Colorado College Feminists Do Not Seek Dialogue

By on April 16, 2008

Today’s Rocky Mountain News prints a very misleading letter from Tomi-Ann Roberts, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Program in Feminist and Gender Studies program at Colorado College. The paper headlined her letter “SPEAKOUT: Feminists at CC seek dialogue.” See below for my detailed responses to Roberts’s letter and for the simultaneous response from Vincent Carroll, editor of the paper’s editorial pages.

I thought I would join the dialogue rather than speak merely as an outsider, so I requested to join the Feminist and Gender Studies listserv. Here’s the response I got from Roberts:

You have requested to join the Colorado College Feminist and Gender Studies Listserv. We’d prefer not to have someone from an organization that has maligned, demonized, and belittled us join our group. Please find another group of feminists to haunt. Leave us alone, thank you.

For the record, I do not believe that I have maligned, demonized, or belittled the program at any time. Other than the publication of “The Monthly Rag” by its interns, the porn star event, and the listserv itself, I don’t know what the program does, and the program is free (and should be free) to engage in whatever activism and programming they like, including events with porn stars.

But certainly I have severely criticized and ridiculed (but have not demonized or belittled, and “maligned” seems too strong) Colorado College and individual administrators and others who have acted shamefully in the case of “The Monthly Bag” (issue 2 is here), censoring the publication and subjecting the authors to a three-hour trial in a kangaroo court before finding them guilty of “violence” for putting up a parody. (By the way, there is a recording of the trial, and should this case one day go to court, everyone would be able to hear what really happened.)

One of those administrators deserving criticism is Roberts herself. Another is Ginger Morgan, Associate Dean of Students for Academic Support. Here’s what Morgan sent to the Feminist and Gender Studies student listserv:

Sent: Mon 3/3/2008

To: FGSSTUDENTS-L Mailing List

Subject: Update Student conduct complaint

Update: hearing now looks to be slated for Monday afternoon starting at 1. Statements will need to be received by Friday at noon via email to [REDACTED] . Feel free to contact me with questions.

Ginger

As I trust many or most of you are aware, the responsible parties for the “Monthly Bag” came forward after the FLASH on Friday. Jeff [link added] is hoping the Student Conduct hearing will convene this upcoming Friday (likely starting at 1 until concluded) prior to Spring Break. Any person who would like to speak to the impact the Monthly Bag had on them is welcome to submit statements. We are shooting for optimal number of four who would also be willing to appear before the Student Conduct Committee. There are several students (and maybe staff) the respondents will bring who can be expected to say “it was meant to be funny” “no harm done” “free speech/slippery slope” “the Monthly Rag is just as offensive”…

I am willing to serve as a complainant and come to the hearing. I also think it is important for the students involved to hear from peers as well as perhaps some faculty about why this was upsetting. I would direct folks’ attention to the Pathfinder (also available online for those of you who did not keep the copies provided to you…) pages 27-30 where our community values are explicitly spelled out. That said, I think that the most impactful statements will be personal and not necessary in institution speak…

I am willing to serve to coordinate the complainants, though do not feel I must be at the center of this. Any complainant may contact Jeff Cathey directly with a statement or questions. I am also available to be useful in whatever way this evolving situation warrants.

Um, this was all about fear of violence, right? That’s what President Celeste said in his blog (contradicting what he said at first.) Where’s that?

Now, for Dr. Roberts’s letter:

I would like to address several errors in recent media coverage of the controversial publication of a satirical flier at Colorado College, and present some perspective from the college’s Feminist and Gender Studies Program.

Our program’s bathroom publication, the Monthly Rag, is itself something of a parody, if you note its title, which emphasizes the idea of women being “on the rag.” It is meant as a playful, informational flier regarding “taboo” subjects related to women’s bodies and sexuality. It is one of several bathroom fliers sponsored by groups on campus. In the issue that was taken down in many bathrooms

According to the authors of the Bag, they did not take any flyers down, and they preferred to see the Rag posted so that their parody of the Rag would be more powerful. Actually, the Bag flyers were the ones immediately taken down.

[A]nd replaced with the Monthly Bag, our flier has a point of historical fact with “Did You Know” as its heading. In it the term vagina dentata is explained. (The vagina dentata, or “toothed vagina,” appears in the myths of many cultures, representing castration fears.)

Contrast this to the Monthly Bag’s own “Did You Know.” There, the point of educational fact is: “The Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle has an effective range of 2,000 meters.”

These two “Did You Know” segments are decidedly not equivalent. I daresay that speaking freely on these matters in public forums would get you different “punishments” indeed. Say, for example, the Bag writers were in an airport, and they spoke out loud about the vagina dentata. They might get some disgusted looks from other passengers. Some might even tell them to shut up. But let’s say they spoke out loud in the airport about the range of a .50-caliber sniper rifle. They’d be taken out by security.

This is, of course, a ludicrous and false analogy. The context of speech makes a huge difference. Roberts is a psychologist; of course she knows that context matters. The Supreme Court has held that an airport is not a public forum. Having a gun magazine in an airport or even on board an airplane, and discussing details about guns while walking through the airport, is perfectly well protected. (Just don’t imply that you have a gun anyplace where guns are not allowed.) Hunters and professional snipers (such as those who protect heads of state from afar) are free to discuss whatever weaponry they like, even in an airport. Roberts even takes the information about a sniper rifle out of its context in the flyer itself.

The media claim the Bag authors, Chris Robinson and his unnamed associate, were subjected to a punishment. Untrue.

Actually, it is quite true. See here and here and the details here. As I’ve said before: “The students were sanctioned and punished. Take a look at their letter of sanction by Dean of Students Mike Edmonds. Having a guilty finding on one’s record is a punishment. Having the letter put in each student’s file is a punishment. Being required to hold a “forum” is a punishment.”

My understanding of the word punishment is that it’s inflicted on someone, and it either hurts – physically or mentally – or it removes privileges. The outcome of the Student Conduct Committee “inquisition” was that the authors of the Bag were not punished by the college.

Again, see here for some real definitions of what a sanction is and what a punishment is.

They were given a suggestion that they dialogue with the campus community about their strong feelings around masculinity, feminism and gender that led them to post the Bag in the first place. Not a commandment to do so, but a suggestion, which they were free not to take.

False. They were required to hold a forum on a specific topic by a specific date as punishment for being found guilty of “violence.”

If you post an anonymous, hostile parody of a publication intended to educate about the experiences of a historically marginalized group, then get ready for folks to fight back.

Here is a good place to excerpt Carroll’s response in the Rocky Mountain News (as advertised in my opening paragraph):

[Roberts] is too busy building her case that the satiric flier was a “hostile” voice-which it was not, and which you can verify by reviewing it and the publication it parodied… [links added]

Roberts makes two remarkable claims. First, she denies that the students “were subjected to a punishment” for exercising their First Amendment rights. She manages this feat by failing to note that the dean of students found the two young men guilty of “violating the student code of conduct policy on violence under the college value of Respect.” This alarming but baseless finding goes into their files, I was told by an associate dean.

More to the point, the process itself was the punishment: being hauled before a “conduct board” to be grilled for more than three hours on the students’ personal beliefs and attitudes, fearing that a wrong answer risked possible expulsion. As political science professor David Hendrickson complained in the student newspaper, “This entire procedure was in fact an atrocious invasion of the most elementary personal rights. I do not know of any system of jurisprudence in the modern world that would give a formal sanction to this miscellany of unguided missiles directed at the supposed perpetrators.” …

Why, perish the thought that this witch hunt had anything to do with the fact that the satire’s targets were hypersensitive, radical activists determined, by Roberts’ own admission, “to fight back.” Of course not!

Roberts continues:

What we want is dialogue. That’s not what the Bag was.

Actually, the parody certainly was a contribution to campus dialogue, as its effects have endlessly proven. In fact, Roberts herself has furthered the constructive part of the dialogue by circulating information in response to the Dudes’ comment challenging the “glass ceiling” on women’s salaries.

A community has the right to ask its members to take ownership of their opinions and to share them in a way that is respectful of others. No idea at CC has been “banned or forbidden,” as Robinson claims.

False. See what President Celeste originally wrote about why he deemed the content of the Bag unacceptable at Colorado College. Any idea that is perceived as “demeaning,” Celeste said, “is categorically unacceptable in this community.”

All he and his friend have been asked to do is take responsibility for their ideas, and be brave enough to allow others to disagree with them.

False. They also were required to go to a three-hour “Star Chamber” trial with a possible penalty of expulsion, and then, having been found guilty, were required to hold a campus forum about the issues raised by the Bag.

Why is the Feminist and Gender Studies Program being held responsible for this debacle?

See the email above, for one reason among many, from Ginger Morgan.

The Rocky’s Vincent Carroll writes that the problem with the Monthly Bag is “who it offends. It commits the mortal sin of poking fun at the work of activists associated with the Feminist and Gender Studies program” (“CC’s free-speech fears,” On Point, April 8). [link added]

Excuse me, Mr. Carroll, but did you ask any feminists if they were offended? No. The response by CC President Richard Celeste and the decision to put the incident through the Student Conduct process were ones that were made entirely outside of our program. In fact, many of us disagreed with the conduct process as the appropriate way to handle it.

This point is worth noting. From the sentence it is unclear whether Roberts herself was one of those who disagreed. But guilt by association is often a problem. Just because so many of the critics (if not also some of the judges) came from the program, and just because the program’s listservs were used to drum up outrage and support against the Bag, and just because Roberts (the program’s director) has been so vociferous against the Bag, does not mean that everyone in the program feels the same as folks like Ginger Morgan. If anyone associated with the Feminist and Gender Studies Program has left the group because of these incidents, I would like to know about it. (Email me at adam@thefire.org.)

Most of us wanted to take the opportunity to open up a campuswide dialogue about why some white men feel silenced; why our publication offends some; or what gendered experience is about in a “post-feminist” world. That’s not how things went down. But it is certainly not the fault of anyone in or associated with the Feminist and Gender Studies Program. We still invite Robinson and anyone else who would like to talk openly about these matters, to do so with us.

False. I again quote today’s email from Roberts:

We’d prefer not to have someone from an organization that has maligned, demonized, and belittled us join our group. Please find another group of feminists to haunt. Leave us alone, thank you.

Finally, here is Roberts’s conclusion:

But please stop fabricating a story about humorless, offended feminists silencing men’s free speech. Stop using us as the scapegoat for a mean-spirited “freedom-quest.”

“Mean-spirited ‘freedom-quest’”? Indeed, who needs freedom after all? I close with these excerpts from Amanda Udis-Kessler, Colorado College’s Director of Institutional Research and Planning, in her letter to the Colorado Springs Gazette:

Freedom, while important, is meaningless without respect for other people. We do not have to agree with their ideas or even necessarily respect their ideas. We must, however, treat them as we would wish to be treated…. Name-calling and blackface are disrespectful because they are tied to a history of problematic treatment that includes violence and demeaning language, among other kinds of inequality. For feminists, the Monthly Bag fits this pattern…

Social inequality is deeply grounded in a lack of respect-for women, people of color, lesbian and gay people, and others. When we choose to curtail our freedom to disrespect others in order to build a meaningful society, we have made a mature and wise choice-and one that college should help us learn.

Wow! The terribly low respect for free expression by Udis-Kessler is yet another reason for Colorado College to feel very, very ashamed. Dialogue sometimes feels a bit disrespectful; it’s a hazard of vigorous debate. Adults in college are strong enough to take it, but maybe that’s not true at Colorado College.

Schools: Colorado College