On Thursday, May 23, the Institute of Politics (IOP) hosted a seminar called Social Media Saving Lives with Dan Savage, a gay advice columnist who has a history of making misogynistic, biphobic, transphobic, and racist comments. The seminar was moderated by current IOP fellow Ana Marie Cox, a blogger for The Guardian. Throughout the conversation, both Savage and Cox repeatedly used the T-slur, a hateful word targeted at transgender people. Eventually, a transgender student asked them not to use the word and explained why it was personally hurtful. Cox and Savage then proceeded to argue with the student, saying they had a right to use the word because they were “reclaiming” it.
Neither Savage nor Cox is transgender, and frankly they should not get to “reclaim” slurs for a group of which they are not members. After being asked to stop using the T-slur, Savage continued to use it despite knowing it was making students feel unsafe, and both Cox and the IOP staff did nothing to intervene. This action upset the objecting student to the point that they had to leave the room in a state of emotional distress. The failure of the IOP to intervene is disturbing and indicates that maintaining a safe and engaging space for students of all backgrounds is not in fact a priority for them.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is the misleading and disingenuous statement the IOP released in response to the incident this week. The statement characterized what occurred as a “spirited debate” rather than harassment. Additionally, they claimed that “the speaker was discussing how hurtful words can be repurposed and used to empower; at no point did he direct slurs at anyone.” The IOP then concluded that “to exclude or sanction” Savage would have been inappropriate.
In response to the IOP’s claim that the slur was not directed at anyone, we’d like to bring attention to two specific incidents at the event and give our account of them. Both Cox and Savage used the slur in a targeted and harassing manner. At one point, Cox said, “I used to make jokes about [T-slurs].” This was a case in which she was using the hateful slur rather than talking about it—a usage that was directly targeting the trans community and especially trans women. Additionally, after being asked to stop using the slur, Savage’s continued usage of the word was meant to harm the student who objected and was part of the harassment that made the student need to leave.
In a meeting with IOP staff after the event, we brought up both of these incidents and the IOP staff recognized that they did constitute harassment, but then failed to address them in their public statement. We, as well as other students present at the meeting, will attest to the fact that IOP Executive Director Steven Edwards characterized the incidents as dehumanizing and drew a distinction between a speaker expressing an opinion that offended someone, which he said had a place in open dialogue, and a person making a statement that dehumanized them, which he said did not. Yet, when it came to the IOP drafting a statement, this distinction was lost entirely and “dehumanization” became “spirited debate.” Additionally, Edwards has refused to acknowledge making these statements altogether to Maroon editors. The truth is, harassment and targeted uses of the slur did occur, and that is a reason intervention by the IOP would not only have been appropriate but also necessary. However, the IOP has knowingly manipulated its recounting of events both in the public statement and with Edwards’s denial of his own words in order to defend its inaction and failure to maintain a safe climate where true open dialogue could actually occur.
The IOP needs to recognize that when it permits slurs, hate speech, and harassment at events to ostensibly foster open dialogue, it actually undermines that goal. True open dialogue necessitates that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to express their opinions and share their experiences and perspectives. However, when people are made to feel unsafe, like in this instance, they are often forced out of the conversation, and their voices are essentially silenced.
If the IOP is legitimately committed to the goal of fostering open dialogue, which they claim to be, establishing stronger standards for discourse, such as prohibiting the use of slurs, is an essential start. Under this policy, guests could certainly discuss reclaiming words and the politics of language, but simply allude to them by saying T-slur, N-word, etc. Thus, it would hardly limit meaningful discussion from occurring. Additionally, the IOP must begin to recognize instances in which slurs are used, hate speech is committed, or harassment occurs and actually intervene, which it egregiously neglected to do in this instance. It’s time for the IOP to take diversity and inclusion seriously and abandon the delusion that what is occurring now is in fact open dialogue.
Kris Rosentel and Sara Rubinstein are second-years in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies and public policy.