Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Symposium no solution to ‘oblique and intangible problem’

Whitman has changed little since I’ve been here.   Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that key features of life at Whitman remain relatively constant, such as Beer Mile, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and minor scandals that, instead of offending us directly, must appeal to our fledgling (read: underdeveloped) sense of moral indignation.

In regards to this final and most important constant, Whitman has indeed changed, and for the worse: students have come to expect the censure of elements of their world that offend them.   Take the case of Whitman Christian Fellowship’s mass mailings, when people on campus feigned offense at these trifling daily slips of paper, when in fact their only legitimate complaint was that eventually they would have to clear out their mailboxes.

That is literally how far people were set back by WCF’s controversial program.   Posters about campus and flyers tacked to walls are easy enough to ignore, and the campus population of Christians seemed safely shamed into the backdrop of college life.   The daily selections from Scripture reminded many of us of the evangelistic character of Christianity and the politics that are generally associated with it.

The WCF’s activities, then, were more frightening than offensive, but only for a moment.   Most people are just as capable of disregarding prayer meetings as they are of Casino Night, and eventually, that’s just what happened: people got bored with their indignation.   The WCF eventually abandoned its obscure attempt at evangelism (if that is indeed what they were trying to do) and returned to developing the Christian community at Whitman in a less flamboyant manner.

This process of people coming to a greater understanding of their social sensitivities was a startling success, precisely because of the way in which the perceived problem was solved.   Scandals naturally disappear from the public consciousness because they eventually get old and people have more productive or interesting things to do than to be disgruntled by some minor and temporary infringement on their mores.

The quiet conclusion of WCF-gate was not reflected later during the now-internationally-notorious “Blackface” incident.   The consensus on the issue of the “Blackface” incident is that the perpetrators, silly uninformed rowdy frat boys all, were merely ignorant of the very real racial connotations of their actions, which grievously offended a number of people after a “Survivor”-themed party.   The controversy itself garnered a firestorm of attention, though comparatively little criticism, however, was directed at how the issue was handled by students and the administration.

The administration established a dangerous precedent, first by ordering a “symposium” in which like-minded people were given a forum to decry ignorance, assumption and really any other intellectual faux pas that might contribute to frat boys getting drunk and throwing a party; then by holding a press conference.   Suddenly, Whitman became a “racist school” because of the innocent blunder of a few boys into the minefield of race politics.

The “Race Symposium” has since expanded to include other issues as well, though there are a number of serious problems associated with the Symposium that need to be addressed.

Foremost among these is the Symposium’s inability to draw from certain student demographics: in other words, the Symposium is really an Undergraduate Conference with a unified theme that speaks to the sympathies and moral attitudes of Whitman students, rather than to their intellectual or academic curiosity.   For the rest of the school: the ambivalent, the hard-at-work, the people who didn’t need the New York Times to tell them that the whole commotion was merely the product of a few people’s ignorance and a few more people’s sensitivities: the Symposium was a joke, a free day off, or another day to catch up on work.

The issue is which students attend, not how many.

The other problem inherent to the Symposium is its institutionalization of liberal social mores.   Racism, like dandelions and “Friends” reruns, is an enemy that can never be completely defeated, but at this juncture, racism, sexism and any other ––ism one might care to speak of has been elevated above being a nuisance to being an explicit enemy of Whitman College; now, the school has assumed the burden of combating an ideology that escapes definition, is invisible to the naked eye and when it can be identified, is extremely resistant to attempts at its eradication.

Rather than relegating one’s problem with the offensive to the centers of the brain that handle personal problems best, the Symposium deceptively offers students an authority on offensiveness, tolerance and political correctness.   Instead of confronting problems as individuals, using wit, character and intelligence to negotiate the perilous and politically incorrect interpersonal world, the Symposium has become a canon to which people may cling.

The use and abuse of this canon, this index of correctness, can suddenly be invoked in the event of racism.

Some weeks ago in the April Fool’s issue of the Pioneer, this newspaper ran a satire of the administration’s attitude toward multiculturalism.   A student offered these words in response: “[The offending article] was published in light of the first incident: the first Symposium should have been a wake-up call, but it was not heeded, so the offense this time is magnified exponentially.”   This same student, incidentally, proposed in an ASWC session to have the next Symposium more prominently feature Native American interests in response to the gag article.

The editorial writer to whom I refer evidently holds the Symposium in high esteem, but in this instance invokes it in the spirit of the student body’s failure to derive a common message from the event.   Deriving such a message from an event with dozens of discussion panels beyond “racism is bad” seems like a silly notion: indeed, it’s probably impossible: but people have come to see the Symposium as a symbol for a set of values given to them from on high.

The problem of handling such a moral code: let alone applying it: lies in its obliqueness and intangibility: there is no moral code, though there is the hint of shared experience and values.   The administration, through the Symposium, proposes to combat an oblique and intangible problem with an equally oblique and intangible solution, when the reason why social obstacles like racism and sexism persist is because there is no agreed-upon and pragmatic solution to them.

It’s common wisdom that students are meant to mature emotionally and psychologically as well as academically at school.   Nobody needs me to tell them that injustice and unfairness are part of the wider world, and that if anything, our consciences dictate that we combat these things as best we can; at the same time, it’s important that we be reminded that these issues will be with us forever.   Like the Ten Commandments, the Symposium seeks to solve what are the pressing problems we face as a society, while doing little but bringing the problems we didn’t solve to the fore.

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