Why it is important to install a plaque at the site of Chanel Miller’s assault

Opinion by Hagar Gal
Oct. 8, 2019, 12:28 a.m.

Many of the stories winding around campus keep connecting in my mind. Imagine loose ends of string, knotted together in the middle. The news that I hear often sounds somehow familiar. To be clear, let me pull at the end of one of these story-strings. It unravels something like this:

Marty Stepp’s Title IX trial, news of which just broke over a week ago, echoes Chanel Miller’s searing story. Miller’s story, which has recently resurfaced due to her impressive public self-revelation, has rippled back to our campus through a petition that has been circulating over the past week. The petition aims to pressure Stanford’s administration into upholding its agreement to erect a plaque at the site of her assault. In turn, this plaque dispute bleeds into last year’s discourse over the Serra renamings on campus, which connect us to a far more vast conversation on the norms surrounding language and cultural memory. Think, for instance, of the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues, which hissed to the surface in 2017. A long string indeed, even without reaching its other end.

So what connects much of our recent campus news? In my mind, at least, and in this moment, the connection between Chanel Miller’s rape and the correctness of campus street names is the difficult question of how and what Stanford chooses to remember.

The shaping of memory on campus, in terms of memorials such as plaques and street names, is naturally both dangerous and important to Stanford. The administration hesitates to erect a plaque at the site of an assault because it feels the weight of responsibility of an institution that deals in power and prestige. The continuation of Stanford as it exists now relies on a complex system of elite reputation that is almost entirely unique to a few top U.S. universities, which Stanford is a member of due to its hefty combination of wealth and knowledge production. Stanford’s reaction to an indicting news story must therefore be one of careful self-defence: what will best preserve and continue Stanford’s existence in its current role?

Stanford thus toes a delicate line on how to commemorate problematic events. The answer to how to act in a situation of commemoration will always be complex, as Stanford’s preservation depends upon its ability to detect and change with the winds of culture. Stanford’s project of cultural sensitivity is perplexingly difficult as the university needs to navigate between the conservatism that naturally surrounds both institutions and wealth itself—the latter of which Stanford has a staggering amount—with the progressiveness that the educated American elite often prides itself on.

So, if we pick that story-string from the beginning back up, we might be able to begin untangling the knot in the middle. The connection from end to end, from Miller to Serra, is a demonstration of Stanford’s institutional self-preservation through shaping campus memory. Stanford and Miller agreed to convert the area where she was raped into something of a memorial site, “a contemplative space,” with a plaque inscribed with a quote decided upon by Miller. Miller’s suggestions for the quote, taken from her witness statement, were refused as potentially “triggering” for other survivors of sexual violence. Stanford offered the alternative inscription of “I’m right here, I’m okay, everything’s okay, I’m right here,” after which Miller dissociated herself from the memorial. The space now remains without a plaque. 

The fact of the matter is, by erecting a small pavilion with two benches, a fountain, and no plaque explaining or contextualising the space, Stanford has taken a violent and dark corner on campus in which a girl was raped behind dumpsters and polished it as if rubbing a dirty mark from the map; interacted with the physicality of the story as if it were something a bit disgusting that it would rather not touch, but pave over. The wish to write that everything is “okay” is almost touching in how childishly revealing it is. That is to say, the lack of a plaque exposes Stanford’s ultimate priority of self-preservation. This exposure is precisely because the plaque is missing not due to a deliberate administrative decision but as the eventual consequence, over a series of negotiations, of Stanford’s instinctive discomfort with a quote that could be too challenging. Stanford’s predisposition is thus first to preserve its reputation, to which moral rectitude (for lack of a better term) is subordinate. The lack of a plaque is therefore part and parcel of the systemic erasure of Miller’s rape. 

Hence, Miller’s plaque is an illustration of how important memory creation is to Stanford. Due to the complexity of its position, Stanford instinctively leans towards beige administrative coats of paint over anything that jolts up unappealingly. You could call it an understandable inclination towards a particularly bland form of ritual purification. In fact, the surprising connection between this recent piece of news and the Serra renamings last year—the familiar echo in my ears, the string at the beginning of this article—is that while in Miller’s case Stanford dealt with memory by refusing to write something, in the Serra case Stanford incidentally wiped away memory by rewriting, to the same effect of self-preservation. Though the two stories come across differently, being presented in the discourse of separate pressure groups (very simplistically, the language and ideas of anti-colonialist vs. that of feminist student groups), they both clearly demonstrate the importance of memory to Stanford. The renaming of Serra dorm, Serra House, and Serra Mall seem in this light to be almost suspicious, like a political trick: as if those in power are giving the people what they want, but in reality distracting or hiding problems from them, treating the symptom rather than the cause. Here, Stanford thought that some form of progressiveness would aid their reputation; in contrast, Miller’s plaque seemed as though it could be damaging. Even though Stanford’s goals may not be nefarious, or may even be viewed as a genuine attempt to correctly engage with a changing culture, the result of these self-defensive moves is or will be the forgetting of an unpleasant history.

What’s the argument, then, for keeping the memory of bad past events alive, or even to commemorate them—as we’ve already contended with Miller’s rape? The reality of the Serra renamings is that the accumulation of historical prestige—and vast amounts of wealth or power—is rarely not ugly. If we had to knock down all monuments directly incriminated by colonialism, we would have to raze the entirety of the United States, including Stanford itself, and no less its colonial source of England, as well as many other countries. In the face of this reality, it seems that the renaming of some streets and buildings is in fact the shirking of responsibility: the deliberate forgetting of knowledge that lifts the burden of historic accountability from the shoulders of institutions. Institutions such as Stanford need to remember and acknowledge what has enabled their foundation and continuation, and the reality of knowledge, wealth and power, instead of putting “a bandage over an ugly scar that Stanford doesn’t want people to see”—which is how a student activist described the current polished and plaque-less site of Miller’s rape.

A bogglingly simple but workable solution, which again returns us to memory and Miller, is then simply to add a plaque: to add information and knowledge rather than taking it away. If the names of streets and buildings are changed, erect some form of signage explaining in brief that they used to carry colonial monikers. A positive view of our world is that the richer our knowledge, the better: don’t let Stanford misuse or misread our wish to right historical wrong by forgetting ugly pasts for its own convenience. Chanel Miller’s plaque should be erected as part of a deep undertaking by Stanford to fully bear the weight of its responsibility as an institution, and as part of a cultural effort to move forwards by remembering and reflecting rather than replacing and forgetting.

Contact Hagar Gal at hagargal ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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