Recent events have made me realize that the question “Did you know?” can be more complicated than it sounds.
The story of Brett Kavanagh and Christine Blasey Ford hits close to home for me, literally. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1982, when Christine Blasey was attending the Holton-Arms School, I was attending a public middle school a mile and a half away. Holton-Arms, Georgetown Prep, Columbia Country Club – I know all these places. If you draw a map of where these things were occurring, my parents’ house is right in the middle.
“Did you know?” a friend who also grew up in that area asked me. Did I know that this sort of thing was happening in our neighborhood? “No,” I said, “I was clueless.” I had no idea and I never attended that sort of party. A few years after graduating, I learned that cocaine and other drugs had been rampant in my high school. I was shocked.
I didn’t run with that sort of crowd. My friends were the college bowl team, the fencing club, and the Future Mad Scientists and Sorcerers of America (yes, that was an actual club). We had parties, but there was no alcohol – just a bunch of kids sitting around talking about Star Trek and the next science fiction convention.
And yet, that answer is disingenuous. I was shocked to learn my high school was full of drugs, but not because I doubted that it was true. I was shocked that it could be happening while I was so completely unaware of it.
I may not have been aware of any specific instances, but I was definitely aware that this sort of thing happened. Underage drinking, drugs, date rape – these were big issues in the 80s. We talked about them. Our parents worried about them. Our teachers warned us about them.
Whatever the truth behind the current allegations is, no one questions that this sort of behavior was common at the time. This was the era of Sixteen Candles, where a boy needs a girl’s panties to prove he is a man and an unconscious girl in your bedroom is “a piece of ass” that “I could violate 10 different ways if I wanted to.” “What are you waiting for?” his friend asks. “I don’t know,” he says. The idea that violating her is not OK is not even considered. On the contrary, the implication is that his hesitation to do so makes him less of a man.
Is there more that we could have done? In hindsight, it seems that there must have been. But thinking back on the reality, I find it hard to imagine what I could have done. I did not run with this crowd. I did not really know anyone who did. What could I or my parents have done that would have made a difference?
And yet, the teen culture of casual violence against women did not come out of nowhere. Few of us questioned whether the behavior portrayed in movies like Sixteen Candles was appropriate. The New York Times’ 1984 review of Sixteen Candles comments that “there are some notably unfunny ethnic jokes” but says nothing about the inappropriateness of the casual talk of rape. And let’s not be naïve about this – the use of the term “violate” means we all knew they were talking about rape.
Most of the time, we seemed to simply accept this behavior as normal. Date rape was in the air as an issue but the discussion was more “girls need to be more careful,” than “boys need to change their behavior.”
How progress is made
It makes me think of all the times in the past where we have asked, after the fact, “Did you know?”
It is so easy to say, “no, I didn’t know.” It is easy to think that I didn’t know anyone affected by the violence, the bias, the casual hate. It is easy to think that I didn’t know anyone who perpetrated any of that violence or expressed that bias, that hatred. So what could I have done?
But that again is disingenuous. I may not have known about any specific instances but that does not mean no one I knew was a victim, or a perpetrator. The culture of silence and doubt that surrounds this means that victims do not always speak about their experiences. Even more than that, though, this affected all of us. It impacted our behavior, our dress, who we interacted with and when and how. For some of us, it impacted how we felt about ourselves. For some of us, it may have even impacted what fields we chose to pursue.
If we allow ourselves to get away with saying “I didn’t know so what could I have done,” then the violence, the bias, and the hate will continue. We must recognize that this sort of behavior happens because we, as a culture, allow it to happen. If we want change, then we need to be willing to stand up and say, “that way of thinking is unacceptable,” even if we ourselves are never personally affected by it.
I wonder what is going on now that we will look back at in 35 years and ask “Did you know?” That is our homework: to figure out what we are letting slide that we should be objecting to, and start objecting.
 Maslin, Janet, “Screen: ’16 Candles,’ A Teen-Age Comedy,” New York Times, May 4, 1984. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/05/04/movies/screen-16-candles-a-teen-age-comedy.html