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Note to academia: offensive words are not humanitarian tragedies

Students and administrators should be able to process controversial events like adults

What makes the modern academy so emotionally fragile? Why has modern academia steeped itself in such proactively fragile behavior? We can all think of examples of this phenomenon—the students who are “triggered” by the sexist tropes in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, the undergrads who demand “safe spaces” in order to hide from viewpoints with which they disagree—but at a certain point we must ask ourselves why these things happen with such startling regularity on campuses these days.

A case in point comes from Cornell University, where a nasty little incident last week resulted in a drearily predictable response. During a community dinner, as The Fix reported earlier this week, residents of a campus housing facility were writing responses to various prompts (“What is your favorite place on campus?”, etc) and displaying them on an overhead projector. One anonymous idiot in the crowd, however, decided to play a crude and stupid prank on everyone in attendance, and wrote the word “Nigger” as a response. The slur was then shown on the projector, shocking the assembled crowd.

Whoever the dummy was that perpetrated such a rotten and unfunny prank, he should, if possible, be identified, outed and punished in some appropriate way. That would be enough for what was, at the end of the day, a repugnant joke. But that’s not what happened. As The Fix reported, the prank resulted in “paroxysms of sadness and indignity,” with “many students and at least one professor [beginning] to cry” afterwords. The student newspaper reported that the housing residence was “stunned” by the prank. The assistant dean claimed that the epithet had “sent a shockwave of sadness and outrage through the community.” One student expressed “sadness” and “furious anger.” The newspaper also reported that the house community, in addition to being “stunned,” was “shattered” by the event. Shattered. 

This response is, to say the least, a bit much. In fact it’s rather comically over-the-top, the kind of reaction you might expect if a student were murdered on the quad during finals or something. Are racial slurs offensive? Yes they are—that’s why they’re called “slurs” and not, I don’t know, “normal words.” Should students have been bothered by its appearance at their dinner? Yes they should have; it was an offensive and unfunny joke with no purpose other than to make people irritated and uncomfortable. But should students feel “stunned” and “shattered” and “outraged” and “sad?” Should they cry? For goodness’s sake, no. It’s a word—a bad word, and one we all wish would just die a quick and quiet lexicographical death, but still a word.

The mature and rational response to this event would have been this: “What a gross and nasty joke. Can you believe some juvenile idiot thought it was funny? College administrators, please find whoever did this and reprimand him.” Then everyone moves on.

But the modern academy cannot deal with such relatively minor infractions in so practical a way: rather than act like grown men and women who can shake off things like this, students and officials must respond to offensive words as if they are responding to a literal tragedy, claiming they are “shattered” by a bad word projected onto a dorm wall. Here is a word of advice to the students at Cornell and students everywhere: you have a right to be offended by offensive things. But it is not a good look for you when you treat every offensive thing, even a very offensive thing, as if were an humanitarian crisis. I say this, in all honesty, with your best interests in mind: grow up. It will serve you well to do so.

MORE: ‘Trigger warnings’ and the shallow insularity of campus politics

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