College students, for goodness’s sake, take a few deep breaths and relax
The school year is getting off to a rousing start: at the University of Michigan last week, a fraternity hastily scrambled to cancel a “Nile-themed” party after outcry from the president of the school’s Egyptian Student Association.
We are, at this point, given to laughing a bit about this, the sheer and banal predictability of it all: someone on campus does something more or less entirely inoffensive, one or more students get furious, the former apologizes in cringing fashion and the latter angrily accepts the apology, and everyone moves on to the next outrage. It’s somewhat akin to an episode of midcentury family-friendly television programming, like The Donna Reed Show but with student fees: a minuscule problem elongated for maximum effect with an utterly predictable resolution—and the same exact thing happens next week!
But of course it is ultimately more troubling than that. There is very likely not a single person alive—not even the outraged Egyptian Student Association president, racist tweets and all—that is actually offended by this party. Genuine offense is almost always a deliberately personal matter, not an inadvertent one; when someone takes offense at something, it is usually because someone else is giving offense. And there is not a really serious way to argue that a “Nile-themed” fraternity party, even one that invites attendees to dress up like Cleopatra, is a thing that can be considered offensive in any meaningful context.
Imagine if modern-day Cairo students threw an “American Revolution” party where partygoers were asked to dress up in breeches and tri-cornered hats and Brunswick gowns. Would it make any sense for an expat American student to huff and puff about it? Of course not.
But that is the significant danger of campus politics: elevating the trivial to the level of the critical. There have been serious problems of performative appropriation and caricaturization in American history—blackface and anti-black cartoons, say, or the hateful representation of Japanese individuals at the height of World War II. But these presentations were always meant specifically to hurt the groups which they were representing. A harmless “Nile” fraternity party cannot be said to function in the same emotional and cultural fashion. You might argue that such a party is unintentionally offensive, yet offensive nonetheless. In all seriousness, though: why? Is it really that big of a deal that some college students will dress up in Nemes headdresses kalisiris for one night? Of course not.
To argue in favor of cancelling such a party on grounds of moral outrage is silly and pointless. It is also distinctly dangerous, inasmuch as it equates innocent dress-up fun with genuine ethical injustice. Don’t do this, college students; over the coming school year, for goodness’s sake, if you get “offended” by something as harmless as an Egyptian frat party, take a few deep breaths and keep walking. I promise you you’ll be fine.