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It is not ‘okay’ to cover up Chanel Miller’s words. Here’s why

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The world knows of the Brock Turner case, and it now knows the name of the person whose life he nearly destroyed: Chanel Miller. They also know that Stanford is going back on its word: It has rejected the language Ms. Miller chose for the memorial plaque Stanford agreed to place at the site of the attack. Both parties agreed that the language on the plaque would be taken from Chanel Miller’s Victim Impact Statement, read by over 18 million people around the world.

Stanford said that she could use language from the Statement, but not the words she wanted. It proposed other words. What’s wrong with that? What is wrong is that the “uplifting” words Stanford prefers are wrenched out of their context in order to make them say something they do not say at all.   And, ironically, the language Stanford has censored actually contains a profound and powerful message of uplift and inspiration — something that Stanford wants but has somehow missed.

Here’s what Stanford wants to use: “I’m okay, everything’s okay, I’m right here.” But what was the context of those words? Since I am a professor of literature, who also regularly teaches a PWR 2 course, let me explain why context and usage are important. Here is the passage from which Stanford extracted its preferred language:

“My sister picked me up, face wet from tears and contorted in anguish. Instinctively and immediately, I wanted to take away her pain. I smiled at her, I told her to look at me, I’m right here, I’m okay, I’m right here” (p. 336).

Those words were directed at her sister, in part to lessen her sense of guilt: It was upon her insistence that Chanel Miller attended the party where she met Turner. Those words were meant for one person in a very specific situation. To appropriate them and twist them into a statement that signals Miller was “okay” after the brutal attack strips them of their actual meaning and operationalizes them. It is disturbing to me that Stanford is adopting precisely the tactic Brock Turner’s defense attorney employed, a tactic that Chanel Miller calls out in her Statement — the “you” she is addressing is of course Brock Turner:

“When I see my younger sister hurting, when she is unable to keep up in school, when she is deprived of joy, when she is not sleeping, when she is crying so hard on the phone she is barely breathing, telling me over and over again she is so sorry for leaving me alone that night, sorry sorry sorry, when she feels more guilt than you, then I do not forgive you. That night I had called her to try and find her, but you found me first. Your attorney’s closing statement began, ‘[Her sister] said she was fine and who knows better than her sister.” You tried to use my own sister against me? Your points of attack were so weak, so low, it was almost embarrassing. You do not touch her.’ (352)

Embarrassing indeed, and cruel beyond measure.  Stanford should have nothing to do with a tactic meant to bend the truth.

But let’s now turn to the passage that Chanel Miller wished to use, the one Stanford rejected.  As I said above, this is regretful, because it is a beautiful and indeed uplifting message of survival and health, despite all odds:

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

I expect Stanford was concerned about the phrase because of everything but the last two words. But the last two words are key — they are both the uplift and, as my colleague Michele Dauber points out, the intellectual challenge. Those two words ask the reader to wonder, “Why today”? Again, reading carefully means reading all the words, not just those that you want to hear. Stanford read blame; Miller wrote strength, hope and solidarity.

In the original instance it is Miller standing before Brock Turner and speaking truth in court — confronting him, not by some dumpster but in a court of law, and finally being able speak to him, she recovers precisely her confidence and her voice. The time of deprivation, she signals unambiguously, ends now, “today.”

But as a set of words on a plaque, the words serve another purpose as well.  They initiate an educational and ethical experience — something that is indeed supposed to happen at universities, no?

The “day” might well mean the very moment that the visitor to the garden is standing there, reading the words, and at that moment they are joined to Chanel Miller. Whatever loss she has detailed has been at least partially restored — the loneliness dissipated, by the company of the visitor. And, I would say, it places a responsibility on the viewer to carry that companionship forward to any other victim of violence.

I hope that Stanford has read this op-ed and perhaps now it can understand the meaning of the words. I understand how it could latch on to everything but the last two words, “until today.” I understand very well the mandates administrators operate under — to keep the university a safe and nurturing place, to allow learning to go on. But rushing to embrace too quick a solution (“I’m okay”) is not a solution at all, not until history and injustice are fully recognized and addressed, only after that can, and should, one move on. And that is exactly what Chanel Miller’s preferred language does.

We find precisely in her chosen words the uplift Stanford and all of us want. I urge Stanford in the strongest terms possible to accept, with gratitude, the gift Chanel Miller has offered us.

— David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of Comparative Literature

Contact David Palumbo-Liu at palboliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.