May 19, 2009

Responses misinterpret "A Springtime Strip"

Campus groups use strategies that attack free speech.

I became concerned about the state of civility on my campus when reading the online responses to Luke Dumas’ article “A Springtime Strip” (5/12/09). Many of the responses held merit. For instance, I agree that the article fell short of its comedic aspirations. However, I disagree with the responses’ depiction of Dumas. The comments accuse the article of verging on hate speech and deem the article a “bias incident.” These accusations imply negative and ill intent on the part of Mr. Dumas toward women, whereas he was merely attempting humor à la Comedy Central, Kathy Griffin, or Chelsea Handler. Perhaps the article was in poor taste; however, if Dumas’ article perpetuated the use of terms or behaviors that devalue women it was done naively, without intent, and surely to his own chagrin.

Yet the comments on Dumas’ article blatantly misinterpret his words and appropriate them for individual and group political agendas. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “hate speech” as expressing “hatred or intolerance of other social groups, esp. on the basis of race or sexuality” via written and verbal means. The language in Dumas’ article does not express hatred toward women, but rather a sense of fashion that is favored by both men and women on campus. As to the accusation that the article is a “bias incident,” the term “bias” is simply a reference to the slanting nature or skew of a person’s beliefs, speech, or written word—which is the very definition of an editorial versus news article. Moreover, as per University of Chicago policy, bias incidents “involve actions committed against a person or property that are motivated, in whole or in part, by the bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, ancestry, gender, gender identity, age, or disability.” Nowhere does that mention motive against fashion sense. Finally, the University Policy on Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment states, “A person’s subjective belief that behavior is offensive, intimidating or hostile does not make that behavior unlawful harassment. The behavior must be objectively unreasonable.” The article is without a doubt “subjectively offensive;” however, the comments written online were written in disregard for rational thinking and civility toward their peers and are thus “objectively unreasonable.”

It concerns me that strategies used by select groups in dealing with degrading practices on this campus are no longer effective but instead are perpetuating an adverse environment of hate and are subsequently attacking free speech and civil discourse. An argument of “who started it” simply isn’t good enough for organizations whose purpose and mission are to stimulate awareness of behaviors that degrade members of subordinated groups via intellectual and political tools. I understand being upset over denigrating language, and I support any effort to generate respect and appreciation for others. However, I can neither understand nor agree with the use of the language of hate and hypocritical disregard for others evident in the heated comments posted in response to Dumas’ article online. Comments are meant to be reasonable, constructed to convince readers of the opposite side of a flaw in the noted article, and, above all, civil.

As a former member of the United Methodist Women who has worked with New York chapters of the Feminist Majority, I look forward to the promotion of more constructive strategies to end denigrating speech and practices toward women both on campus and off. Hate and harassment is certainly not one of them. Step up, ladies.

Katherine Morris

Class of 2010