SPEAKING FREELY


Posted by Professor Robin Le Blanc


Letter sent to The Trident, but left unpublished

April 7, 2008

To the Editor:

            I realize that, in true Washington and Lee tradition, I should have already forgotten the March “madness” of the campus “bracket” and moved on to more positive thinking. It’s inconvenient, perhaps downright annoying of me to keep whacking away at a lame horse.

           Still, I have something I want heard, and I want it heard by a particular group of people. The audience I am seeking is not the group of students so crudely listed in “The Bracket” for their insistence upon class participation, same-sex friendships, unusual hairstyles, insufficiently popular dates, a refusal to wear Northface jackets or whatever crowd-defying choices earned them the gaze of the bracket producers. I feel for this group; I’ve been a part of it at times in my life. But this is not my audience.

            The audience I am seeking is not the small group of students who actually wrote and edited “The Bracket.” I consider those individuals’ behavior so beneath the level of mature adulthood, I find it hard to comment upon intelligibly. Nor is the audience I seek the much larger group of individuals whose invention and repetition of vicious gossip about less popular students make it possible for “The Bracket” to operate as a huge inside joke. These groups chill me. But they are not my audience.

            The audience I seek is the not the collection of our community members who defend “The Bracket” authors’ free speech while forgetting that, given the subsidies of office space, equipment and newspaper distribution locations, alone, we, as a private University, could choose to insist we are at least part owners of the Trident. The Constitution protects many forms of speech, but it does not require publishers to publish what their writers write or private organizations to open their doors for its distribution. But this is not my audience.

            The audience I seek is not the President’s Task Force on Women, whose members have already done me the favor of considering whether “The Bracket’s” hostility toward women deserves an official response from the committee.

            The audience I seek is not the fine group of students who have always known this sort of behavior is intolerable and who have already taken it upon themselves to protest “The Bracket” or, as Abel Delgado so admirably did, to insist they are added to it.

            The audience I seek is what I think of as Washington and Lee’s Silent 1300—that portion of the student body (we could add faculty, too, if you like) who neither took part in the “fun” of the bracket nor made any effort to protest it. I am talking to those of you who are thanking your lucky stars you didn’t make the list, those of you who have done a quick mental inventory to make certain you aren’t doing any of the things that might get you listed next year, those of you who have been sitting wordlessly while your more confident classmates complain about how “uptight” the faculty and administration are, those of you who know this bracket is no joke because you live in absolute fear of it.

            I don’t know what your exact number is, but I know who you are. I am ashamed to say that, just as, at times in my life I have been “bracketed” by my peers, I have at many other times in my life, been one of the Silent 1300. You are the responsible parties here. You are neither the desperate bullies who write things like “The Bracket,” nor their understandably preoccupied victims. But you are the majority of this community. If even half of you had the courage to stand up and say, with Abel Delgado, “Put me on the bracket, too!” we’d have a campus movement. Imagine that. Six hundred and fifty W&L community members throwing aside their fear of being judged “terrible” by a couple of bullies and their gossip-mongering followers. Imagine 650 people saying “If you really knew me, you’d know I don’t always fit in around here either!” Six hundred and fifty students and/or faculty joining “The Bracket.” Imagine how dumb the bullies would look, then.

            And what would it cost you to out yourselves? I know one thing, you would never have to fear getting listed again, and that means you could make choices about everything from class participation to oral sex without the boys of “The Bracket” weighing in. You could finally enjoy the freedom of your youth, you could use your fine minds without embarrassment, you could wear colors your friends don’t wear, have passionate discussions, fall in love with unusual people, admit your ambitions, laugh too hard, display too much enthusiasm, take things too seriously, talk to the people already listed on the bracket, tell people some of what you’re really thinking... And if a join-the-bracket movement gets going, you wouldn’t even be alone.

            There’s only one catch. The join-the-bracket movement can only start at the level of individuals. Each and everyone of us who will someday be forming a human wall against the bullies has to decide on our own that the risk of being alone outside the “joke” is worth it. A small few have already joined the bracket, but the Silent 1300 is still bowing to the bullies and their followers. Let’s change that.

            I’m going to follow Abel. Sign me up! I’m a “terrible” person! Only 649 to go…

 

Sincerely,

Robin M. LeBlanc

Associate Professor of Politics


E-mail correspondence

Hi Brian,

I am sorry for the ineffectiveness of my email and unpublished letter to the editor. I do not share your views. In fact, I find they increase my discomfort with my work life.

Let me be clear.

1) I was a campus journalist. I was managing editor for my college paper as a college senior. My friend Mark Cobb (who incidentally is a '91 L alum) was editor. We did have careful advising, and the university made it clear to us from beginning to end that, as long as we depended upon their resources to publish our work, we could consider them our publishers. Usually, they respected our attempts to spur free discourse on a range of university and larger issues, but they would have shut us down if we had published personally direct obscenities of the type the Trident published. We actually covered university news and concerns (I remember articles debating whether standards for tenure were appropriate, examining restrictions on student social activities, investigating depression and suicide among students...) because we were taught that a community's paper is a paper of record. The paper of record is responsible for understanding and reporting on its locality, as well as the "bigger" stories from elsewhere. We were proud to take on that responsibility. We had our own problems with competence; we made mistakes. But we did not have any trouble understanding that terms such as "slut," "cunt" and "giving head" were obscene and unfit for publication in our community newspaper. We did not need any extra advising to tell us that articles attacking the sexual identities or classroom enthusiasm of our fellow classmates were NOT JOURNALISM. We knew that sort of thing to be plain old, unadorned bullying. We knew that BEFORE we went to college--as in fact, our W&L students also no doubt knew before they got here.

Ignorance or incompetence has absolutely nothing to do with what the Bracket students did. They were just gross and mean in a way even kindergarten students can fundamentally understand is unacceptable (even if they don't know the meaning of the obscenities). The Bracket students offered no ideas for debate. They made no attempt to communicate a position on a campus issue. They were simply bullying their fellow students. If we describe them as needing a chance to "learn," we let them off the hook for behavior they already know quite well is beyond the pale. Or are we unsure about the term "cuntry club"? Have I missed something about discussing students "giving head"? Is it possible adult native speakers of English might have mistaken these words as less than obscene? Please.

2) When the Bracket first came out, I was appalled, but when you defended the students' right to "free speech" in publishing it, I was more deeply concerned. Another female colleague (a relatively recent hire) and I discussed our feelings about it, and we agreed. The fact that some of our students behaved this way in a public forum was deeply distressing to us. How, we wondered, would we teach those students if they showed up in our classrooms, knowing how they speak about women? But the fact that a highly-regarded senior male colleague was working to protect their right to say those things bothered us in a deeper way. They students seemed hostile enough. Your defense of them seemed to us to be worse-- a protection of the elements of the W&L environment that every single day eat away at our attempts to establish ourselves as professionals and leaders in our campus community.

You are an alum, a full professor, the head of your department, the university marshal, and you have used your authority to defend harassment and obscenity in a campus publication. As far as I am concerned, when you compare bringing a harassment complaint against the bullies of the Trident to the taking of the Jews in Nazi German or mock trials in a totalitarian regime, you are saying you don't believe in protecting students and co-workers against the viciousness of our community's meanest members. Now, not only are some of our students appalling; I've also got to walk into classrooms with them knowing that a senior, male colleague, who is also an alum, has vigorously defended their right to "learn" by blasting attacks at anyone they consider deviant. When I teach I don't just have to worry about what these students think about me (and my "cunt"--yes, that's how it FEELS to see students after I read that stuff they wrote); I now also have to worry about the fact that an institutional authority figure has told them it's okay to act the way they do. As far as I am concerned, your defense of them is harassing to me, PERSONALLY. The environment of "discourse" you defend makes it unfairly hard for me to feel respected and endowed with the appropriate level of authority for my position.

3)Let's suppose you still can't get your head around the fact that protected speech and aggressive bullying of private persons are two different categories. You would never bring a complaint against the students yourself. Fine. What could you have done? Address the horrible aspects of what they wrote, and let them fight their own fight for the freedom to attack their peers. Don't lend them your authority. Part of the point of the American adversarial culture is that it allows for adjustments in the gray areas at the edges of our central principles. Those who want to expand the notion of a "freedom of the press" to include a protected right to discuss which girls gave head to which guys or which guys might be gay, or to use homosexuality as a demeaning category, can fight to be recognized by their peers. Those of us who think, with John Locke, that the liberty protected by our form of government is never absolute liberty, can refuse to come to the aid of those who link freedom with bullying.

4) Being ethical is never merely a matter of having a principle. Ethics is also a matter of discriminating between those behaviors that will deepen and enrich a principle and those behaviors so distorting of the intentions of principle they are likely to make the principle loathsome to the very population necessary for its support. To the extent that you are an ethicist with regard to journalism, it seems to me it is incumbent on you to demonstrate to the students a capacity for a nuanced understanding of the principles you defend. All simple ideas are ridiculous when applied with absolutely no discernment from one situation to the next. All principles that are living parts of a community are, by definition, perpetually interpreted and reinterpreted. They can not be understood simply in shouting them. The discerning and ethical person must be judicious about how he brandishes a cherished principle, if he wants others to learn to cherish it, too. Every time you defend the minority of our community who are bullies, you teach the majority of our community how miserable the "right to free speech" will make them. You erode the value of freedom of the press by equating the use of newsprint to attack private persons with journalism. You make the very notion of journalism at W&L noxious.

5) Having said that, I would add that you have spent enormous energy protecting bullies and displayed a shocking insensitivity to the majority of W&L students, to the bullies' victims, and to your colleagues. I know you did not start out to be insensitive, but despite the many intense and carefully constructed responses you have received from students and faculty, you have failed to reconsider your position in the least. Every time you send another "defense of free speech" out into our community, I feel more nauseous, less of a community member, more discouraged about our institution's future. Please stop.

Sincerely,

Robin


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