November 13, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Fratman Ends

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Earlier this week, this nation’s oldest, continuously independent college daily published a eulogy to the word “faggot” in the form of an opinion piece by David Zha ’15. Framed as a satirical letter from “A Good Person” to the word in question, the piece laments the loss of what seemed to be the perfect verbal attack. “Faggot” “packed a punch that ‘dweeb’ just never could” — alas, its “unfortunate connections to the homophobic underbelly means this has to be the end” of Zha’s character’s relationship with the word. Unfortunately, A Good Person just “can’t be seen in public” using this word anymore, the end of a “good run.”

We don’t doubt that Zha and others in his position would condemn publicly the use of “faggot,” even though we have to play fast and loose with his tone and writing style to do so. What we do doubt are the ethics of the rhetorical style that Zha and his satire embody, one that “educates” by mocking sensitivity despite a dangerous world full of banal oppression. To explain his column, Zha wrote on Facebook that “[t]he world is not a nice, safe place. Cornell is part of the world. Cornell is not a nice, safe place.” In response to yesterday’s column by Teresa Kim ’15, Zha snarkily thanks her for the “spread,” noting again that his reason for writing is to illuminate the false sense of shelter that language policing presumably provides in spaces like Cornell. He goes on to offer a bastardized argument for civility: “In language, some words are okay and others just aren’t. That’s why they exist. To never be said. You shouldn’t even think them, or Jesus is going to wash your brain with lye before sending you on a one-way trip to the basement.” And that’s about it. Presumably, to drive this point home, Zha sloppily typed out this disaster to make the world even less nice or safe for his community, because that’s the right thing to do. Zha, then, is taking on the valiant task of breaking the pernicious and misleading sense of safety that the queer community feels on campus. After reviewing the facts for about three seconds (the Hurtado Report on Climate Diversity, the LGBT Resource Center’s historic lack of proper funding and the public record regarding and our own experience with bias incidents on campus) we can assure him that this is unnecessary.

Zha’s interpretation of the ethics and functions of speech acts misses the point: We don’t try to create safe spaces so that they will spread magically through the rest of society. We do it to make people safe. It’s not that we avoid using words like “faggot” or the litany of other epithets screamed at and burned into the bodies and memories of minorities because using those words makes us lose street cred when we’re beating on a kid in middle school. We don’t use those words because they carry etymologies of violence, because they are jagged weapons in the arsenal of oppression or because people use them every day against disadvantaged groups. Zha’s is a deflated response to a very simple phenomenon: We try not to use words that have been screamed at minorities while they are burned to death or lynched or have the shit kicked out of them in the schoolyard. This isn’t cool, it isn’t satire and it sure isn’t funny.

Nobody needs to see a racist, sexist, homophobic, violent viewpoint exaggerated to the point of absurdity to understand it, especially since the absurd exaggeration is not actually so impossible and is encountered on our campus every day. Categorizing columns like Zha’s as “educated humor” is exploiting a position of privilege in two ways: It shows the privilege some folks wield when they make the choice to consider as humorous horrific things they don’t have to endure and highlights the privilege the author has had in publishing their portfolio of defensively hedged, insincere and uninteresting “opinion” pieces while meaningful and important opinions are silenced. Moreover, it implies something absolutely horrid. It is more awful to be called “bigot” than it is to be called “faggot,” betraying the ultimate evidence of privilege: demanding that massive power imbalances remain unaddressed for the sake of comfort.

Mocking sensitivity often has been an invaluable weapon of the oppressed. Biting satires of language control have a well-deserved place in our cultural consciousness — the modern world’s Orwells and Bulgakovs have shown us what horrifying injustices are possible when thought and word policing runs amok. We share this view and are fervently in favor of forums that promote satirical (or straightforward) dialogue, noxious opinions and a diversity of views. Our celebrated college daily should be a lively, biting debate full of humor and passion and arguments that have teeth, which this campus surely has the intelligence, passion, wit and diversity of perspective to produce. Zha’s column is decidedly none of these things.

We call not for censorship, but for better editorial decisions. The Daily Sun has been running Zha’s column for months, columns which all deploy this same insincere and undirected satirical tone to justify Zha’s incessant referencing of women as objects (“chubby” if they are feminist, “targets” if they’re at a frat party), or his brilliant theory of race relations: “If we want to live in a truly raceless society, it’s on minorities to be bigger and forgive the crimes of the past.” At the same time that Zha’s characters takes up space, other voices are systematically marginalized, demeaned and shut out of the forum that defines this campus’ news culture. We urge The Daily Sun to take a serious look at this choice in the future. We urge those who want to call out tropes of oppression to satirize and tear them apart without becoming them, without needlessly invoking violence against members of our community. Being asked to “watch one’s language” seems like a big ask, almost an imposition. We assure Zha that being asked to endure attacks on one’s identity is an even bigger one.

The Daily Sun deserves better, and so do all of us.

Jevan Hutson is a junior, Joseph Fridman is a sophomore and Arthur Peterson is a senior at Cornell. Responses may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.