Let’s get this right off the bat: this post is about one particular aspect of the aftermath of the Usdan flyer controversy.
You might have heard of it by now, or maybe even seen it. Yesterday, NBC Connecticut vans were spotted on campus grounds, and we later got word that reporters were trying to squeeze soundbites out of Wes students. Later that night, they ran a news story about the Usdan flyer incident. It was short, it was a little strange, and most disturbingly, it was considerably misleading. Then came the newest update: Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, is denouncing Wesleyan from across the country and calling on the university to apologize for the incident.
There has been much heated debate behind the scenes here in the cyberspace office of Wesleying ever since last Friday’s incident. We as a self-accountable collective of bloggers had to confront very difficult questions: what is our role in the student body? What are our duties? How far can we go with moderation and censorship? How do we balance between protection and preservation of the discussion? Most of these questions went unanswered, simply because they are so grey and difficult.
But when the NBC Connecticut story ran last night, it was pretty clear what needed to be done. Bad reporting on what happened here at Wes needs to be covered, and the viewing lens of the story has to re-calibrated for the benefit of the community. This is precisely what this post will try to do. Now, I just want to make clear that this is an insanely difficult and sensitive thing to write about. And I know I’m probably going to get slammed in the face one way or another for doing something or for not doing another thing or whatever, but fuck it—I’m doing it. This is something of a long piece, so hit me up after the jump.
Oh, and one more thing: if you’re on the NBC Connecticut staff, hello! This is for you. Really.
Before I get to the thing I want to cover, however, I want to set forth a few… I suppose I will call them premises.
- First: I’m going to assume that anybody reading this knows the objective facts of the matter. But to go over the most important bits: (1) the flyer itself was meant to be a joke (however ill-advised) and there was no malicious intent whatsoever. (2) Usdan and Shakti, the organization behind the event during which this incident took place, have nothing to do with this. (3) The student who created the flyer has already made a very public apology and has taken full responsibility for the incident.
- Second: The issue here is not one about overt racism. It is understood that the concern here is not hostile or aggressive discriminatory targeting. Rather, the issue here is about implicit/subversive racism. It pertains to the way we speak, the way we joke, and the way we subconsciously get pressed into particular modes of thinking that reduces and neuters the important conversations that we should be having. See Jezebel’s Hipster Racism, or refer to the problems of using ironic humor as a medium for meaningful discourse in general. To be perfectly clear: implicit/subversive racism is not in any way a “better” form of racism. It’s just different, and it requires a different form of approach and understanding. (A relevant Argus op-ed by Luz Rivera ’13 can be found here).
- Third: To clarify, the thing that is bothersome is not this one particular incident—rather, it is the larger social structure/environment/whatever that operates on such an abstract and intangible level that we find it so difficult to articulate the precise nature of the problem in words. This is the very thing that we should be focusing upon, on top of a few other larger conceptual problems that seem to inhibit connection and discourse on this campus.
Right. Anyway. So, when I find out this morning that NBC Connecticut ran a short story about the flyer incident last night, I felt that there are three things in particular that I would like to address here on this blog:
- The entire story by NBC was extremely superficial, reductive, and completely fails to address how the entire issue is a lot more nuanced than mere student outrage over an offensive flyer. The story’s fixation on just the incident—its inability to connect it to the larger narrative at play—absolutely kills any potential for an intelligent conversation to be had about the environment that gave rise to this issue. There are so many places that this conversation can go—we could, for example, talk about race relations and subtle racism, or perhaps about political correctness and all its awkwardness and difficulties (I’m thinking about Sylvie Stein ’12’s recent Argus op-ed), or even about how we may joke differently under different contexts. But as it stands, with the way NBC Connecticut has so awkwardly brought it up to national scrutiny (assuming it got up that high), the entire issue is presented…. almost as a caricature, one of “those things that happen” in a liberal arts college. In other words, you’ve provided a distorted version of the story for external spectators to misunderstand and further mangle. Thanks a lot.
- Also, one of the major sources of information for the article—which considerably changed the tone and direction of the article, albeit implicitly—was an anonymous comment that was posted on the original post reporting on the flyer. What’s up with that? The emphasis on this one comment and lack of emphasis on the full contour of the 80+ comments that showed up on that post reveals a substantial dearth of adequate treatment of the story.
- There was another NBC Connecticut article reporting that a Hindu Leader, one Rajan Zed of the Universal Society of Hinduism, from “across the country has heard about this and demanded an apology from the university.” The leader’s argument was captured by the article as follows: “It was very insensitive to the students and others who celebrated this popular Hindu festival of colors and it was belittling the entire community… We are also colored you know, most of us are, and so it is very offensive, you are banning a whole class from entering the main center on campus.” A couple of things. First of all, I don’t think it’s going too far if I say that said leader has obviously misread/misinterpret/misunderstood the nature and shape of the problem as it played out here. No “class” of people were “banned” from entering the campus. It’s not too much to assume that Zed was operating on information about things that simply did not happen. I can’t blame him, though—the way the NBC article presented things, how he ran with it is not altogether surprising. But Zed’s statement indicates another problem coming out of the article: it allows for inappropriate and inaccurate appropriations of the problem that can only end up impeding any real headway on the actual issue. Moving on, I just want to put it out there that the university should be separated from the event which should be separated from the organizers which should be separated from the student who put up the flyer. Just sayin’.
tl;dr – Dear NBC Connecticut, your presentation of the story was superficial and reductive. There are so many details and layers that you completely missed, and what you folks came up with is, to a large extent, a distorted narrative. The conditions you have now set up has the potential of being deeply detrimental to any real awareness, confrontation, or conversation about the true nature of the problem, simply because attention is being drawn to either the wrong places or to things that simply did not happen. I don’t really know what to say to you folks, other than, I suppose: pick up your game, because you’re not helping. I’m not going to say that you’re skirting the line of being sensationalist about the whole thing… but by picking the story up in the simple way you did, you folks got pretty damn close to something that’s far worse.
There is a problem here; in fact, I think there are many layers of problems that were packed into what happened last Friday, as well as its aftermath. Furthermore, these problems are tricky, nuanced, and super-sensitive, subject to infinite variations of misinterpretations and misunderstandings. We have to work to ensure that our vision of those problems are not distorted, reduced, or caricatured—they are real, they are rich, and they are important, far too important for careless misrepresentation.
Also, a note for commenters: if you’re going to say something, please try your damnest best to be productive and hold yourself accountable to your words. Be thoughtful, conscious, and stay the heck away from vitriol and making personal attacks. Don’t be too hasty; try to be clear in what is being said before you react and reflect upon it. And if possible, attach your real name to your comment.
Having stated all this clearly at this point of the post, we reserve every right to remove any comment we deem inappropriate, unhelpful, or hurtful. I know the Internet is usually infested with trolls and the depraved. Let’s try for once to aspire to something a little better.