Class of 2024 Honor Council Summer Essay Contest ("Know My Name")
This year Honor Council released two prompts for the Honor Council Summer Essay Contest for the Class of 2024. One of the prompts related to the Duke Common Experience summer reading book Know my Name by Chanel Miller. Participants replied to the following prompt: How does “Know My Name” exemplify honor and integrity, ie. as in regard to the importance of honesty and empathy in difficult situations? Congratulations to the winner, Linda Cao as well as the runner-ups, Cindy Xu and Annie Bao.
Linda Cao, 1st Place
A Cruel World by Choice
Growing up, I was told that the world is a cruel place. Yet, what sounds like elderly wisdom is sometimes exploited to negate and justify horrendous acts – glossed over in one broad stroke of “life is unfair.” As seen in her inspirational publication Know My Name, Channel Miller’s assault was no exception. Consequently, it is from her courageous journey where I realized that the world is not a cruel place, but rather sometimes we are just cruel people.
Perhaps, ironically, it’s a bit cruel to make such rash generalizations. After all, there are individuals who uphold honor and integrity in our society. Prime examples: Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arndt – the Swedes. Despite confirming their testimonies, there were multiple comments doubting the Swedes’ credibility – were they genuine eyewitnesses? Not only was I in utter disbelief, but I could not digest the incredulous disappointment that we live in a world where the decision to intervene is so uncommon that it has become something unbelievable. Indeed, the Swedes were in a position where they could disregard everything that night; they could turn around and pretend it never happened. And yet, they didn’t. That is integrity, as rare as it may be. It is the conscious decision to be a decent human being, even when you don’t have to be. In this case, they were more than just decent; they were heroes who sought for justice.
However, my accusation of cruelty holds true in light of those who fail to empathize in difficult situations, such as the anonymous community that considers Miller to responsible for her assault. But why is empathy difficult? According to the just-world hypothesis, people have the tendency to believe that the world is fair to those who abide by the rules set by society. We are inclined to perpetuate this idea because it establishes a sense of safety – the false hope that if we stay tucked under the covers, the monsters won’t hurt us. But they do. The monsters don’t care about how you dress, how you act, or how you plead. The victims of sexual assault are not a flawed exception to our current system, but rather our system is exceptionally flawed. To be empathetic in difficult situations, such as Miller’s, it is more than being kind. It is the decision to reject this internalized tendency of victim-blaming and acknowledge the relentless truth that, indeed, the world can be a cruel place that inflicts pain onto undeserving individuals. To follow in the steps of Rosemarie Aquilina, the judge who ruled Larry Nassar guilty, extend a hand, extend an ear, and extend the time for victims to be heard.
Whenever a sexual assault victim steps forward, there are always accusations of how “suddenly” these survivors decided to share their stories. I find the word “suddenly” to be preposterous knowing that centuries of sexual harassment have been swept under a gigantic carpet of ignorance. There is no scheme for revenge, no desperation for popularity, no intention to capitalize. As Miller says herself, “We fight because we pray we’ll be the last ones to feel this kind of pain.” It’s a matter of honor – to shed light upon such crimes with the hope that more survivors will come forward. And they will. Whether it’s through an Instagram post or a 7,137-word court statement, they will come forward, compelled to do so on their own sense of honor. Despite the terror-stricken, palm-sweaty sleepless nights or the rational irrational outbursts of agonizing emotional trauma, victims will always choose to step forward to speak up for the countless of others who have been disregarded, silenced, dehumanized, mocked, abused. Some may come forward to speak up for themselves. And that too is valid.
People like Channel Miller, Peter Jonsson, Carl-Fredrik Arndt, Rosemarie Aquilina, and thousands of other beautiful souls are the standing, breathing evidence disproving that cruelty, although prevalent, is not universal. Ultimately, cruelty, honor, integrity, honesty, and empathy are not genetically engineered into our DNA; it is a conscious choice – eyes wide open – to be humane and supporting. Thus, if a multitude of individuals can choose to be honorable and empathetic in difficult times, then maybe, just maybe, the world isn’t so cruel after all.
Cindy Xu, 2nd Place
I remember reading Emily Doe’s statement in 2016, the day after it was published on Buzzfeed. I felt anger, helplessness, and fear -- in 7,137 words, Emily Doe became someone I knew, someone I wished I could reach out to and hug. I remember my eyes suddenly blurring with tears, and reading the end of her statement over and over again: To girls everywhere, I am with you. Before that day, I had never read an impact statement before, nor been affected so deeply by the pain of another person.
The effects of Chanel Miller’s statement were evident for years to come; it was widely discussed between my classmates, in the news, and on social media. But despite how deeply I was moved by the statement, I never expected it to have any relation with me. Three years later, my high school community grappled with the importance of honesty and empathy in the context of Miller’s story and her court case.
Our reckoning with sexual assault and accountability was born out of dishonesty. Former judge Aaron Persky -- who was referred to as “Michael” Persky, had been hired as the new coach of our high school’s JV women’s tennis team. Our administration had either neglected to conduct a detailed background or considered Persky’s history a non-issue until concern was raised by students, parents, and alumni. Over a series of emails, they apologized to the community, defended their decision, held meetings discussing what to do, and finally fired Persky. But in my opinion, the damage had already been done. I fully believe that had it not been for multiple petitions and outrage over Perksy’s hiring, our administration would have been complacent with keeping Persky in a position that required him to be a mandated reporter. Their disregard for the safety of their students and initial refusal to admit accountability highlights the importance of honesty in positions of power.
But perhaps more important in our community’s reaction to Persky’s employment was what we learned about empathy. In Know My Name, Miller unearths the raw emotion of a rape survivor, dwelling on the emotional process of coming to terms with her guilt and self-worth after obsessively reading comments online. She remembers raking through comments, looking for signs of support, feeling overwhelmed by the negative reactions from those who blame her for drinking, going to a frat party, losing her sister, and more. I would consider Persky’s sentence itself to be a comment, perhaps one of the most important comments that Miller had to put up with. An executive decision like that, in line with state law and a probation officer’s recommendation, is a slap in the face to survivors. I consider someone who would sign, seal, and deliver such a sentence to be someone lacking empathy. Miller’s exasperation at how much emphasis Persky placed on Turner’s swimming accomplishments, young age, and status as a student at Stanford resonated within me. It’s shocking to me how someone can lack empathy for a survivor, who has been subjected to physical injury, emotional trauma, and the difficulties of going to court, and yet feel empathy for someone who “could have gone to the Olympics” or had a whole life ahead of him if not for “20 minutes of action”. Those with empathy for a rapist, who could easily have minded his own business and not assaulted a drunk woman, should not be in positions of power, especially as mandated reporters.
The reception at my school was mixed -- some felt that Persky should not have been fired, while others believed more should have been done by administration. Though Know My Name was released after Persky’s firing, it is a reminder of why his removal was necessary -- those in positions of power, without valuing the voices of survivors, have the potential to put students at risk. The importance of being an ally to survivors, who should never feel afraid to come forward, is a part of our society that is slowly trending towards amplifying women’s voices and removing the shame and stigma that comes with speaking up. Miller’s book has cemented the importance of honesty and empathy and why we need to keep those in power accountable.
Annie Bao, 3rd Place
Integrity and honor are exemplified in “Know My Name” through Chanel Miller’s story, from the moment of her assault to her brave outpour of anguish in the face of her assailant. Her honesty opened the heavy door that had separated her calm facade and emotional vulnerabilities as she guided me through her every feeling and obstacle.
“Know My Name” shows me what integrity and honor are not. These values contrast Brock Turner’s dishonesty and failure to recognize the immorality of what he did on the night of January 17th. These values contrast Judge Persky’s light sentence, communicating to the world that sexual assault is a crime that does not merit careful consideration, but rather deserves to be thrown in with trivial dismeanors such as tampering with a fire extinguisher. These values contrast Turner’s father’s negligence of his son’s actions and attempts to utilize Turner’s past as a shield from the true issue at hand—attempts that to me lacked a line of reasoning. These values contrast the media comments that threw Miller in a sea of blame and failed to discern what men are truly capable of. These values contrast the malice that caused Miller to forget her worth, to suffer alone in agony, to end up in a void where she needed to constantly remind herself that she was “worth more than three months.”
Miller’s memoir also demonstrates what integrity and honor are. These values are embodied by Alaleh, who graciously accompanied Miller on her journey and allowed the public to understand the possibility of a just world. These values are embodied by Miller’s loved ones, who displayed overwhelming empathy, patience, and trustworthiness as they refused to leave Miller’s side and continued to fight for other victims through Miller’s experiences. These values are embodied by the Swedes, who exhibited respect and responsibility and inspired Miller to become a voice for so many women. Most importantly, these values are embodied by Miller herself, who expressed moral righteousness and honesty and exposed the brutal reality of sexual assault through her forceful victim impact statement.
The stories of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd continued to shape my understanding of integrity. Taylor was an emergency medical technician who devoted her life to saving the lives of others—she tragically lost her own life in the unjust hands of white policemen. George Floyd was a gentle giant who mentored his religious community—he was also killed by white policemen who failed to perceive deeper than skin color. The Black Lives Matter movement is symbolic of a world that is capable of showing empathy and continuously educating and improving. The movement has taught me that our collective integrity and strength have the capacity to create change; I observed that the power of our morals and cohesiveness can be channeled through peaceful protests for justice. The lives that were cut short by merciless racism convey the dark stain that discrimination continues to smear upon our society—a stain that can only be wiped away by the people’s voices and actions. Justice is not handed to us, but rather attained through morality, integrity, and solidarity.
“Know My Name” educates on the importance of understanding the victim’s point of view.
By sharing her narrative, Miller was able to break through the hurdle of fear that had prevented so many others from vocalizing their stories. Through her powerful sense of integrity, she not only became a voice for sexual assault survivors but also inspired millions to embrace their worth and rights. Behind every victim is a story, and Miller has set a precedent for a community of rising voices who continues to strengthen the oppressed and create a lasting impact on the world.