits.” It seemed so callous to me, so devoid of empathy, that even as he tried to explain that his experiences gave him the right to judge other people’s pain, I didn’t feel like I had to complete the show. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I chose to return to it, and I’m glad I did.

Because in his show he explained something that made a lot of sense to me: that what L.A. needs is from South Africa. And I agree with him. I think what our culture needs is what South Africa did so well: To move from the world in which we lived to a new one, what we first need is truth and reconciliation.

Chappelle makes the case that “[if] a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system and are incentivized by that system are not criminals. They are victims, and the system itself must be tried, but because of how systems work is so compartmentalized as far as information, the only way we can figure out what the system is is if everybody says what they did. Tell him how you participated.”

And I don’t agree with everything Chappelle said, but this stayed with me. It made me think of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt and her work on the banality of evil: how ordinary people can do horrendous things simply by adhering to the system they are a part of.  

That’s not to say that the people who sexually assaulted or harassed so many women all these years aren’t responsible for their actions, or that they didn’t have a choice in what they did. But it makes me think of the second, third circles: of the people who knew (vaguely), who heard whispers, who laughed off the jokes, who walked past the inappropriate workplace behavior telling themselves it would never escalate to something more sinister. It makes me think about myself when I would hang out with guy friends and hear them tell awful jokes about girls they hated or girls they liked, and how weak my protests were: how often I didn’t even want to engage, because who wants to ruin the night? It makes me think of all my male friends who now, tentatively, want to talk about it — who ask if I’ve read about the “Cat Person” story or Aziz Ansari or Kevin Spacey.

I don’t think “victim” is the right word for us, but neither is “criminal.” But Chappelle is right at the very least in this: that because of how this system works, and because of all the secrecy, shame, identity and desire that are wrapped up in our conversations about gendered relationships, nobody knows all the parts of it. I can’t even decide what this article is about because every word seems to narrow and exclude while also blurring and expanding — until I’m left with a mess of thoughts that pulsate with anger, resignation, guilt, asking: what is the toll?

That’s what’s astonishing to me — why I keep writing about this even though every component of it seems to have been written to death. Because just two days ago, I was watching the footage of all these women, so many of them, giving their statements about the ex-USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, explaining what he did to them and their lives. And the toll just seems enormous; it feels impossible to not talk about.

And after a week of trying to figure out what I think of this Ansari story, I’ve landed on something more tentative: that I want to hear more stories like this, stories that make me see some things more clearly, but confuse me entirely about other lines. Because it’s hard to decide the exact extent and degree of Ansari’s crime — if it is a crime to be a jerk to begin with. But for me, that’s no longer the point.

I want to hear all the parts of this system. Not just the crimes, not just the worst days of people’s lives — but all the other parts as well. If we live in a system that make us all complicit, then it’s fine to have stories in which it’s not immediately clear that one person is the villain and the other the victim. It’s okay to have stories that are more uncomfortable than righteous, that are more about fuzzy lines (How should we behave on dates? How should we ask for and communicate consent? How do we navigate the weird power dynamics of attraction and rejection, of gender and class and desire?) than the really clear ones (Don’t rape, don’t use your power to coerce people, etc.)

But to hear all these stories, we need to create a space for them. Because if the point is truth and reconciliation, then we can’t start every conversation with the question of who’s right or wrong: the man or the woman? I’m not saying that people should be forgiven, or go scot-free for horrible things they’ve done just because they write a blog post about it. But I do think we need more breathing room for people to confess: to allow for the words to come out. And that doesn’t always mean forgiveness (though in some cases, it might), but it does mean being a little less hasty even when someone’s words bring sorrow and anger rushing to your mind. It means knowing that the worst among us are among us for a reason. We need to be okay with talking about the less obviously bad, the less obviously good and all the shades between that. We need to be okay with hearing about it too, without jumping to make a judgment about rights and wrongs.

For my first column in The Daily, I used one of my favorite quotes. It’s by Fred Moten, who says, “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.”

I think of that quote often when my head hurts with all the anger and helplessness I feel on reading the stories coming out of the #MeToo movement. And I think I agree with Chappelle on another point: Fear does not make for a lasting peace. It is not enough — we need something more. We need for everyone to see what this world is like, to really know what it means to live in it, for everyone who lives in it. We need space for people to talk about all the shitty things they’ve been a part of. We need, now more than ever, to be in this world and say what we’ve done, and what we’ve seen. So tomorrow’s world can be different.

 

Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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