Posted by Jake Dolgenos
The College's recent decision to rename the new apartment buildings in the face of a minor controversy has drawn some predictable student criticism. But while the change may seem ridiculous, the opportunity to reflect on our campus and countrywide culture of political correctness and the eye-rolling indignation it provokes is well timed. Let's talk about it.
Many of you grew accustomed to calling the new sophomore housing (for that, to our collective upper-class indignation, is what the new apartments will be) "Slopeside" after the college popularized the word by...calling the new apartments "Slopeside." Since then, the official name has been changed to "Hillside" after it was brought to the attention of the college that "Slope" can be a pejorative term for a person of Asian descent (this checks out - watch Gran Torino for some particularly engrossing context to the slur).
We all know that changes like this have to be made occasionally. And acting on the potential for offense rather than the offense itself, the definition of and most frustrating aspect to political correctness, is something all organizations have to do from time to time. The disastrous delay between changes aside, the College hasn't done anything particularly noteworthy in its treatment of a slightly embarrassing incident. But when I heard about the change, I was irritated.
I understand why the College needs to avoid offending people when it names its new buildings. I understand that "slope" is an old and rarely used but nonetheless legitimate slur (after about 30 seconds of confused Googling). I understand that just because the name doesn't offend me or anyone I know does not mean it is devoid of the potential to offend. But I was still irritated. It's the kind of nagging, illegitimate feeling that persists because you feel like somehow, you're being censored, even if it's not the case. I admit, I still somewhat rebelliously (mostly forgetfully) refer to my home as "Slopeside."
For many people, a particular topic may be "off-limits." On the recent anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, my housemate asked that I turn off an especially wince-inducing episode of "The Burn" with comedian Jeff Ross. My housemate, like many, has a particularly strong reaction to the event, and for him the humor crossed a line. A few friends who are survivors of sexual assault (and a few who simply object to a humorous treatment of the subject) similarly find jokes about rape to be universally unacceptable. A friend who has a brother with severe autism will stiffen when the pejorative "retarded" or a similar word or style of humor is thrown out in casual situations.
It doesn't take special insight to see that many on this campus have such borders around sensitive subjects. How do we lucky few who live unladen with such sensitivities avoid crossing lines of which we may be unaware? How should those of us who have these limits express them without outing ourselves as vulnerable without choice of context? To step back, is there a right to be offended? Is there a right to offend? These are troubling and broad questions about culture and society for which we must each endeavor to select an individual opinion to inform our own discourse. And for those who deny that this constitutes a valid choice (that some subjects should be universally avoided out of sensitivity), consider my final thought.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, "a man is no more free to speak his mind than he is to commit murder. He has every ability to do either, provided he is willing to accept the consequences." To say that we are victimized by offensive language ignores our very real power to create consequences for insensitivity. I believe, for myself, that the right to offend must respect the right to be offended and vice versa. We must understand our right to our words even as those who flinch understand their right to respond.
Consider the costs, also, of coming down too hard on controversial speech. Context is always important-what is offensive in one medium might be excusable in others. Don't forget, humor is how some people are able to heal from traumatic experiences or deal with their own insecurities, and talking about sensitive subjects ensures they are not ignored.
It may seem as though exposing so much harsh light as a society on things which can be raw and painful is unduly cruel; I submit that this opinion is a product of liberal times. We take for granted our ability to safely communicate, it's hard to remember that the right was hard-won and should not be suppressed for its occasional potential to offend or afflict.
In the end, I try to live my life without hurting others. Sometimes this means I consciously change my vocabulary, sometimes it means I make the personal choice to continue speaking about something, even if some find the subject itself offensive or insensitive. I hope that anyone who hears me cross a verbal line feels comfortable enough to call me out so that we can talk about it. In the end, I think that's better than silence.
Jake Dolgenos is a member of the class of 2014, reads boats and rows books, and consumes Apple products like they grow on Apple trees.