May 13, 2020

From contact sport to social distancing

Offenses of the Months: Winter-Spring 2020
By mid-April, according to NASA satellite images, Covid-19 has prompted a 30% drop in air pollution in the northeastern United States. Social distancing seems to be having a similar effect on commentary about offensiveness, even if our propensity to offend hasn’t much changed (and who could measure that)?

In the opening days of this year, the attentive reader could find the usual choice stories about tone-deaf commentators and their equally tone-deaf audiences. In early January, for instance, Babson College fired a staff member and adjunct professor who, in response to a statement by President Trump that the White House had a list of 52 culturally-significant targets to bomb in Iran, posted on his Facebook page that Iran should focus on 52 American targets, like the Kardashian family residence and the Mall of America. The college said the post did not represent its “values and culture.” The staffer protested that his posting was merely a bad attempt at humor and accused Babson of caving in to social media criticism. One wonders what Babson might have done had the errant staffer repeated Trump’s statement as his own. It’s a complicated world; you’ve got to think at least three steps ahead of your potential detractors.

Mid-month came news of a lawsuit filed by two University of Connecticut undergraduates who were objecting to the university’s attempt to eject them from student housing because they were caught yelling an unfocused racial slur on campus earlier in the fall and charged with “ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.” The slur was not aimed at anyone in particular. The suit raises the usual First Amendment argument. Getting tiresome, don’t you think? I’d like to see a lawsuit exploring some other theme—for example, suppose the students had yelled out their opposition to the campus’s commitment to improving the environment. Also against campus values, don’t you suppose? Support fracking, lose your housing?

Behold, at the end of January, this gem from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Three days after he was hired, the student newspaper asked the new football team’s offensive coordinator, Morris Berger, which three historical figures he’d like to have dinner with. Berger named John F. Kennedy, Christopher Columbus, and Adolf Hitler, the latter because “I want to know how he rallied . . . a group and a following.” Berger was self-aware enough to note in the published interview that “this is probably not going to get a good review.” He was immediately suspended and resigned a few days after that. Thinking out of the box should apparently be confined to football strategies. It wasn’t all bad news for Mr. Morris: his resignation came with a $90,000 negotiated settlement.

In February, the New York Post reported that Dave Daubenmire, a former Ohio high school football coach and now a pastor in Hebron, Ohio, intended to sue the National Football League for the 2020 Superbowl’s half-time show, for the “crotch grabbing” antics of performers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. His complaint: viewing their skimpy outfits put him “in danger of hellfire.” In recompense, he wants $867 trillion. Seems an odd number. I don’t know about you, but I’d say my soul is worth round figures more than that. Others complained also; the Post reported that the FCC received more than 1,300 complaints about the show, but the average American apparently wasn’t inclined to sue over the offensive gyrations. Probably not Daubenmire either; at least I can find no reports two months later that any suit was filed. If he does go to court, his suit won’t last long. I’m pretty sure flirting with hellfire isn’t cognizable in a U.S. courtroom, and it would be very difficult to prove that the pearly gates are beyond reach simply because you watched two women swiveling their hips on a football field. There’s more to this lunacy, but why bother?

Also in February, a University of Oklahoma journalism professor had his class taken away from him for the balance of the semester because he used the “N-word,” comparing it to another word he found loathsome, “boomer,” as in the phrase “O.K., boomer,” used by younger people to mock older generations. Instead, the professor, who will not lose his salary, was said to have enrolled in the university’s program in “culturally competent communication.”

Then came March and it all seems to have tapered off. I’m not making any rash claim about people no longer acting offensively or inhaling offense after hearing a short ill-timed joke. But it does seem that the global pandemic has crowded reports of such foolishness out of the papers and off the air.* Instead, you get to chalk up bad coronavirus memes to “well, at least they’re trying,” and when you’re tired of clicking on all your friends’ email attachments, you can always watch the president unmasked.

*Update:

I generalized too soon. Just as I was about to post this piece, word came today that a Stanford University professor was essentially forced to apologize for using a form of the N-word. The “Undergraduate Senate,” a body of students (not a body with authority over the professor), strongly condemned her for writing the word “Niggaz” (“offensive and highly inappropriate,” the group said) in explaining the full name of a legendary hip-hop group, N.W.A., in a class dealing with race and ethnicity (N.W.A.’s formal name in the 1980s was Niggaz with Attitude; the group’s “gangsta rap” first studio album, “Straight Outta Compton” rose to stardom in 1988). To see the extent of private censorship over the group’s name, you have but to webble the initials to learn that many websites purporting to explain them don’t actually give the words. The undergraduate senate’s intemperate condemnation (it called the pedagogical act of explaining the initial N “continuous aggressions against the Black community and Black students”) is worth reading in its entirety for its own racism (explicitly declaring that the legitimacy of word use depends on the race of the speaker). Imagine the conversation in class if a professor were to follow the undergraduate senate’s pronunciamento:

Professor: Now let’s turn to the music and lyrics of the rap group, N.W.A.
First student: Excuse me, professor, what does that stand for?
Professor: I’m not sure why you’re asking or why you want to know. But of course I never make judgments about student motives.  Still, it’s not prudent for me [I’m not allowed] to say. [Turning to a black student in the class whose hand is in the air] Mr. Smith, perhaps you will tell us.