Letter to the Editors – Rejecting Selective Offense

Conor Tucker

I will begin with a caveat similar to that in Keith Olbermann’s “Special Comment:” I am not gay. But, unlike Mr. Olbermann, that does not remove my personal stake in the Prop-8 Debate. I know homosexual people whom I call friends, and whom I hope would return the sentiment. I have a cousin who moved away from her life-long home of Maryland because she and her same-sex partner couldn’t stand to be in a culture that openly discriminated against them (they’ve been together for 16 years now).

And so it is, with such a personal investment in the issue, that I must confess my happiness when reading erudite and engaging critiques of Ms. Offner’s “Love is Not Enough.” Anything that can be said against Ms. Offner’s point of view (let us please remember to uphold this distinction) has been said, and so I will not lend my voice to the chorus. But, I would like to say a few things concerning graffiti.

A hot topic these last few weeks, the racist graffiti in Alumni has been on the tips of everyone’s tongues. At Colgate, a place that is usually ignorant (or worse, apathetic) about such issues, it is refreshing to see that there are tensions under our familiarly fake “Hello.” I’ve spoken a lot over the past week — to friends, strangers, and the “what’s the big deal” crowd — about privileged apathy, or the ability that some students have to be “selectively offended.” I’ve spoken about a responsibility to engage with and tackle implicitly racist thoughts and actions, to avoid believing that this specific instance of graffiti is the true issue, and to focus friends’ eyes on the rift between the image and actuality of Colgate. And many people have spoken with me and beside me, which is good. But I don’t see any Chapel Meeting because of Ms. Offner’s comments.

Let me qualify that statement. Ms. Offner’s comments were not nearly as offensive as what was scrawled on the stalls in Alumni — that is not the parallel I am trying to make. Nor am I, for the benefit of the “what’s the big deal” crowd, critiquing the extent to which we have focused the last few weeks of our lives on that graffiti. Brothers, SORT, BSU, SGA, Poetically Minded, ALANA and SLF all responded correctly. In my opinion, I think we needed (and still need) more agitation. The point I’m trying to make is that I see very little agitation on this issue within the community.

Yes, there are dozens of comments to Ms. Offner’s “Love is Not Enough” online. But that is not the necessary agitation. How many times have you, dear reader, sat down and scanned the scratched message that this frat or that frat is “gay” — as if “gay” connoted something negative? How many times have you chuckled at a friend’s insistence of “No homo!” as if that distinction was a necessary social lubricant? Placing emphasis on such graffiti and statements may seem petty when compared to the racist graffiti issue of last week, but it’s not.

Many people at this school are privileged — by virtue of their race, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status — and don’t realize it. It is quite easy to go about life without noticing that fact (a privilege in itself). One of the more interesting manifestations of this privilege is the ability to be “selectively offended.” Selective offense is exercised by students who, because of no overriding personal interest in a discriminatory comment, wonder, “What’s the big deal?” Some may seek to kill the conversation, with a sly comment or red herring. Some may just remain ignorant of the comments or the effects that those comments have on some students. And then some remain apathetic, which is perhaps the most offensive response, because they have no appeal to ignorance or lack of understanding.

I would suggest that we, as a college community, need to reassess how we define and defend our “community.” We, as a college, should not stand for any group, self-selected or not, to be or feel offended by what another section of the community decides to say or do. We, as a college community, should adopt an attitude of being “collectively offended.” We should encourage serious and determined discussion of these issues in public forums. This is not to say that we should silence views like Ms. Offner’s.

Instead, we should open ourselves to the possibility that there is a gap between the way individuals in our community perceive issues and that expression of those views is charged with possibly offensive statements. Is Ms. Offner’s opinion incorrect? I don’t know. But, was it made in an offensive manner? Yes. This month has exposed a side of Colgate which doesn’t fit the image I would like to present as Colgate, and it will take a lot of discussion to fully understand what the problems are. Professor Nina Moore, at last week’s Speak-Out, asserted that “Talk is cheap.” I disagree. Talk — honest, meaningful, powerful, dedicated, understanding talk — has the power to change minds. Apathy is cheap.

Now, I hope that most of the people who are reading this — and most of the people who truly understand it — are not the people who exercise their privilege to be selectively offended. I would hope that the majority of Colgate was comprised of such individuals. But I know I’m wrong.