Correctness Revisited

Weeks ago I posted a pair of entries, one on campus political correctness and the other on the Confederate-flag question of expunging memorials now viewed as morally benighted. Two current news items bring these topics back to mind. 

The first, explored in a Times article titled “Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus,” takes up the complexity of college trick-or-treating in an era of concern about “cultural appropriation.” Colleges have been informing undergraduates that when it comes to Halloween costumes, “Pocahontas, Caitlyn Jenner and Pancho Villa are no-nos” -- as are geisha girls and samurai warriors and just about any other get-up based on an ethnic, cultural or gender identity. Instead, students are being advised to opt for safe, non-human costumes: a cup of Starbucks coffee, to take one example, or a Crayola crayon.

The term “cultural appropriation,” the article explains, reflects the view “that the melding of cultures is often about which group has the power to take symbols, styles or language from another.” To that end, the University of Michigan posted a webpage advising against “the adoption of other cultural groups’ elements including clothing, symbols, art, music, religion, language, and social behavior,” in order to avoid “belittling the origin culture in a way that trivializes an entire way of life, turning it into an accessory or adopting it for entertainment.” The website suggests that you vet any proposed costume by asking yourself “How accurate and/or respectful is it to the culture/identity” it derives from. That’s a pretty high bar, and arguably a strange standard, to set for a costume extravaganza in which humor, excess, parody and fantasy are the goals. But concern about someone possibly taking offense is paramount on campus these days.

By way of illustrating cultural appropriation, the Times article refers to an imbroglio at the University of Louisville, where the university’s president and his wife hosted a Halloween party for guests dressed in sombreros, colorful ponchos and fake moustaches. A student newspaper called the costumes “racist,” and the University issued an apology. In a similar incident, two students at Clemson University recently complained about “Maximum Mexican  Night,” at which Mexican food was served in the dining halls (and, again, staff wore sombreros and fake moustaches.) The university issued a statement apologizing for the event’s “flattened cultural view of Mexican culture.”

A related conflict has embroiled my alma mater, Amherst College, where a movement is underway – this is the second news item, reported Sunday in the Times -- to ditch the college’s namesake mascot, Lord Jeffery Amherst. At issue is the nature of historical man himself, Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797) and his actions and utterances. Commander-in-chief of the British Army in North America during the French and Indian wars, Amherst won fame for capturing Montreal from the French in 1760. Some believe him to have been complicit in a plan to assault Native Americans by giving them blankets infected with smallpox. There is no consensus among historians as to whether such a plan was ever enacted on Amherst’s orders; what’s clear is his enthusiastic participation in the invidious race sentiments of his day – as witnessed in his approval, in a 1763 letter to a subordinate, of any “method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Students and faculty at Amherst who are pushing to drop the mascot argue that the image of Lord Jeffery clashes with the commitment to diversity that has propelled Amherst -- where more than half of all current students identify as minority -- to the front ranks of progressive admissions among elite colleges. “The fact that our mascot isolates people and makes anyone feel unwelcome is just unacceptable,” says one of the student leaders. 

How, exactly, does Lord Jeff make people feel unwelcome? Does any actual person truly feel rattled because the college is named for this man, or because someone dressed in purple frippery leads a cheer at a football game? Partly I suspect that Amherst students are simply embarrassed about being symbolized by someone who looks like this. And who wouldn’t be? As an undergraduate I never particularly vibed with an effete ancient bewigged Euro dude posing in a coat of arms, either. Not to mention that in the American Revolution he fought, you know, on the wrong side. Which is why I and my friends always treated our mascot, and the rousing fight song that yodels his praises (“Oh Amherst, brave Amherst, was a name known to fame in days of yore!”), with pleasurable irony.

In truth I don’t care that much about the Amherst mascot; it always struck me as strange to have a human being as mascot instead of, say, a bulldog.  But the real issue (and the reason the Times covers such a story) is whether we should jettison dedicatory namings once their originators no longer, in our view, deserve honor. Is this the most fruitful way to reckon with the complex issue of history and morality?  I’ve written about the problem of Vice President John C. Calhoun, a vehement defender of slavery, and the residence at Yale that bears his name, where stained glass window panels long depicted slaves picking cotton, eating watermelon, and standing in shackles before Calhoun. Some of these images have been removed; some remain, as does the name “Calhoun College.” To remove it all, insists the head of the residence, would be “to erase history” – and in the process, to “forgive ourselves” unjustly,” as one student living there put it.

Should we expunge Calhoun and others from public memory, as much as possible? How far should we go with the cleansing of history? Do we limit it to actions, or do bad thoughts suffice? If Jeffery Amherst did not order genocidal actions against Native Americans, yet demonstrably shared the arrant prejudices of his day toward them, should we dump him? “There are lots of bad people in our history,” the Times quotes one older Amherst alum as saying. “Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Are you going to take him off Mount Rushmore?”

Well, that would be a lot of work. But we could start with the U.S. nickel – if we decided that we need to de-Jeffersonize as a way of... well, of what, exactly? Showing that we disapprove of slavery?

What does the current effort to turn colleges into offense-free zones represent? Clemson’s “Maximum Mexican” night turns out to be one of several such food events at the school: another is the “Low Country BBQ Bash,” where students are invited to “Pick up a plate of mighty fine fixins,” and a St. Patrick’s Day featuring “Cornbeef, fried fish, and Irish grilled cheese.” I can well imagine that some leprechauns and shillelaghs might be in evidence. Are such themes inherently offensive and racist? Halloween, costume parties, and other events that indulge comic-book versions of cultural attire are generally not intended to insult. How to know when a silly pastiche crosses the line into the offensive or hurtful? Does it depend on some actual person actually feeling offended or hurt, as opposed to someone expressing the notion that a costume might theoretically be offensive or hurtful? And does offense depend on whose culture is being “appropriated”? What about, say, Schnitzel Night, or dressing up as a German in lederhosen or dirndls for Halloween?

Aptly enough for Halloween, the devil truly is in the details. Any American college student tempted to sashay around in blackface, dressed as Little Black Sambo, would be guaranteed to create broad offense and deserve to be excoriated... while Schnitzel Night and lederhosen just don’t hit the same historical and political nerve, and will probably get you a pass, even a laugh. The truth is that sensitivities are inevitably culturally and historically specific. Armenian Night might be innocent fun in Chicago, but in Istanbul it would be a whole nother matter. Or how about Jewish Food Fun... in Berlin?

I have two questions about the efficacy of such discourses as “cultural appropriation” in addressing these issues. First, does codifying a protocol of hypersensitivity to offense in college life have any bearing on the real hurts of the real world beyond campus, where African-Americans, Latin migrants laborers, so-called “illegals” and others continue to be put at a systemic disadvantage, excluded from jobs, equal wages, housing, and juries on the basis of race? Is there some significant way in which the campus discourse of “cultural appropriation” fashions a tool for productive use in the society beyond? Or does it merely express an elite liberal-arts college student’s wish not to be individually tainted, and as such constitute a kind of moral vanity – even, arguably, a sign of the very privilege it seeks to distance itself from?

Second, might the attempt to codify all potential offenses in administrative documents be fundamentally wrongheaded from an educational point of view? What we hope to inculcate in students, after all, is discerning judgment, not mere adherence to behavioral guidelines. Where should moral awareness be located – in the rules, or in us? My concern is that the premium placed on avoiding offending anyone at all costs has its own costs, and may actually be inimical to liberal education. Amid such heightened moral sensitivity it seems difficult these days for students to accept, or even perhaps to recognize, that the primary task of studying history is not to judge it, but to imagine it – to escape the obliterating mindset of now and project ourselves imaginatively backwards in order to investigate the mystery of what it was like to be human in the not-now. There is a cogent argument to be made that the example of an ambiguous man like Jeffery Amherst, who presents both the virtues and the vices of his age, can help prod precisely the kind of nuanced inquiry and conversation we need to have by way of interrogating the past – and ourselves.

But maybe not as your mascot, whose task, after all, is to rally enthusiasm for the institution and spark an upbeat mood. So good riddance, perhaps, to the Lord Jeffs of Amherst. And hello to... the Purple Crayons?   

 

 

PS / Apologies for this interminable entry, but I have to add a postscript. A fascinating article in today’s paper explores the quandaries Germany faces in deciding whether to preserve Nuremberg’s crumbling Parteitagsgelände, the rally grounds where Nazi party congresses were held in the 1930s, events chronicled by Leni Riefenstahl in her 1935 propaganda epic, The Triumph of the Will.  These sites include the courtyard of the Colosseum-like Kongresshalle, where Goebbels fulminated to shrieking crowds, and the vast promenade of the Ehrenhalle (Hall of Honor) where Riefenstahl captured Hitler and Himmler walking silently, through the ranks of 150,000 SA and SS troops standing at attention, to lay a wreath at a WWI memorial. Such scenes turned evil into the sublime, and the article quotes Freiburg historian Ulrich Herbert on the importance of preserving the stages for what he calls “the intimidating production that enshrined a cult of the Fürher.” One can sympathize with the desire to have those stages obliterated, gone and forgotten. But Germany has pioneered practices of memorialization that insist on the need to showcase sites of perpetration, knowing that their dark power conduces to the kind of history I referred to above. “This is a place,” Professor Ulrich says of Nuremberg, “where you can understand how the Nazis succeeded in winning people over.”

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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