Phillip L. Clay
The “ghetto” party invitation and party at East Campus have generated considerable conversation and concern on campus. Regardless of motivation, the event reflects poorly on our campus. While most of the complaints about the invitation have focused on the very clear racial aspects of the insensitivity, I should note that there have been many justifiable complaints about the insensitive gender caricatures in the invitation, which glorifies behavior that victimizes women. The invitation also characterizes poor people and “ghettoes” in very negative and stereotypical ways -- painting quite an unsettling picture: some of the most privileged students on earth mocking those who are less fortunate. Some members of this community -- students, staff, and faculty -- come from communities referred to in this disrespectful way.
At this point, the issue is how the MIT community will address the EC matter. Beyond the argument that the language is part of popular culture, some reactions to the invitation have focused on the right to “free speech,” but this does not take into account the effects on members of our community who feel debased by this event and who wonder about the attitudes and environment that made such an invitation and event possible. They legitimately wonder if it will happen again.
If someone had asked me a month ago whether a publicly advertised social event at MIT containing strong negative racial, social, and sexual stereotypes could be carried out, I would have said, “I certainly hope not.” I would have expected recipients of the invitation to object and challenge the propriety of its content.
Hostile environments created by offensive speech rarely emerge fully formed. If a racial or other volatile incident is not handled swiftly and appropriately by administrative and student leaders, those who are hurt by the incident will understandably question the attitudes and environment that permitted the event. If leaders or others do not counter the incident in the community, more people begin to see such behavior as acceptable, or the norm, and the environment further deteriorates. When I think about my own experience, it is often not the ugly incidents that upset me as much as the community response to them. Silence pains me more than insensitivity.
In the case of the “ghetto” party, to the extent that individuals who saw or learned about the invitation did not object to the language and the character of the event, they gave tacit approval. Why were bystanders silent? Why has the outrage been so muted? Do bystanders not know how to respond? Are they afraid of peer pressure?
It is impossible in a diverse community to ensure that there is never an offense taken to some social interaction or expression. There are powerful and painful images in popular culture. Not all members of the community know how to successfully navigate in the cross currents our society presents us, nor is everyone sensitive or thoughtful about how their speech or action affects others or how it reflects on the community. Having grown up in the South, I saw many examples of hurtful matters handled poorly and others handled well. I know these experiences can be the basis for learning.
Fortunately, we still can gain from this experience. We can quickly turn a negative into a positive. I want to propose a way to move the community to the dialogue that gives us the chance to have an outcome we can take pride in.
I propose that we begin by convening discussion groups and forums that address two questions. First, how do we address the nature and presentation of popular culture, on the one hand, and the requirements of community on the other, given that we are institutionally committed to values of diversity, openness, and maturity? Second, what is the role of the bystander, and how can bystanders be effective and fair?
My faculty colleagues and I have wrestled personally with difficult incidents in many places over the years. I know many of their stories, and I have my own. I suspect our students know none of them but have questions and quandaries of their own. We have lots to share, but often avail ourselves insufficiently of such sharing. We should gather in settings that allow conversation, in sessions convened jointly with student co-sponsors who are committed to such dialogue. Questions should flow honestly, and a range of perspectives should be available. We should get on with talking to each other -- soon and openly.
Phillip L. Clay is the Chancellor and a professor of city planning.