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Anger Over Scare Quotes

April 25, 2013

Students at the State University of New York at Geneseo are lashing out at a professor for scheduling the lecture “Against ‘Sexual’ ‘Assault’ ‘Awareness’ ” (yes, with three sets of scare quotes) during the college's Sexual Assault Awareness Week. The professor himself, however, says students are jumping to conclusions without even knowing the contents of the talk.

News of the lecture drew outrage from students who say Theodore Everett, professor of philosophy, intentionally aimed to provoke. Sam White, a senior political science and international relations major, created a petition calling on SUNY Geneseo’s administration to reaffirm the institution’s dedication to sexual assault awareness and condemn Everett’s talk.

“To have someone who is looked up to by Geneseo students give a talk against sexual assault awareness and try to question the severity of the issue ... I think is a step in the wrong direction,” White said, calling Everett’s actions “doubt mongering.”

White closed the petition after 30 hours and 1,690 signatures when President Christopher C. Dahl released a statement to the college.

“Geneseo knows where it stands on issues of sexual assault. We abhor rape and sexual violence of all kinds. We take seriously and will investigate all charges of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Dahl said. “At the same time, however, Geneseo defends academic freedom and the right to offer a wide variety of opinions on campus.”

Everett has attempted to distance himself from the controversy, stressing that a philosophy colloquium is designed to serve as a forum for opposing opinions.

“The purpose of this colloquium is to try out some dissenting arguments on a topic of extreme importance and great timeliness, and any brief remark I've made to answer people's questions in good faith seems to get taken as a political pronouncement rather than a tentative position which can only be understood in the context of the arguments that back it up,” Everett said in an e-mail.

The abstract of Everett's talk states "the sexual assault awareness movement counts too many borderline cases (for example, badgering somebody into letting you give them a kiss) as true sexual assault, when they are not really sexual and not really assault. This diverts attention away from the truly damaging core cases of rape and sexual assault that everybody cares about and toward borderline cases that no one believes are equally important, even though they also shouldn’t happen."

Everett declined to elaborate before Wednesday night’s lecture, stating he did not want to contribute any further comments that could be misunderstood by his critics. (His lecture did take place as scheduled, WHEC News reported.)

The lecture was moved back from Monday night, when it would have coincided with the “Take Back the Night Walk,” which White said drew some 200 students, faculty members and administrators.

Another last-minute change includes the addition of Heidi Savage, visiting assistant professor of philosophy, who will respond to Everett’s lecture from a feminist perspective.

Savage said she “didn’t even realize what I was stepping into,” but chose to get involved in the interests of her department, feminism, intellectual freedom and victims of sexual assault.

“The talk was misrepresented in the assumption that [Everett] was seen as some kind of rape apologist, simply in virtue of the title, which he certainly isn't,” Savage said in a post on the blog Feminist Philosophers, one of several websites that have taken issue with the lecture. “I've seen the talk and it raises legitimate issues, issues that are controversial within feminist discourse itself.”

Savage said she respects the views of the students objecting to the lecture, but rejected the idea that the talk was scheduled during Sexual Assault Awareness Week in order to stir up controversy.

“Speaking as a victim and a feminist, I don’t see anything particularly pernicious about scheduling a talk about sexual assault awareness during sexual assault awareness week,” Savage said.

Although he welcomed the addition of Savage’s response, White said he and other students would be protesting and providing support to those offended by the talk.

“It will give individuals who are hurt, who feel marginalized by his talk, a chance to see there are people at Geneseo who do support them,” White said.

 

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