(In)appropriate jokes

According to College archives, the College Smokers was a “favorite” annual tradition on campus from about 1908 to 1923. At these yearly gatherings, one could find student-created entertainment, delicious snacks and desserts, the occasional faculty and, above all, “good cigarettes.”

While that initially sound like a great tradition to me, it looks a little different when we find that the entertainment was deliberately provocative, unabashedly racist and encouragingly sexist. Despite at least two attempts to “clean up” this event, the “vulgar and offensive humor” in the student performances was an integral part of the event and went largely unchecked by those in attendance. The article in the archives disregards the problems of that humor, suggesting, somewhat flippantly, that it was just part of the culture: “Given the times and the fact that the Williams student body was comprised solely of men, this is not surprising. Thus, there were less people to offend, gender-wise, and racial humor was more generally accepted at the time.”

I disagree with that interpretation of the acceptance at these events which the article espouses. If that were the case – that there were fewer people to offend – does that mean that the only reason we no longer approve of such events is because we now have a “diverse” student body? If we answer “yes” to that question, then we ignore the structural elements that were promoting such a discourse. We do not avoid using “vulgar and offensive humor” of the racist, sexist and homophobic kind simply because it is offensive. We oppose it because it prevents certain people from speaking, from dissenting and from establishing themselves as full and equal members of a society. Words matter not only because they can hurt but also – and more importantly – because they can epitomize social exclusion.

Ninety-five years after the last cigarette went out for the College Smokers, the Commons Club on campus wants me to unite around a similar culture of “no holds barred,” one that is “intellectually free.” With no acknowledgment of the irony of their claim, two of the club’s members wrote in an op-ed in last week’s Record that dissent (presumably theirs) was silenced on campus, while they bragged of the accomplishments of a campus-funded public group which drew over 150 people. If the culture here were so stifling of dissent, why would that same culture allow this group to form? That culture does not seem to be saying to this group “shut up and sit down,” but rather “dissent all you want.”

The Commons Club should be allowed to dissent as much as it pleases. If it wants to screen film clips that might be “potentially offensive,” it should be allowed to “potentially” offend. However, just because the members formed a group does not mean that they get the right to set the terms of campus discourse. Within the framework of our discourse, I am allowed not only to say that I find such humor actually offensive, but also to say that I think that such groups are damaging – not constructive, as is claimed – to a vibrant, inclusive and “intellectually free” campus.

The Commons Club’s “No Holds Barred Comedy Night” sounds less like the tradition with which they wish to align themselves (in regards to opposing fraternities) and more similar to the embracing of jokes that “everyone” thought were funny at the College Smokers gatherings. Jokes included in the Smokers’ favorites were such gems as “I’d like to take a poke at Pocohontas!” and witty allusions to removing a woman’s skirt.
Is disapproval of jokes like those substantively stifling discourse to the extent that I ought to unite with the Commons Club in order to bring dissent back to this campus?

What exactly are the downsides of the forms of “political correctness” supposedly rampant here at Williams? In what ways does it actually stifle our discourse undesirably? If we are talking about altering our social norms in such a way that disparaging women, uttering racial epithets and deriding homosexuality are no longer acceptable, I have a difficult time seeing the problem. Envisioning a public space and public discourse that does not allow certain jokes and certain remarks that either explicitly or implicitly exclude people seems to promote, rather than to prohibit, a social ethos that is inclusive. That is, such a standard places a check on the social cues that say to people: “You are not welcome here.” If the Commons Club wants to unite around opposing those standards of social decency, then I will not be uniting with them, and I hope that others would choose not to do so as well.

White men telling derogatory jokes is not a time-honored tradition that I would like to embrace – not here nor anywhere, neither now nor anytime.