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Discourse, Not Discipline Needed in ‘Ghetto’ Issue

Kai-yuh Hsiao

The events surrounding the “Ghetto Party” incident last week have stirred up all sorts of public sentiment around campus, ranging from sheer outrage to mild indifference. But the most important thing is that it got people talking. I’ve seen discussions happening around campus where people are really speaking their minds, sharing their backgrounds, and understanding each other just a little bit better. I’ve seen people coming to terms with generation gaps, racial differences, and cultural divides.

And I would expect no less from a reputable school of higher education. If there were a place where people could come together, share ideas, and arrive at mutual understanding, I would hope this would be the place.

The administration and our student leaders have expressed their intent to seek official sanctions against the organizers of the Ghetto Party. However, I argue that disciplinary proceedings are redundant at this point. Ostensibly, the purpose of official punishment is to educate and to deter. But the education and the deterrence has already taken place, thanks to the community response and the resulting conversations.

In fact, the organizers, and many other people, including some of the offended, have learned a great deal about people from other backgrounds, and have discovered the large range of effects that words can have on other people. I have confidence that this experience is enough to serve as both education and deterrence.

If those who were offended need further evidence, I ask that they invite the students to lunch and have a conversation of equals. In such a situation, both sides stand to benefit from the other.

Thus, as a free-thinking academic community, things have actually gone about as well as we could hope. An e-mail was sent that some found offensive, and student and administrative leaders immediately stepped forth to rally the community, condemn the message, and open the topic for discussion.

But to bring official sanctions into the picture is a whole different matter. A punishment handed down for an act of speech necessarily implies limits on free speech, and this is dangerous.

Race relations are a tricky issue in America, and the only viable long-term solution is to gradually allow people to understand and accept one another. And this is only possible if people are free to speak their minds. While it is lamentable that this involves some expressions of hatred and confusion, only with those ideas in the open can we as a community discuss them and come to consensus.

People are not static and unchanging. We all learn and develop over time. If there were a place where people could be trusted to openly express their thoughts, have them critiqued and evaluated by their peers, and adjust their beliefs as a result of rational discourse, it should be here at MIT.

And I have stood on both sides of the issue. I have to deal with racial slurs directed at me on a semi-regular basis. But after I get over my irritation, I walk away. Wishing harm or punishment on the perpetrators is irrational, and will only increase resentment on both sides in the long run. Over the years, I have personally noticed the cultures throughout America mixing more and more, and with this trend comes acceptance and understanding. Only time and patience will complete that integration.

I am not saying that if I were physically beaten, I would not seek legal recourse. Physical harm and targeted harassment are a whole different category. But speech, words, and ideas are not in that category. What we are dealing with in this particular situation is an e-mail that was meant to be humorous, and ended up being unintentionally offensive. If all kinds of speech cannot be freely expressed and discussed in a community of scholars, then we are effectively giving up our very claim to scholarship.

To those of you who were offended: I understand your pain, and I know you are enraged and upset. But for your own sake, do not hide behind a wall of disciplinary action. Meet with the people who offended you, and try to understand them and allow them to understand you. The students involved are trustworthy members of your own community, not faceless evil-doers cloaked in darkness. People cause each other pain because of lack of understanding, not because they are inherently evil. Meeting face-to-face will bring that understanding better than any official process ever could.

Things aren’t too different in the real world, either. Last week, the board game “Ghettopoly” was pulled from shelves at Urban Outfitters. The people spoke up, and speaking up was all it took. People listened to each other. Neither legal action, nor fines, nor jail time was necessary; indeed, the First Amendment specifically bars the government from prosecuting against typical acts of speech, and this doctrine has been supported by the Supreme Court time and time again.

If the United States as a whole can work things out while allowing for freedom of speech, then I must assert that MIT does not need official sanctions and limits on speech either.

Our leaders serve as our role models, and their support and condemnations will always hold particular value for us. I encourage our student and administrative leaders to continue speaking out and stimulating discussion on the topics that bear on our lives. Within this framework, genuine education will result and people will naturally come to terms with one another. Our entire community is already richer from what we’ve learned from this incident.

However, I also strongly urge the administration to discontinue its disciplinary proceedings on this matter. Official sanctions will necessarily set a precedent barring people on this campus from speaking freely. Our leaders must speak, but they must not ban. Only with full freedom of speech can we have meaningful dialogue on important issues, and only by learning from such dialogue are people truly free to make educated choices, both in their own lives and in how they interact with others.

We need our leaders, both student and administrative, to look beyond their immediate feelings in order to adopt and to hold to the principles upon which America, academia, and free society are founded. MIT, as a reputable institution of learning, needs to set higher standards of freedom than the common populace, not lower.

Kai-yuh Hsaio is a graduate student in the Department of Media Arts and Sciences.