Op-Ed

This is not just about Junot Díaz

In this Sept. 3, 2013 photo, 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz pauses during an interview in New York. Diaz has long been a pioneering and polarizing figure in the literary world even before being confronted with sexual misconduct allegations on May 4, 2018, at the Sydney Writers' Festival.
In this Sept. 3, 2013 photo, 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz pauses during an interview in New York. Diaz has long been a pioneering and polarizing figure in the literary world even before being confronted with sexual misconduct allegations on May 4, 2018, at the Sydney Writers' Festival. AP

For those of us who have been fighting for decades against the oppression, emotional manipulation and brutalizing of women, as well as the murders, misrepresentations and wrongful imprisonment of all people of color, the case of the Dominican-American author Junot Díaz is a particularly difficult one.

This week I signed an open letter, along with a group of Latina scholars and writers, that criticizes the media thrashing of Mr. Díaz that has taken place since accusations of sexist behavior and sexual misconduct against him became widely public.

In the letter, we make clear that we by no means dismiss these accusations or the serious damaging effects of the sort of behavior of which Mr. Díaz has been accused. But we do object to what we characterize in the letter as “a full-blown media-harassment campaign” that has followed the accusations, in which the writer has been cast as “a bizarre person, a sexual predator, a virulent misogynist, an abuser and an aggressor.”

While the episode has so far focused on Mr. Díaz, I also believe that it forcefully raises a broader issue: That we have a responsibility to think about the future – specifically, a future in which repentant sexists might have a place.

Some might dismiss this letter, and the views expressed in it, on the grounds that its authors are too closely aligned with Mr. Díaz – as his friends, as Latina writers or as Dominicans. In truth, Latinx literary theorists and writers have never been in agreement over how to interpret the thematic focus on sexism in his fiction. Yet some may still see our words as simply an attempt to protect our own.

Do I identify with Mr. Díaz? Absolutely. What happened to him at 8 years old – he was raped, and recently wrote about it in The New Yorker – happened to me when I was 9. It took me decades to tell, as it did him. I know too much about the effects of childhood sexual assault and the burning questions that stay with us for so long because we were much too young to make any meaningful sense of what we experienced.

But I refuse the claim that this disqualifies my judgment about him or my ability to offer an analysis of this debate. We cannot take personal experience (in any form) as an immediate cause to question credibility without silencing victims once again. We also need to have more debates over these issues among Latinx and other oppressed groups who understand in our bones the multiple issues at play and exactly what is at stake.

This debate is not just about Junot Díaz and the women he has mistreated; it is also about the #MeToo movement as a whole – how its aims are articulated, how it constructs a new imaginary of liberation, both social and sexual. And as others have been saying, this imaginary must include a future in which we can become a better community that talks openly, listens and learns from one another.

Sexist behavior, whether slight or severe, is never acceptable or excusable. Nobody, today, can claim ignorance. Sexism in every form weakens liberatory movements, fractures solidarity and exacerbates the oppression of the already oppressed. Even verbal offenses, like sexist comments, can instigate shame, humiliation and feelings of unworthiness, and in some cases, post-traumatic stress episodes, nightmares and self-harm.

Unrepentant and repeated sexist behavior warrants condemnation and exclusion. Repentant sexists, though, should elicit a different response. Mr. Díaz has said publicly that he accepts responsibility for his behavior. Of course there is always the question of sincerity, but this is best judged by practice in the long term.

We also need to reassess how we confer credibility on accusers. A blanket acceptance of all accusations simply avoids the difficult work of transforming our methods of judgment. I argue that all accusations should be taken seriously and pursued, but this is a way of saying we confer presumptive credibility on accusers, not that we simply believe without question every accusation.

As a survivor, I fully know the stakes in this issue. The likelihood that one will not be believed is what keeps us in decades of agonized silence, unable to get help or support. And for this very reason, we have to reassess how credibility is judged by jurors, newspapers, among friends, and crucially, across the internet. We need to enact alternative ways to interact with repentant sexists, to imagine productive roles for them – just as former gang members can educate young people in their communities on the topic of gang violence.

Can we hold people to account at the same time as we acknowledge their own victimization? Can we remain aware of multiple forms of oppression in our analysis? Can we demand more of a structural and systemic analysis without reducing individual responsibility? Can we respect the rage we are hearing as well as plan for a different future? I believe we must.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, Hunter College, and the author of “Rape and Resistance.”

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