Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Ethics of Complaint, Part 2: From Pink to Black and White
(10/11/2005)

Ethics is the study of determining what is right and good, and thus is seriously impaired by individuals and institutions who advocate crack-brain theories of what is bad and wrong. As the Scoreboard has documented elsewhere, claiming offense when any responsible objective observer would see none can itself be an unethical act, and not merely a misguided one, when the objective is to bend others to one's will, inflicting inconvenience or financial penalties in the process.

Those in positions of authority have a responsibility to recognize this practice and make sure that it does not spread, thus harming more and more people and organizations, by opposing it firmly and unequivocally whenever it occurs. Not to do so is itself an ethical violation, a failure of courage and duty spurred by fear of anger, hostility and litigation on the part of individuals with no legitimate justification for any of these. The noxious combination of power-seeking complainers wielding the weapon of specious offense and craven decision-makers willing to treat nonsense as substance in order to avoid unpleasantness fueled the epidemic of enforced college campus ideological orthodoxy in the 1990s that is only recently beginning to recede.

But clearly not fast enough, as a recent incident at Vermont's Champlain College sadly shows. The college had announced a "Black and White Dance," which any vaguely educated person would recognize as a quasi-formal dance, with the term "black and white" referring to clothing. One student decided to inflict his ignorance on everyone else by complaining that the theme was "offensive" to him, because he felt "black and white" had racial connotations…you know, like Black and White Scotch, black and white movies, "black and white" ice cream, black and white photography and black and white printers: all that racist stuff.

A responsible and rational college administration would have explained to the student, gently of course, that the meaning of "black and white" in this context was obvious to anyone who was not channeling Al Sharpton or raised in a barn, and that it had nothing to do with race. Instead, the school postponed the dance, thus inconveniencing all students because of the frivolous complaint of one, and explained it with this cringing e-mail:

Good morning, all:

Thank you to all of you who have e-mailed or stopped by to discuss the postponement of last night's dance.  One of our institutional goals is to maintain a safe and comfortable environment for all students, faculty, and staff.  In following up on concerns expressed regarding security coverage for the dance, we also had concerns expressed about the Black and White theme.  Although the theme was chosen with the best intentions, there was the possibility there might be unintended consequences that could be offensive or hurtful.

Our campus goal is to create an environment that is fun and welcoming to all students, faculty, and staff at all times.  To that end, we decided to reschedule the dance for next week with a new theme and appropriate security coverage.

The dialogue that is taking place on campus, in offices, in meetings and through e-mail is extremely thoughtful and important both for this situation as well as helping us to move forward as an institution to improve planning, processes, and decision making.  Please continue to share your thoughts and ideas with us.

Mary Kay Kennedy
Vice President for Student Services
Champlain College

Luckily nobody worked very hard at finding some offensive connotation of the new dance theme, whatever it was, because I'm sure there was one there to be found. Ms. Kennedy and her colleagues managed to betray Champlain's mission with their capitulation, a mission that pledges to help students "to develop as individuals, to foster understanding and appreciation of all people, and to gain career skills that will allow them to contribute to the professional and personal environments in which they live." That may be a bit too harsh, actually; encouraging the pursuit of imagined offenses to the detriment of fellow students might help a student develop as an individual: a self-centered and annoying individual. But the imagined offense is the product of willful misunderstanding, and endorsing the complaining student's actions encourages the exact opposite of constructive professional and personal conduct.

And thus the real ethical culprit here is the college, not the student. The student cannot be blamed: he only needs to listen to Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi as they falsely accuse Bill Bennett of advocating genocide, or follow the NCAA's crusade against football mascots, or read the fevered rhetoric of the pinkophobes at Iowa state, to become convinced that a legitimate goal of life is to manufacture offenses so you can throttle offenders into submission, apology, or permanent obeisance. But colleges exist to give students knowledge, wisdom and guidance, not to encourage ignorance, foolishness and antisocial behavior. Champlain had an obligation and a responsibility to teach this student and any other students similarly inclined that

  • Not every offense is one worthy of redress or even mention,
  • One individual had better have a mighty righteous and well conceived cause before he chooses to inconvenience others in pursuit of it
  • The much-heralded value of tolerance is especially useful when you are bothered by something that nobody else is
  • A misunderstanding due to your own narrowness of experience or vocabulary is not a legitimate basis for a complaint, and…
  • By the way, dummy, when someone holds a "black and white" dance, ball, or party, it refers to what you wear to it, not the color of your skin

Good lessons all. Unfortunately, Champlain's administrators had neither the character, the guts, nor the comprehension necessary to teach them. They failed their duty to oppose ignorance and irresponsible complaint. It may have been just a dance, but this was also an opportunity to nip a politically correct bully in the bud. Someone is likely to pay dearly for Champlain's abdication. From success in such trivial controversies, big pains-in-the-neck surely grow.

[Note: Columnist Mike S. Adams, who uncovered this story, also chose to publish Ms. Kennedy's e-mail address and phone number as well, thus ensuring that as many enraged readers as possible would use them to bombard her with protests, insults, and who knows what else. This is a form of ideological terrorism, and is unfair and irresponsible. Champlain mishandled this situation, but that does not justify encouraging individuals with no connection to the school to "punish" it with an avalanche of calls and e-mails. What Adams did is becoming all too common on the web, on talk radio and in columns, and it is wrong, unethical, and needs to stop.]

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