Offended? Overreact!

November 9, 2006

The campaign against offense continues. IvyGate reports that on Monday, The Dartmouth student newspaper ran a cartoon drawn by freshman Drew Lerman. The cartoon depicts Friedrich Nietzsche conversing with a male college student about whether the student should take advantage of a drunken college female. As seen in the last panel of the cartoon, the joke pokes fun at “liberal academic revisionism,” and the punch line is “man, I am so beyond good and evil right now.”

In response to the cartoon, IvyGate reports, “A few readers concluded that the cartoon advocates rape and proceeded to burn copies of The Dartmouth outside the paper’s offices.” Also in response, an alumna wrote an op-ed, run in The Dartmouth, expressing her disgust with the cartoon and the paper’s Editorial Board, and the Student Assembly issued a statement concerning the integrity of The Dartmouth.

While the uproar caused by this cartoon is miniscule in comparison to the sometimes violent global response to the Mohammed cartoons, critics of both cartoons proceed under the same premises: the drawings are too offensive; they belittle and disrespect ideas that we should treat with only deference; and they’re too gross to be funny or thought-provoking.

The Dartmouth Editorial Board published an encouraging editorial on Monday stating, “as an independent medium for free discourse and exchange of information, we place a strong priority on the protection of free speech.” Also, the editorial clarifies the point of the joke, asserts the paper’s independence, and further states, “[a]s a Board, however, we decided that offensiveness does not always call for censorship.”

The Editorial Board also apologized for the cartoon and, echoing Amy Gutmann’s statement last week, admitted the cartoon offended them too. And to state the obvious and dispel any unreasonable doubt, they wrote, “the Dartmouth strongly and unequivocally condemns sexual assault.”

I am both encouraged and discouraged by the incident. The burning of newspapers, like newspaper theft, acts as a heckler’s veto and adds nothing to the campus conversation.  On the other hand, the alumna who wrote the op-ed, though I disagree with almost everything she wrote, commented civilly on the cartoon, and The Dartmouth responded in turn. As for the Student Senate, their assumption that The Dartmouth reports to them scares me, though their statement thankfully does not put any “official demands” on the Editorial Board.

Too many minor incidents—Halloween costumes, Halloween parties, or single comic strips—have become controversies on campus because certain groups of students assume that nothing they see, hear, or read should offend them. These incidents are a symptom of a campus culture which too often values utopian visions of comfort and respect over rigorous, and sometimes uncomfortable and offensive, conversation.

Schools:  Dartmouth College