Context, not content, is crucial
By biconews On 8 Feb, 2000 At 05:00 AM | Categorized As Archives | With 0 Comments

By David Rothstein

We, the Editor in Chief and Managing Editors of the the [sic] Bi-Co News, have concluded that publishing the full text of the obscenity in the following letter would breach journalistic standards followed by most newspapers at the college and local, state and national level. Furthermore, publishing constraints rendered it impossible to discuss this matter with the full staff prior to presstime. Therefore, in order to respect both the staff of the Bi-Co News and its readers, we choose not to print the word in question.

Dear Editors,

In last week’s staff editorial about the controversy over The Incontinent Donkey, you wrote: “The bottom line is that no one at either Haverford or Bryn Mawr would dare to use the slurs printed in the Donkey in the dining halls or in a classroom … We need to acknowledge that printing such statements in the Donkey is no more appropriate.”

I beg to differ. The word “n—r,” to name one of these slurs, appears frequently in the printed works of authors like Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. Consequently, it has been used in our classrooms and dining halls, by people discussing these authors and their important contributions to American literature about race. Unless you censor the beginning of this paragraph, the word was just printed in the Bi-College News. Is that inappropriate?

The question surrounding The Incontinent Donkey isn’t one of content, but of context, a distinction that the editorial glossed over in favor of mindless, but feel-good, rhetoric. We can rightfully condemn the Donkey for its jokes about the disabled. Why? Not because the magazine happened to mention disabled people or even because it used derogatory words like “vegetable” and “retarded” to describe them, but rather because the whole point of the jokes - the punchline - was to laugh at people because of their disability.

The cartoon which portrayed a Klansman standing next to a list of racial and ethnic slurs with a caption referring to the Office of Multicultural Affairs’ Christmas list, which the Bi-Co devoted most of its editorial to condemning, was more complicated. As Lewis Helfand explained in his letter on the comment board last semester, the purpose of the cartoon was to question the way in which Haverford pursues its commitment to diversity. By constantly harping on the need for more “minorities,” without acknowledging that there are individuals behind these minority faces who have identities beyond a racial or ethnic classification, might we be dehumanizing people in the same way that those slurs do? Do we at Haverford view minority students as just that - students - or as tokens who are there to give our campus something called “diversity”? It is a legitimate question for a satire to explore.

Undoubtedly, there were problems with the joke: (1) as Zahira Martinez pointed out in her letter two weeks ago, the cartoon grossly confused the role of the Office of Multicultural Affairs with that of the Admissions Office, (2) it wasn’t particularly sophisticated, and (3) it was so vague that nobody understood it. This last point is what led many people to be genuinely offended by what they saw in the cartoon.

However, a joke that falls flat and accidentally offends people based on their ethnicity, though it indicates a lack of foresight, is quite different from a joke that was intended to offend in the first place. We should be able to distinguish between the two different types of “offensive” jokes which appeared in The Incontinent Donkey, rather than lumping them all together under the label of “dangerous” and hinting that they are worthy of censorship or in violation of the Honor Code.

Unfortunately, this inability to make distinctions can have real consequences. The work of authors from Twain to Morrison has been challenged and occasionally banned by people who confuse the inclusion of racist characters and words in these works with a racist intent on the part of the writers. We tread on a slippery slope here, and the Bi-Co News, as the community’s leading publication, should think carefully about what side it is on.

David Rothstein HC ’00

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