The teenage girls who allegedly tormented Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince until her eventual suicide reportedly started doing so after she dated boys who had also dated them. And sources tell Gawker's Adrian Chen that Harvard Grace's email about the genetic inferiority of black people became national news as a result of a fight over a man. Specifically, tipsters allege that fellow law student Yelena Shagall sent Grace's email on to Harvard's Black Law Student Association — months after Grace originally sent the e-mail — because "Stephanie confronted her because Yelena had slept with a mutual friend's ex-boyfriend."
Gawker is now calling the Grace case "The Cat Fight That Turned Into a National Scandal," and it's all too easy to fit the scandal into a box of Mean Girl Behavior already so well-defined that it's spawning backlash. But while it's true that the Internet can now amplify a personal vendetta into a national scandal — or, as in Prince's case, facilitate cyberbullying with tragic consequences — outsize disputes over love are by no means limited to our current time, or to women. See for instance the Trojan War — or, if you prefer your conflicts less mythological, Bill Clinton's impeachment.
But what's common to all the above disagreements (even the Trojan War, if it was in fact real), is that while they may have initially stemmed from love or sex, they were also about something else. Clinton's impeachment, whatever you think of it, was more about politics than cigar play. While Phoebe Prince's tormentors may have been angry about their boyfriends, they were also participants in the nasty power structure that high school often becomes, and their harassment of the newcomer Prince may have been as much a way to cement status as it was an act of revenge. And in the cutthroat world of a highly ranked law school — one whose more upsetting aspects Diane Lucas chronicled last week — might Shagall's act also have been a way to bring down an apparently very successful colleague?
Of course, there's a more obvious layer to the Grace case, which is the actual racist content of her email. Chen writes that "a number of people have told us Yelena holds extremely conservative views on race herself," meaning Shagall may have forwarded the email for purely personal, rather than ideological, reasons. But Grace's message never would have become big news were it not for its racist character, and it's the content of the email rather than the reason for its leaking that has sparked examinations of prejudice at Harvard and at law schools in general. Hopefully the debate Grace spawned has inspired some who might have agreed with her privately to rethink their views. In fact, the lesson of her "outing" may be not that everybody loves a good cat fight, but that such fights make the biggest splash when they speak to larger issues — and that however sordid their beginnings, they can provide an opportunity for addressing those issues head-on.
Image via The Republican.