With the pervasiveness of discussion about sexual misconduct on campus during the past few semesters, much of the conversation has focused on victims and perpetrators. Few people, however, have focused on the bystanders in these situations. In his visit to campus on Wednesday, though, guest lecturer and anti-sexism activist Jackson Katz presented strategies and techniques for being an effective bystander in sexist or misogynistic scenarios.
A former high school football player, Katz has worked extensively with groups like college football teams and the military to discuss such issues and ways to handle them. Creator of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Model, Katz specializes in bystander intervention workshops and presented a TED Talk, entitled “Violence and Silence,” on the subject this past February. Katz’s website describes this model as “a gender violence, bullying, and school violence prevention approach that encourages young men and women from all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on leadership roles in their schools and communities.”
“We thought he would be a good person to bring to campus in a completely non-divisive, community kind of way — especially after the spring,” said Brennan Klein ’14, one of the students who was heavily involved in planning the event.
Klein, along with Eve DiMagno ’15, Callen Rain ’15, and Jason Hua ’15, began discussions about getting Katz to speak on campus last spring after watching his TED talk.
“We all watched his TED talk, and he was really passionate and powerful when he delivered it,” Klein said. “It was a lecture that you can’t walk away from and not be affected by.”
These students, together with Coordinator of Student Activities Mike Elias, organized the event on their own. With the support of the President’s Office, the offices of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Development and Residential Life, CAPS/Worth, the psychology department, the history department, the educational studies department, the gender and sexuality studies department, the Title IX office, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and the Women’s Resource Center, discussions continued over the summer on how to have Katz effectively send a message to the college community.
Katz ran two events on Wednesday. The first, a closed event, was a workshop with 82 student leaders on campus. These leaders included Residential Advisors, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representatives, members from Intercultural Center groups, Acquaintance Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) members, members from the two fraternities and the sorority, and Student Council leaders. The college’s athletic teams were each also invited to send a couple of representatives to the workshop.
“The intention was that the representatives would go and get this bystander training, and they would bring it back to their groups,” Elias said. “We [invited] a lot of voices to this conversation.”
Primarily a lecture format, this event began by discussing the Halloween party and by asking its attendees what they wanted to focus on. Katz then discussed that men are overwhelmingly perpetrators in violence and, except for in sexual violence, are often usually the victims, too.
Katz then conducted a modified version of his MVP training, in which he presented hypothetical scenarios and suggested how a subsequent conversation would and should follow. By comparing violence against women to a pyramid, Katz suggested that the pyramid’s tip is a specific violent act, while the base is a culture’s attitudes. Through this perspective, he said, the bystander can be viewed outside of specific situations. As a bystander, he explained, silence implies consent and complicity. Katz’ takeaway message, he said, was “If I walk away and don’t act, won’t I be part of the problem?”
The second event was a public lecture in the Lang Concert Hall, which was full of students and faculty.
“I always thought my life wasn’t complete until I visited Swarthmore,” Katz joked to break the ice and start off the lecture.
“I have a problem with the term ‘women’s issues’ to explain gender violence,” he said to introduce the lecture’s focus. “I’m here to say that’s a problematic frame and here to argue that these are men’s issues.”
Alerting the audience that most of the lecture would concern reframing the paradigm of gender violence, Katz asserted that many males do not pay attention to “women’s issues” because they disregard any relevance to their lives. Equating the word “gender” to “race,” he suggested that dominant groups do not regard such terms with their own lives. Along these lines, Katz followed up by discussing men’s defensiveness on such issues and explained the political effects of such defensiveness.
“Awareness is only a meaningful word if it’s directed towards taking action,” he said after mentioning that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
By writing simple sentences on a white board, Katz demonstrated how use of the passive voice — rather than the active voice — can completely alter the a sentence’s subject. What he also attempted to alter was the focus from individual perpetrators to their implications about their respective cultures.
“What is going on in US culture that is conditioning so many boys and men to act these ways?” Katz asked.
Katz shifted his talk to discussion of the word “victim” and the phrase “alleged victim.” He asserted that sexual assault and domestic violence are among the few crimes where an allegation is not immediately believed. Calling these two phrases obsolete, Katz then said that, in journalistic discourse and mainstream conversation, the word “accuser” has taken over, something that Katz called “a huge leap backwards.” The reason for this, he explained, was that the focus shifts from the man’s action to the woman’s action.
“I valued Katz’s discussion on the language that we use to discuss men’s violence against women,” Elle Larsen ’15 said. “I feel that it was a strong point to make that we take men out of the language when it comes to these issues, and I am glad that he brought this to our attention.”
The second half of Katz’s lecture focused on bystander intervention.
For Hua, Elias and Klein, Katz’s coming was a way to facilitate further conversation on the issues that arose last spring. Because of this, Elias told Katz in advance that this topic has been the focus of constant discussion on campus recently.
“We [wanted] him to be a catalyst to continue this conversation on a large scale,” Elias said. “We’re hoping that he can … bridge some larger conversation among the community.”
Although Klein agrees that Katz’s workshop and lecture were essential to continuing last spring’s discussion in a productive way, he does not think that Wednesday’s events alone will be the solution.
“This isn’t a vaccine for campus unrest, but if everyone involved in this tension goes to the event, it gives everyone a common ground to figure out how to move forward in a responsible and compassionate way,” he said. “If it can be a platform for discussion, that is very beneficial. […] I think getting a foot in the door is huge in terms of having people reflect on their own lives and what they can do,” Klein said.
For DiMagno, Katz is more than just an expert in the field; he is also a voice that the college has not considered thus far.
“His approach is very much that we talk about [sexual violence] as a women’s issue, but it’s not,” she said. “He focuses on men’s violence. He talks about interrupting that culture, challenging each other on a small scale. And I think that’s just a different approach, because it’s a very, ‘Here’s what you can do’ idea, […] which I think has been floating around more recently but that I haven’t seen take center stage.”
Hua agrees that Katz’s perspective is an important yet overshadowed one.
“I think Jackson [has] a fresh view on the issues of gender violence and discrimination that were raised last spring, from the male perspective,” he said. “Jackson’s work focuses on the characteristics and behaviors that make up a healthy masculinity and what men, being in a position of privilege, can do to prevent gender-based violence. Which is a lot more nuanced than just ‘don’t rape anyone.’”
While Katz’s relevance to the college is undeniable, DiMagno does not see his coming as a direct response to any specific event on campus that has transpired.
“A lot of things happen in reaction to crisis here,” she said. “When we were thinking about [Katz’s coming], the idea was to bring this in not as a response to a crisis, but to […] provide a new perspective and a new voice. […] I’m hoping that people who haven’t been listening will hear this and say, ‘This does apply to me, and it is a problem, and now I have concrete things to do.’”
Consistent with the idea that anyone can be a bystander in everyday situations, DiMagno, as well as Rain and Hua, feel like Katz’s wisdom extends to more than just the people who have been most heavily engrossed in the campus conversation this far.
“By being a part of this community, we all have a responsibility to prevent sexual violence,” Rain said.
“Unfortunately, I believe that many of us don’t always know what that responsibility looks like in practice and what behaviors we can change to avoid perpetuating a serious problem.”
Hua agreed. “His work is relevant to everyone on campus, especially as a call to action for men to be proactive and examine the way we conduct ourselves and the behaviors we engage in on a day-to-day basis.”
Elle Larsen is a member of the Phoenix staff. She played no role in the production of this article.