Posted by Professor Ellen Mayock
I wrote this piece after reading The Bracket and the authors' follow-up a week later, after hearing about The List, and after determining that I simply didn't have an appropriate forum in which to share my thoughts on all the events. I did not want to help in any way to increase the circulation of The Trident, so I chose not to submit this piece to its editor. Here I offer what I wrote almost two months ago, but I think what I said still stands.
The Bracket, The List, and The Lesson
When I open a Washington and Lee-sponsored student publication and am regaled with such terms as “cuntry,” “poone plankton,” and “pretentious sluts,” I wonder if this language is the currency of our W&L culture. When I speak with students about The Bracket, the reaction is a general, “Ah, no big deal, this stuff happens all the time. You should see the informal version that’s passed around. Besides, they’ve been doing this for years.” This information makes me feel far worse because it demonstrates that this type of language and these types of slurs are a firm and accepted part of Washington and Lee tradition. After all, if we’ve always done it, what’s the big deal?
Before class began the other day, I cited out loud some of The Bracket terminology. My sense was that students do not want to hear me saying “cuntry,” “poone plankton,” and “pretentious sluts.” I imagine that some of you reading this wish that I would stop using these terms here. If it is offensive to hear them from me, why is it not offensive to hear them from the “Raging Intellectuals,” who are actually employing the terms in a direct and threatening manner? Where do we draw the line? Maybe it is too simple to draw the line at the point at which we are using language for ill rather than for good. Maybe it is too simple to say that it is offensive and threatening to put people into a category and then to label that category with the worst generalizations you can think of. Maybe it is too simple to say that we are all expecting far more out of each other than we are actually giving.
The Raging Intellectuals responded to a call for honor and civility by writing a long self-defense. The primary points of the self-defense are (1) they didn’t mean to emphasize the word “slut,” but rather the word “pretentious, and (2) they aren’t homophobic; they were just using homophobic language to criticize heterosexuals. A simple parsing of their points produces the following: (1) “Sluts” is just a word commonly used for women (since they claim the focus was really on the snobbism of the women in question), and (2) using homophobic language against non-homosexuals is not in and of itself homophobic. If this is the level of critical thinking of our published student leaders, then we need to take a long look at how we are educating our students.
On March 10th, I sent an e-mail to the President’s Task Force on Women. I expressed my concern about The Bracket and the ways in which we demonstrate that certain types of hate speech are allowed (and multiplied) on campus. Here you have that message:
Dear Colleagues on the President's Task Force on Women,
I am writing in reference to the content of and the response to last week's edition of The Trident. Given the very public nature of the derogatory comments made in The Trident about women students and about sexual orientations in general, it makes sense to state again that these issues should be examined as community issues and not parsed as either student concerns or faculty/staff concerns.
I have been thinking hard about last week's issue and about the community response to it. Publication of "The Bracket" was inexcusable, and the administration's response was appropriate. But I am still left with a series of questions: Was "The Bracket" allowed to go to print precisely because so many other similar pieces have been allowed to go to print in our student media over the last several years? Did it not seem so outrageous either to its authors or to The Trident's editors because these types of articles are part and parcel of the public face of our community? Was the administrative response strong primarily due to the sheer scale of individuals mentioned in the article? Was it strong because primarily students were affected by the article? If, as a community, we were to excoriate this type of article, but of a smaller scale--pieces that dragged "only" one or two people through the mud, whether those people were students or not--, would we be doing better, more consistent, steadier development of character (if that is our purpose, as President Ruscio states in his community letter)? I just fear that accumulated acceptance of this type of language instructs the community that it is okay to keep testing the limits, to push the bar lower and lower. If we were to practice a zero-tolerance approach to this type of published discrimination--no matter how large or small--, we would not reach the level of damaging daring that we saw last week.
Last week's events call for a holistic approach to questions of gender and diversity. Issues that affect women and under-represented groups on the student side also affect staff and faculty, and vice versa. Overall consideration of the issues at hand might allow the whole community to work towards improvement.
Also, I just wanted to let you know that the link on the Registrar's "Committees" page links your committee to the listing for the Women's Studies Advisory. Especially given that there is no membership overlap between the President's Task Force on Women and the Women's Studies faculty and advisory, this type of conflation of "women's committees" is a small part of the overriding problems surrounding gender on our campus.
If it is possible for your committee to take these issues into consideration, I will truly appreciate it.
Given what I wrote just 10 or so days before the emergence of The List, I think we can see that I feared that a lack of formal censure of The Trident’s defamatory articles would lead to escalated actions of defamation, and, perhaps, of violence. This is, in fact, what has happened. I wish I were less prescient, but I have seen our community allow inappropriate behaviors to define—again and again—how we lower the bar and sink to new lows. The President’s Task Force on Women did meet and give careful consideration to the concerns I raised, but they said that it was inappropriate for them to issue any type of formal statement. For whom, then, is it appropriate? The longer we ignore this issue (or let it fade away by the twelfth week of the term), the more it will fester and the uglier it will be when it re-emerges in its next undesirable reincarnation.
Men and women can be equal-opportunity sexists, racists, homophobes, etc. I worry that the reaction to The List is more imbued with issues of gender than most community members are giving it credit for. The Bracket, well, that came and went and did its share of harm to many individuals on campus, and the Raging Intellectuals, as far as I know, didn’t have their tires slashed or “slut” written on the back of their vehicles. They were just asked to resign and, well, they chose not to, because what they did was perfectly fine, acceptable, normal in our community. The List, well, that came and went and did significant harm to women as a group and as individuals. As far as I know, it was authored by at least one person and maybe a couple more, and then forwarded by a few people, thus being widely distributed in a short time. The one person—again, who engaged in completely inappropriate behavior—then became a victim of vandalism and of a form of the hate speech favored by the Raging Intellectuals. She is gone from campus now, but The Trident rages on. As far as I know, the woman’s co-authors of The List, both male, have not been victims of violence or vandalism. The main point that I wish to make here is that we should be equally outraged with each of the authors of The Bracket and The List, no matter their sex. Why are we more inclined to react violently in the case of the sole female author of the defamatory pieces? (Note: As far as I can tell, the authors of The List were behaving as “pimps.” Why, then, was the spray-painted label on the car of the sole female involved composed of the simple word “slut”? I would conjecture that it is because “pimps” have power and “sluts” don’t. Remember: The self-defense of The Bracket taught us that “slut” is just another word for “woman.”)
Is it fair to see these episodes as linked? I think the answer is a resounding “yes”—linked to each other and linked through the years to many previous episodes that have been accepted, maybe even nurtured, by our community.
As administrators need to and must say, there is more than one side to every story. Most of the students I know, my colleagues, and I are not aware of all the facts and the behind-the-scenes actions surrounding W&L’s March Madness (which, I would submit, “happens” annually). While I recognize the need to protect individuals’ rights to formal grievance procedures and to presumptions of innocence, I also think that the community needs more information on these issues. What exactly is going on? Why has there been no formal response from the institution when a hostile work/study environment is evident? How can the community learn acceptable and unacceptable behaviors if big, scandalous events are always covered by half-bits of information, innuendo, behind-the-scenes measures, and a lack of consistent, public information?
But my lesson is really about the community, the way we talk about our values, and the way we adhere to them and try to improve our own behaviors to be better human beings, for ourselves and for each other. On the macro level, Washington and Lee prides itself on HONOR, CIVILITY, AND STUDENT SELF-GOVERNANCE, the rhetoric that has sustained the institution for centuries. We have inherited an honor system and a tradition of civility that are white and male. This might still work if the institution were still comprised of all white males. As a community, we need to examine our systems and codes to see how they can better accommodate an institution that is no longer all white nor all male. So far, we have made only the clumsiest of attempts in these areas—primarily because our code of civility asks us not to raise less-than-pretty multichromed truths.
On the micro level, many individual students cite these values as principal motivation for having chosen W&L. One of the most interesting elements of W&L’s Honor System is the call to students to establish their “own culture of honor” by deciding themselves how they will use (or not use) the Honor System. Are we currently in a culture of honor that is satisfactory to our student body? Are hate speech, vandalism, thumb-your-nose at honor (while still touting Honor) what our students see as hallmarks of a W&L education? Or, are there other, more productive, more respectful, more enduring ways to look at and establish a culture of honor and civility? Is honor simply a convenience of context—use it on the Hill but discard it off the Hill? Is civility simply a way that we quiet the truth (the ugly, scary truth that interrupts the flow of white columns)? And, finally, maybe the toughest question of all: Are we continuing to foment a boys-will-be-boys mentality (The Bracket), while we ride the girls-who-have-been-boys (The List) out of town?
The Golden Rule is a pretty simple concept. Where has it gone? If it’s in our University policies and rhetoric, why is it not a consistent part of our practices?
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