Tuesday, November 16, 2010

University Administration Narrowly Prevents Terror Attack

Note: The following was published on November 4, 2010 in Walla Walla University's student newspaper, The Collegian. For a follow-up, please visit The Tickle Closet. The views expressed here accurately represent the official stance of this blog.

Headline: University Administration Narrowly Prevents Terror Attack
By David Mack and Cody Lonning

In June of this year, a very important thing happened: we became alumni of Walla Walla University. The graduation ceremony indicated that we were suddenly more powerful entities on the campus of Walla Walla University. As last year’s news editors, we cannot even count the times we were told that we must “consider the wider audience” that our work in the Collegian was going to reach. By this, it was meant that we’d have to take something out because it might offend the alumni. But now the tables are turned and WE are the alumni who are offended.

Currently, we’re fuming about the censorship of certain pictures in this year’s Mask. Adhering to a long-standing tradition of groups of friends dressing thematically for the Mask, Tommy Poole, Alban Howe, Jordan Kattenhorn, and Jon Nickell dressed in Arab garb for their pictures. Accompanying their pictures were unoffending quotes from the Koran. Every quote in the Mask must be inspected for any hint of moral corruption or controversy, and these quotes passed with flying colors… until it was noted that they cited the Koran. Once the quotes were paired with the pictures, it became clear to the WWU administration that this was an opportunity for them to flex their censorship muscle. To be completely fair, the ASWWU Mask editor made the final decision on whether to censor the photos or not. However, these writers believe the student editor would not have censored the photos had the WWU administration’s representative not pressured him into doing so. Regardless, WWU administration played a vital role in the censorship of the Mask.

In today’s Islamophobic world, it is unsurprising that dressing as an Arab and quoting the Koran would catch some attention. However, in this case, it’s important to engage in something more than a cursory sweep of the facts.

Tommy Poole had just returned from a summer spent traveling the Middle East and understandably wanted to use the headdresses he had purchased during his time abroad. The particular headdresses he purchased are widely available to tourists and are sold by many street vendors. So, the four friends donned Ray-Bans, headdresses, and white undershirts for their Mask photos.



Now, there are a couple of reasons why photos like these would be censored. It could be perceived that they would be offensive to people of Middle Eastern descent, especially those practicing Islam. Or, someone’s grandmother could be frightened knowing that her grandchildren were attending a school with students of Middle Eastern ancestry.

Let’s discuss the first possibility and assume that this university wouldn’t stoop to being swayed by the second. Offending someone with a different cultural background or faith is a perfectly legitimate concern; but while political correctness is a crucial part of producing a professional publication, it’s important to insure that the perceived threat to decency actually exists. Given that these headdresses are sold to tourists throughout the Middle East, it is unlikely that Middle Easterners or Muslims would be offended by the patronization of their exports (both cultural and material in this case).

Further, it’s paramount to consider the motive behind these Mask profiles. The quotes that accompany the photos highlight how unoffending this whole episode really is: “22:73 He chooses His messengers from the angels and from men. He hears all and observes all. He knows what is before them and behind them. To Him all things return. –Koran” The combination of the obviously innocent motives of the participants coupled with the fact that their garb is largely intended for use by tourists, should adequately nullify any worries of appearing offensive.

Let’s not forget that though images of Mohammed are controversial enough for Comedy Central to censor South Park, dressing as an unoffending and nondescript Arab does not conjure up the same sort of controversy.

In the long run, this single case of censorship is hardly significant. The larger issue here is that heavy-handedness by the WWU administration is getting alarmingly regular. While this fall’s campus-wide implementation of an Internet filter represents paternalism at its worst, the recent episode of censorship merely indicates the administration’s penchant for hair-trigger responses. To be fair, the unfortunate occurrence of the word “shaggin’” in last year’s mask no doubt played a role in the hypersensitivity, but this serves as no excuse.
           
By silencing the self-expression of its students, Walla Walla University fails to fulfill one of its most important roles. It is the purpose of the university to foster thought and to challenge the rest of society to reconsider commonly held beliefs. Instead of fulfilling its role as the proverbial “great moderator” and leading society in a progressive direction, this university chooses to back down and allow the most extreme and sensitive viewpoints to rule the day.

A better approach for the university administration is to simply step aside and allow ASWWU publications to be student directed and self-moderating. Then, the administration could avoid making messy judgment calls about which groups ought to be protected or what kinds of self-expression should be allowed. In the realm of student publications, these questions should be determined by the open market of public ideas.

After all, students are more inclined to push the envelope when it feels like the administration is constantly pushing back. If ASWWU publications were allowed to monitor themselves, they would be responsible for staying relevant and in touch with the student body. If they became "too controversial,” they would be deemed irrelevant and would be forced to self-correct. By stepping back, the administration can empower the student organization to demand quality from itself. Additionally, the administration could avoid self-imposed restrictions and the burden of having a checklist of concerns that must be addressed before allowing self-expression.

             Ultimately, we believe this overreach demonstrates that the student publications of this university ought to be free of oversight by the WWU administration. Until our demands are met, these authors pledge to withhold our considerable financial contributions from the general treasury of Walla Walla University.

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