Realistic view on criticism

Recently, a great controversy erupted around a student picnic organized at SUNY-Albany in honor of Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Forty students complained that the term “picnic” came from racial lynchings. This claim was completely incorrect – picnic is actually of French origin – but the student organizers decided to avoid controversy by instead calling the event an outing. Unfortunately, this also led to controversy, as a homosexual student leader objected to that term, as it also describes the public attribution of homosexuality. The organizers finally decided to simply leave the event nameless.

Of course, some questioned why a false claim was able to ignite such controversy. SUNY-Albany’s Student Assembly Affirmative Action Director Zuheer Mustafa answered these questions by saying, “My job is to make sure people from underrepresented groups are heard. Whether the claims are true or not, the point is the word offended.” The doctrine that he thus represents is that if a word is viewed as offensive, even if it was not meant to be offensive nor can be objectively considered offensive, it can be censored. While this sounds like a rather radical and illogical doctrine, it is one that had taken a strong foothold across much of American society, particularly in academia.

The worst part is that despite the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, the sensitivity police refuse to allow displays of patriotism to proceed for fear of potentially offending somebody. One would hope that in the wake of such a tragedy we might be free to express our national unity; however, it seems that pride in America offends more than just Osama bin Laden.

For an example, take the case of Terry Thornton, a principal at the Breen School in Rocklin, Calif. Thornton placed a sign saying “God Bless America” on the school marquee two days after the attacks. This sign only lasted a short while before the complaints of one parent stirred the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten legal action if the sign were not removed.

Another case involved a junior at Fairview Park High School outside Cleveland, Ohio. His sister was injured in the attack on the World Trade Center, so he decided to put up several pro-war posters on his locker. Three weeks after he put these posters up, they were torn down and the school’s assistant principal informed him that he was suspended for 10 days. Apparently, his posters were seen as so offensive and divisive that the administration did not even give him the opportunity to remove them himself before suspending him.

Zewdalem Kebede, a naturalized citizen originally from Ethiopia and student of San Diego State University, was another victim of the sensitivity movement. He confronted four Saudi students he overheard speaking in Arabic about how they were happy with the terrorist attacks, rightly questioning how they could be pleased with the murder of so many innocents. Shortly after this incident, Kebede was summoned to the Center for Student Rights and informed that the four Saudi students had filed a complaint for harassment. He was also warned that “future involvement in confronting members of the campus community in a manner that is found to be aggressive or abusive will result in severe disciplinary sanctions.”

A similar situation can be seen in the reaction of the Madison, Wis. school board to a new state law mandating schools to lead the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Although the law was completely voluntary, the board feared the effects of patriotism on its students and thus voted 3-2 to prohibit both the Pledge and the National Anthem. The two members who voted against the motion did so only because they feared that it did not go far enough.

There is, however, some good news to come out of these perverse reactions to American pride and unity. In these cases and many other similar ones, the public has reacted immediately and strongly against those who fear that patriotism is too offensive. While Americans have often disagreed with the tactics of our national sensitivity police, they were too apathetic to confront the well-developed pressure techniques of many of America’s hyper-special interests. Now, things have changed.

It is as if we have all remembered the lesson we learned when we were children; that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” In the wake of such death and destruction, we have all realized how insignificant somebody potentially feeling uncomfortable at the Pledge of Allegiance or the phrase “God bless America” really is. We have realized that people should spend a little less time selfishly worrying about their own feelings and more time working towards the common good.

And perhaps a permanent good will come out of this situation. Long after the patriotic fervor has died down, we may all still remember one important lesson of Sept. 11: that there are far worse things than being a little uncomfortable. We may throw aside our selfishness in favor of unity, and tell the balkanizers and paranoid interest groups that we are not going to allow such pettiness to divide us anymore.