If you pay attention to the thrilling world of on-campus controversies, chances are you have heard of the homophobic fraternity e-mail scandal that has caught the attention of so many different groups recently. If you are a devoted Just a Thought groupie, you may remember that I briefly touched on it in my column a couple weeks ago. In light of the continuing coverage and disputes revolving around this incident, another point needs to be made.
Political correctness is a campaign, not a crusade. Many people don’t seem to realize that. For those ignorant of how this flash-in-the-pan controversy arose, I’ll give quick background: a fraternity member e-mailed his house list asking people to stop using homophobic slurs. Another member responded implying that the request was a joke. There was no violent hate crime, there was no targeting, there was no consensus of bigotry.
The miniscule nature of the initial offense does not excuse it or make it more palatable. After all, it represents the tip of an iceberg of homophobia and politically incorrect language that pervades social life on and off campus. But the innocuousness of the initial e-mail does put the response into perspective.
Let’s outline a few of the facts here: the student who sent the offending e-mail is not the face of homophobia in the Stanford community, even though groups have been trying to paint him as such. His e-mail is not the paragon of intolerance. The Stanford community at large and fraternities specifically do not harbor and encourage bigots, racists, hatemongers, politically backwards cavemen or homophobes. Yet the outrage would make a bystander believe otherwise.
On the Diaspora e-mail list, a member asserted that this e-mail was “proof that hate crimes still happen on this campus.” It is true–acts of intolerance do happen even at Stanford, the politically progressive archetype of all universities anywhere (ever). It is still sensationalist to use this e-mail as a testimony to the pervasiveness of ‘hate crimes’ on campus. Such language conjures up images of rowdy meatheads taking baseball bats to the unfortunate homosexual holding hands with his or her life partner. It’s not inaccurate to call this incident a hate crime, but let’s be honest with ourselves: this is not a Matthew Shepard situation.
Again, let me state that the scope of this event does not excuse it. Homophobia is unacceptable in whatever form it takes. However, the sentiments of the people who responded, though well founded, were misdirected. A member of the QNet mailing list noted that such backlash is a good way to achieve progress on the issue, concluding that “frats will respond to embarrassment.” An article on the matter in the Stanford Review cited the fraternity, its president and the offending member by name. The author then proceeded to include photos of both the frat and the e-mail criminal. The article then went on to discuss the political ambitions of the e-mailer’s parents, citing them and their campaigns by name and asserting that this e-mail could create negative backlash in Florida elections.
To reiterate: the motive of the response is justified. The content of the response is not. Why stop at photos of the offender and the names of his parents? Why not flood his inbox with angry e-mails? Where are the candlelight vigils and the prayer circles expressing a communal wish that he and all those like him at Stanford be publicly expelled?
The truth is that this incident is neither the first nor the last of its kind at Stanford. There will always be people who make offensive or potentially offensive comments, whether in jest or in seriousness, whether innocuous or malicious. The appropriate response is not to over-sensationalize the event and publicize the person(s) responsible. This is about the offense, not the offender. And moreover, this is about the mindset and undercurrent that the offense represents–it is not an isolated act of intolerance floating in a vacuum of correctness and acceptance. This e-mail is a temporary touchstone that represents a much more serious underlying presence of homophobia on campus.
The reason this point has not been made publicly is because nobody wants to look like they are admonishing the people combating intolerance. In saying this, it’s likely that people will conclude (publicly or privately) that I too am an intolerant bigot, the same way that anybody can be smeared by a label if they criticize the crusade of political correctness.
Witch hunts will not achieve progress. They will not create lasting social change or draw meaningful discussion to an issue that needs it. All that sensationalism achieves is polarization and groupthink backlash. Notice how there are no names in this column. Let’s move past the targeting and blame to a progressive discussion of how to address the issue. Thank you.
Next week’s column: East coast vs. West coast. Got some insight? Send it to me and I may use it and pretend it’s mine. firstname.lastname@example.org