Minding our reputation

The lecture by pornographer Jiz Lee is to education what George Zimmerman is to neighborhood safety. Lee’s promotional video may show “Jiz” at her intellectual peak, chewing on a woman’s underwear. Lee’s claims about  “vaginal fisting” and  “copious female ejaculation” could use up five minutes of study time for a behavioral psychologist, but probably wouldn’t make a great departure point for a graduation speech.

Spring silliness is inevitable at any college. In a way, the Dively Committee has taken up where fraternities left off. To pretend that Lee’s appearance represents a call to LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression or intellectual stimulation is pure con. People who buy this should be held on campus in protective custody before their ignorance is exposed to a plundering world.

One problem with labeling the joke of Lee’s appearance an example of ‘spring follies’ is that it is offensive to a broad cross section of people inside and outside the College community. Williams is very sensitive to offensive behavior, so sensitive that when bad words are used on campus, the whole school is called to action by the students, the faculty and/or the administration. That’s not a bad principle on its surface, but is it a real principle or a selective application of personal taste by some in power? Those who are deeply offended that Lee appeared under the Williams marquee deserve the same respect as the individuals or groups that receive College protection.

There are other questions. Is it true that undue pressure was applied to stifle the free speech rights of a group of women seeking to have an open debate about the College’s sponsorship of Lee? It is true that the administration rejected my proposal that, without commentary, they send parents and alumni the Lee advertisement displayed on campus. As an event held in a Williams building, sanctioned by a Williams department, a Williams dean and a Williams graduate’s College-approved endowment, why doesn’t the College send out the information when requested?

With this endorsement and  “proud” invitation, the College has allowed Lee a rare privilege – that of representing Williams College. The media stories covering Lee’s appearance all led with “Williams College.” Lee will use the Williams appearance as she has those at Stanford and Berkeley: to profitably sell her act to other venues. Who grants that license at the College? Are there any standards applied to granting representational authority of Williams?

It’s always worthwhile to check one’s own standards and taste by exposing friends and acquaintances to that which is personally offensive. Getting opinions from others is essential. For that reason, I sent the advertisement for Lee’s event and Lee’s personal website to a broad range of people. Black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, elite educated and not, the reactions fell into very few slots. Most often, people said  “disgusting,”  “stupid,” or  “this is what the parents pay $50,000 for?” I exposed over 50 people to the material. The universal reaction was one of disgust and wonder that this is the stuff Williams stands for. Whether the College does, indeed, stand for that which Lee advocates is to be determined. Still, the College has created the perception that it approves of Lee. That perception is today a reality.

It’s a paradox that Lee is a banality who shouldn’t be taken seriously, but that the sponsorship that wraps her in the Williams banner should be. It’s also contradictory that the right of free speech at Williams is rationed. Imagine the College reaction if Lee were the performer at a season-ending dinner of the rugby team.

The Lee fiasco has cost Williams. The school has suffered reputational damage and is being laughed at for hosting and advertising this “strap-on champion” and pretending that Lee is anything more than a porno performer.

The administration has an opportunity to explain the mess caused by this porn endorsement. The president can explain how it happened, apologize to those offended and move on. To do nothing is to try to bury a bad mistake. That never works.

There are many great people who would love an invitation to speak at the College. We can do better at Williams than pretend that a pornographer is a serious speaker. It’s time for our college to avoid the lowest common denominator and reach for the stars.

 

Herbert Allen ’62 lives in New York, N.Y.

Comments (10)

  1. Hey Herbert Allen!

    Just for future reference, Jiz prefers “they,” “them,” and “their” to “she” and “her.” It’s just a respect thing. A little research goes a long way…

    Harry

    1. Harry,

      I think when addressing one of Williams College’s most generous graduates one should probably begin with “Dear Mr. Allen” and not “Hey Herbert Allen.” Its a respect thing.

      Thank you,

      Patrick

  2. Thank you Herb, for a well-reasoned response to an egregious lapse in judgment that has – as you so aptly note – damaged the College.

  3. As an alumni of the college I completely agree with your remarks. This event was a travesty and I have yet to hear any reason how this could possibly have been enlightening for anyone. The College has failed miserably with their selective open mindedness and the sooner an abject apology is issued and the mistake acknowledged the better.

    Greg Williams Class of 1973

  4. I think this is tad misleading. From what I understand, neither tuition nor endowment funds were used for this event. It was payed for entirely using grant money from a specific Dively fund earmarked for creating awareness and acceptance of differing gender/sexuality lifestyles–money given by another prominent alumni specifically for this purpose, to get people talking.

    I’ve heard from peers attending other very established and respected institutions, similar speakers have presented at Cornell, Harvard, Columbia, Smith, University of Chicago, Stanford, and Brown. While I neither agree nor disagree with bringing Lee to campus, I see value in bringing lecturers from all walks of life and on either end of the political spectrum. Your editorial seems to suggest that there is nothing of value–educational or otherwise–to be gleaned from people like Lee.

    During my time at Williams I heard farmers, artists with grade school educations, journalists and bankers speak. While none had a graduate degree, and some dismissed them as banal and simple, I found every one to be insightful and profound, often in unconventional ways. Everyone has a story worth listening to, but it’s entirely up to us whether we’d like to listen or not. No one forced any student or alumni to listen, and offended students needed only avoid the classroom. While at Williams, I listened to a neoclassical economist lecture deeply tinged with Social Darwinism. I found it deeply offensive. An apology wasn’t necessary then–disagreement is natural–I’m not sure why it would necessary now.

  5. I would like to be in touch with the “group of women seeking to have an open debate about the College’s sponsorship of Lee” who may have been unduly pressured to abandon their free speech rights.

    Adam Kissel, FIRE (thefire.org)
    adam@thefire.org

  6. “We can do better at Williams than pretend that a pornographer is a serious speaker.”
    Rather, I think we can do better than pretend that the shying away from academic exploration and discovery is something that Williams, as an academic institution, is invested in.

    Jiz Lee no more represented the college than any other multitude of speakers Williams has brought over the years (not all of which would have represented every member of the Williams body any more than Jiz Lee represented the views of every member of the current Williams body).

    Reaching for the stars as an academic institution founded for the furtherance of education means not shying away from any form of further education about the world we live in. Unless porn is disappearing entirely anytime soon, conferring about what porn represents, how it affects our world and society, as well as whether there are alternatives to the current are all important questions to deliberate (unless you think fields such as sociology and anthropology, let alone psychology and – to some degree – history, ought to be done away with).

    I’m certain there are some who would find the fact that we host speakers of African decent and who talk about Africana studies to be “disgusting”; I’m just glad we don’t use people’s personal opinions as a meter to measure what topics we explore at Williams: that was the reason I applied, at least.

  7. “Williams is very sensitive to offensive behavior, so sensitive that when bad words are used on campus, the whole school is called to action by the students, the faculty and/or the administration. That’s not a bad principle on its surface, but is it a real principle or a selective application of personal taste by some in power? Those who are deeply offended that Lee appeared under the Williams marquee deserve the same respect as the individuals or groups that receive College protection.”

    I don’t agree with this at all. That does not mean I should have power over whether you write it at all. And my disagreement should be respected the same as yours.

    But those “bad words” you were referring to, were targeted at students. My friends in fact. So I do not think it is fair for you to compare bringing someone to talk at Williams with Williams protecting someone who was targeted by another person based on their sexual orientation or race.

    I understand where you are coming from, that the talk was associated with William’s name. That a pornstar was associated with Williams college that we love so much. But so is having an open-mind when it comes to speakers.

    Also, it was an alumni decision separate of the college. So Williams got a free speaker essentially, and people came to it, and enjoyed it.

    I personally think it’s great for the college. To show that we are open-minded in our discussions, and are willing to try to listen to people not simply successful for academics.

    and thought it is unrelated. I did not go see it, because I did not want to. I’m sure we at Williams are sorry if this offends anyone. But I personally am proud we would bring a controversial speaker to the school.

    And I don’t think people come to Williams for the pornography:
    http://www.dailynorthwestern.com/campus/class-sex-toy-demonstration-causes-controversy-1.2501746#.T6HzY9VkFyM

  8. Oh for goodness sake – it wasnt a compulsory lecture, people who wanted to go, went because they CHOSE to. Anything that opens peoples minds or gives info about something they didnt know about, is education.

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