A reader writes:
I just graduated from Haverford College, a liberal Quaker school outside of Philadelphia. A few years ago, two students dressed as black pop-stars went to a Halloween party wearing brown face paint. They were punished, pretty much for hate speech, on the grounds that even though they didn’t intend to offend people, they knew their costumes would and continued with it anyway. Ultimately, they were accused of failing to consider how words and actions affected other people’s sense of acceptance. The proceedings were released as an abstract a few months after the students were “sentenced.”
I’d like to hear what you think! Was the administration’s decision just? And also, would it be wrong for a Catholic to do something they know will make other feel threatened?
Thanks for the note.
It’s hard to comment in detail. The *.pdf is rather long and after reading a few pages I think they’re all out of their minds. Politics is partly the art of running a madhouse but that’s a reason to cultivate your own garden and avoid getting involved in other people’s business.
Basically, it seems to me there are always going to be local standards of what’s polite, what’s grossly rude, and what’s conduct so unbecoming that there ought to be some sort of penalty. I won’t advise Haverford on the point. I note though that such standards are always a matter of the habits and outlook of a particular culture, so the effort to combine them with an attempt to be multicultural will always cause those who participate in the effort to go insane.
If Haverford wants to try to set up some sort of weird utopia they can go ahead and do so. It won’t work, since utopia is not an option, and they’ll destroy themselves as a serious educational institution concerned with the life of the mind and the development of enduringly valuable human capacities and insights, but that’s their business. My objection is to laws (e.g., civil rights laws) that try to force everyone to set up the same utopia, for example by demanding inclusiveness etc.
To be slightly more specific: so far as I can make out the people involved accept a lot of principles that don’t make all that much sense and are very much at odds with each other:
- It’s good to be edgy, and confront and subvert conventional expectations.
- It’s bad to have settled standards as to what’s polite or impolite, decent or indecent.
- Every institution has to include people of every imaginable racial, cultural and sexual background in proportions corresponding to their general social presence, and they all have to feel equally at home.
- Sensitivity is good. Consciousness raising is good. If something’s at odds with your sense of who you are or fails to support it you should notice the situation and make an issue of it. Other people should take the issue seriously and accept your feelings in the matter as authoritative.
- It’s a good idea to try to promote and indeed guarantee the achievement of all the foregoing through administrative means.
When you put all those things together they don’t make any sense at all. Part of the issue for example is whether Halloween has some kind of special status, whether it’s a situation like the Saturnalia or Feast of Fools in which people are allowed to mock the usual pieties and reverse ordinary hierarchies. That issue becomes stupidly complex and self-contradictory under present circumstances, since at present (1) the usual piety is liberation, (2) the ordinary hierarchy is the supremacy of equality, and (3) you can’t have any special status for Halloween anyway, since such a status would be a particular cultural matter and “multiculturalism” means particular culture has no public relevance. How can anybody possibly make sense of such a situation?
Bottom line: it seems obvious that if you put yourself in some setting in which you’re part of a small minority, and the minority you’re part of has lots of problems with respect to the things valued in the setting (in the case of Haverford, I suppose those would include money, social class, intellectual achievement etc.) then there are going to be lots of incidents that you’ll feel put the value of your identity in question. For you, the question should be whether it’s worth it. In some cases the answer will be yes, in others no. As for other people, they should be thoughtful, and try to avoid unnecessary offense, but life must go on, always acting like you’re walking on eggs consumes too much effort to be worth while, and it’s stupid and destructive to try to set up an administrative system that tries to guarantee that everyone feels equally accepted.
As for Catholicism, I suppose you shouldn’t do something that makes someone feel bad unless you think there’s something more important to be gained. The whole situation strikes me as too screwed up though to comment on from that point of view. My advice to anyone who finds himself in such a setting is to drop out. If you need the degree for practical reasons then become an internal exile. You’ve graduated though. You asked about Catholicism so maybe you’re a Catholic. If so, go to confession, reorient your life, and sin no more.
I’ve gibbered enough though. Here’s a comment on another Philly-area Quaker college (Swarthmore).
UPDATE: A further comment from the reader:
You would have had a field day with our commencement speakers. We had an environmentalist, a civil rights activist and college president, another civil rights activist and once an “undocumented citizen,” and my personal favorite, Barbara Ehrenreich the muck-raker. Not one word on truth, knowledge or education. In fact, nothing was said that didn’t somehow relate to social activism and our obligation to reconstruct society for the better. It was interesting to sit through though!