November 12, 2015

Making Sense of the Flotsam

close up of file folder

Stuffed into folders, stacked on my desktop, and strewn about elsewhere are random piles of articles more or less about “offense.” It’s time to put them into some kind of order. That will no doubt offend some people.  I’ve been clipping from newspapers, magazines, and journals the past quarter century and the paper has grown unruly, expanding year by year, now two to three feet deep. And that doesn’t count the more recent (and were they in hard copy no doubt thicker) electronic folders of PDFs that await a separate sorting. (Not to offend the environmentally sensitive, but I plan to unite them. That means printing out the PDFs and adding them to the file folders, these days a fraught undertaking, I’m given to understand: in early 2008 a former colleague refused my offer of a free book on the grounds that her environmentally-conscious daughter was offended by indoor books and had banned them from the house. Something about running out of trees.)

I’m trying to make sense of the seemingly random reports by worldly observers who bring to this armchair theorist tales of grievous offense, speculations about how invective harms, and reports of simple policies to deter oppressors from tormenting the woebegone and to empower the oppressed to fight back.

In no order whatsoever (beyond the order in which they were deposited), I find pieces about the removal of problematic emblems from banners, portals, pedestals, friezes, and other important spaces of public institutions; lists of newly taboo words and sports team names; the fading of academic freedom; student hypersensitivity; ways to warn students about upsetting reading assignments; the demotion, firing, or expulsion of those who demean certain people in certain ways; un-naming opportunities to un-memorialize yesteryears’ tarnished leaders and uninvite celebrities to speak in public; and — well, you’ve got your own lists of topics too, I’m sure.

It’s a time-consuming proposition. The pile gets thicker daily. The very week I launched this blog we were all drowning in news from the University of Missouri about claims that what began as offense had become, the claim goes, palpable harm. Not only did the president and chancellor lose their jobs (and there’s no disputing that they performed ineptly, at best), but an instructor offered to resign because students were outraged at an email he sent his students announcing an exam in class that day and urging them to stand up to bullies, The university directed that classes were to be held but students said that they did not feel safe. He later recanted, cancelling class and the exam, and the university rejected his offer. And that is only one small part of the Mizzou story. There was similar news from Yale over Halloween costumes. And much more.

I’m still hoping that one box of Avery file folder labels will do the trick (30 to the page, 100 pages to the box). Sorting it out will take a while. It’s a jumble. Give me a few more weeks, and I’ll post what I’ve come up with. In the meantime, to cover the inadequacy of my obsessive clipping habit, I’ll be happy to open another box of labels for your topics.