February 25, 2013

EDITORIAL: Striking a Balance Between Humor and Civility

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This week, the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity hosted its traditional “Which Sorority Has the Best Water Jugs on Campus?” philanthropy event. The event is not as lewd as its title might suggest. It involves literal water jugs that sororities decorate and use to solicit funds for charity, competing to see whose jugs can attract the most money. Some have dismissed the suggestive theme as good fun, justifying the use of sexual imagery in the promotion of philanthropic efforts. But the very attention such events seek to garner gives the impression that this kind of casual objectification is acceptable. We agree with the students, staff, faculty and University officials who are urging Cornellians to reevaluate whether this tradition, and others like it, runs counter to the respectful campus culture many have been working hard to create.

The event’s mission to raise funds for the fraternity’s national philanthropy, Push America — a nonprofit organization dedicated to outreach for people with disabilities — is a noble one. But the implications of the language used in its promotion are less honorable. We recognize that the provocative name of the event is likely intended to increase attendance. But it is not innocuous or without consequence. We also acknowledge that this event is one of several remaining on campus that treads the line between humor and incivility. Nonetheless, the harm of using objectifying language so cavalierly outweighs its entertainment value, and we call upon student groups to put more thought into whether their words and actions align with their stated values. This applies not only to the organizations sponsoring an event, but also to groups on campus, male or female, who choose to participate without questioning these incongruities.

Members of Cornell’s Women’s Resource Center responded to the philanthropy event Monday by contextualizing it in light of the instances of sexual assault that occurred last semester. Those incidents gave rise to ongoing dialogue about how behavior that many dismiss as “harmless” or “joking” can create a culture in which disrespect for our peers is the norm. The continued perpetuation of messages that can be considered demeaning to women also undermines the myriad efforts being undertaken on our campus to support survivors of sexual assault.

Pi Kapp has shown its willingness to adapt the event in response to concerns from community members, to an extent. The official name of the philanthropy was first changed from “Best Jugs On Campus” to “Best Water Jugs on Campus,” and on Monday, to “Penny Wars” under pressure from the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs. But the angered reactions to the innuendo are indicative of the turmoil over violence against women that has ensnared the Cornell community this year. We encourage all student organizations to be more cognizant of the campus climate when planning events that can be perceived as being particularly offensive.