No Offense Taken
By Christopher Talamo, Staff Columnist
Published on Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Despite trying to figure out what students on this campus find offensive for over three years, I am not one step closer to predicting controversy than the day I first stepped foot here. Now, I find myself baffled by those who are offended by Dartmouth’s “sex culture,” and by those who are offended at the former people’s offense. It seems like everyone has a say about when, where, why and how everyone else should be able to discuss sex.
Advocating for the sexually timid is columnist Roger Lott ’14. In his column last Thursday “Explicit Signals,” Lott tackles the various public expressions of sexuality on campus, ranging from some lewd pumpkins outside of Dartmouth Hall to the Sexperts’ newsletter “The Humpday Gazette.” He argues that for people (like himself) who had a “traditional” upbringing, these ideas and terms are offensive. Somehow, although I did not decide to adopt these values from my upbringing (and, Lott, those values were certainly presented), I should now be subject to them again because Lott did decide to embrace them. I guess my values aren’t exactly a high priority to Lott.
On the other side of the debate lie figures who would trumpet their First Amendment rights to say whatever they damn well please. Their argument is nicely summarized by an online commentator, who writes in response to Lott’s column: “perhaps the best response is to delete the blitz and not read the Humpday Gazette” — in other words, if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Some attention should be paid to the apparent violation of causality implicit in these statements. If Lott hadn’t even read the Gazette in the first place, well then we wouldn’t really be having this conversation; if the assertion is modified to only apply to future Gazettes that Lott reads, that doesn’t really do anything to address Lott’s grievances or respond to his sense of offense.
More importantly, though, those who would seek Lott to stick his head in the sand support, at their core, the same argument as Lott’s. They essentially want to force Lott to ignore these blitzes, just as Lott wants to compel the Sexperts to just stop sending them. It’s all about compelling other individuals to adhere to certain behaviors using individual rights as an excuse. The only real question in this debate is who is going to lose.
Frankly, people who are afraid of open sexual discourse (or any other “offensive” discourse) on campus have no right to hide from it. Lott’s argument is founded on the idea that because he or anyone with a “traditional upbringing” finds something offensive, that offense is meritorious enough to end a discussion. This makes no attempt to confront any real harm that “offensive” discourse is having. Again, the head-in-the-sand response is no different from Lott’s argument — it is a knee-jerk reaction that addresses none of the issues in question.
So what should have happened? If Lott believes that the lewd pumpkins did anything more damaging to society than offend his sensibilities, I invite him to make his case. If this is just a matter of personal discomfort — welcome to college. If you ever lose that feeling of discomfort, you’re not doing it right.
Now if this was just a case of culture shock with a freshman, I might not care, but this fallacy of offensiveness is not an argument. Just consider most recently when Mayuka Kowaguchi ’11 and The Orchid Project sent small mirrors to women on campus with a note exhorting them to use the mirrors to examine their genitals. Or perhaps the seasonal anger at the distribution of condoms before College weekends. The response to the controversy (pre-empted response, in Kowaguchi’s case) is the same: if you don’t like what you see, don’t look at it.
Offense is the refuge of those who are either unwilling or unable to make an argument. While we’re here at Dartmouth, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard for discourse and not resort to slippery slope arguments about how every public indecency is one step towards the degradation of society as a whole. If we focus on improving the substance of our arguments, we may find that college uproars are more civilized.