2006 and the Culture of Offense

January 5, 2007

On Monday, November 20th, the Native American Council at Dartmouth ran a two-page advertisement in The Dartmouth entitled “When Good People Do Nothing: Racism On Our Campus.” The advertisement, addressed to “the Dartmouth community,” begins by condemning those who “failed to respond” to a string of events the Council deemed offensive and racist. After listing the events and positing a few “Fundamental Truths,” the Council begins a tirade directed at those who had not spoken out in defense of the Native American population at Dartmouth. In the “Dare to Speak, Dare to Act” portion of the advertisement, the Council writes, “An apology is a start, but it rings hollow when it is not accompanied by strong and sustained efforts to combat ignorance and eradicate the root cause of racism.”

The following day, Josie Harper, the school’s Director of Athletics and Recreation, wrote a letter to the editor of The Dartmouth. Referring to Dartmouth’s invitation of the University of North Dakota (UND) Fighting Sioux hockey team to a tournament on campus, she writes:

I must offer a sincere apology to the Native American community, and the Dartmouth community as a whole, for an event that will understandably offend and hurt people within our community… Let me state clearly that UND’s position is offensive and wrong.

In response, members of the UND community, the Sioux community, and Dakotans in general attacked Harper and her assumptions and shared their pride in the Fighting Sioux mascot. As the situation escalated, a group of Dartmouth students apologized to the UND community for Harper’s apology. And, on November 30th, Charles E. Kupchella, the president of UND, wrote a letter to James Wright, the president of Dartmouth, in which he states:

To call what we do here as wrong, in some blanket way, is outrageous. To have placed herself [Harper] above the majority of Indian people and above the Spirit Lake Nation is nothing short of patronizing.

This incident exemplifies the stifling culture of offense that prevails on many college campuses. Without a doubt, the words and actions of certain groups on campus legitimately offend others; however, recently, many (students, faculty, and administrators) have come to believe they have a right not to be offended. As a result, apologies for almost all controversial speech have become compulsory, and the severity of additional punishments has escalated. To avoid controversy and quell the loud voices of small campus groups who often arrogantly believe they speak for a larger community, administrators have started apologizing for others’ actions and handing out disproportionate punishments.

When a Penn student dressed up like a suicide bomber on Halloween and was photographed with Penn President Amy Gutmann, students, alumnae, and parents demanded punishment, even after apologies from both parties. And, after a fraternity hosted a hip-hop themed party at Johns Hopkins, the Black Student Union continued to protest even after an apology from fraternity social chair Justin Park and other fraternity brothers. When the Columbia Men’s Ice Hockey Club posted flyers with a slightly risqué, but very tired, pun on the school’s mascot, the Lions, the student government called for administrative action. In all of these cases, offended students looked to the administration to silence speech of others.

What’s the result of this culture of offense? Students become hyper-sensitive and expect that when they’re offended, the offenders will be punished. Administrators look foolish because they are constantly apologizing and often, like Josie Harper, make arrogant and uninformed assumptions that undercut their credibility (perhaps the most famous example occurred during the water buffalo incident at the University of Pennsylvania. An administrator incorrectly declared that water buffalo, animals native to Asia, were “primitive, dark animals that lived in Africa” and thus constituted a racial slur). The overall level of campus discourse drops because, when challenged, students answer with “I’m telling” instead of an intelligent and reasoned counterargument.

Let’s hope, after the backlash resulting from the incidents at Dartmouth, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins, that administrators realize they have a responsibility not to coddle students who have had their feelings hurt, but instead to encourage speech and conversation and debate on campus. And let’s hope, in 2007, that students stop encouraging the censorship and punishment of their peers.

Schools:  Johns Hopkins University