Free Speech Kabuki

There’s a lot of discussion on campus this year about the annual “chalkings” that coincide with Coming Out week. They’ve been controversial before (as one student puts it in the campus newspaper, it’s a “predictable moment” in the calendar). If I had a rankings scale, I’d put this year’s controversy near the top of the scale, however. The drawings and messages were a significant shade more explicit and intense than in past years.

There’s a heavily ritualized aspect to the objections and counter-objections to the chalkings. The critics try to make clear that their objections are not in any way intended to be anti-gay or homophobic (this year, in fact, several of the letters objecting to the chalkings in the campus newspaper are from gay or lesbian students). But the chalkings themselves propose a kind of Catch-22 in their language and form, namely, that to feel discomfort with explicit images of sexuality is a diagnostic of hidden or latent homophobia, and to object publically is a kind of revealed preference, homophobia unveiled. Or, as some of the activists behind the chalkings put it this year and past years, to feel discomfort at the images is to experience for one brief moment the discomfort that GLBT people are compelled to feel all the time. Then there’s the point, made this year by a defender of the chalkings, that you don’t have to look at the chalkings if you don’t want to. And of course, the perennial favorite, that anything which provokes conversation and dialogue is a good thing.

I’ve noted before that the longer you’re at a place like Swarthmore, the more that the ritual repetition of some of these debates is vaguely frustrating. It’s part of a learning experience, though. The students who object learn some things, the students who do the chalkings learn some things. Or so one hopes. Among the things I hope that the students who did the chalking learn is to stop believing that the efficacy of activism is measured by the degree of antagonism or discomfort it produces. If there’s a bad idea that I’d like to see worked out of people’s systems by the time they graduate from a place like this, it is the old saw that objections to activism are proof of the claims of activism. That’s a bad bit of Freudian or Marxist intellectual judo, a classic sign of shallowness (lately common among many conservatives).

Other points that some of the student critics raise this year strike me as equally important lessons. For example, that the equation of GLBT identities with hypersexuality is often one of the central tropes of homophobic discourse, that it reduces GLBT people to a single legitimate mode or type of sexuality.

Another insight I’d love to see come out of the annual ritual: stop saying that any action or intervention that produces conversation and dialogue is definitionally positive. First, because that’s demonstrably not true: a public act of racism produces dialogue, but none of us applaud the racist for it. Second, because if you blow off the objections by saying “Well, at least we’re having a dialogue, and isn’t it a good thing to be uncomfortable for a day, and you don’t need to look at the chalkings in public space even though the whole point of putting them in public space is for them to be looked at”, you’re not having much of a dialogue. This particular part of the ritual strikes me as being Official Multiculturalism at its worst, a kind of management of community that actually underscores how limited or constrained the range of acceptable opinion and thought is within that community.

The one point that I’m not sure gets made as often in response to the chalkings, perhaps because it’s something that is harder to appreciate when you’re 20 whether you’re gay or straight, promiscuous or virginal, sexually open or sexually uptight, is that the demystification of sex is not necessarily an emanicipatory or erotic act. I suppose that’s an argument I’d apply to more than just sex. I think all of the humanities require the mysterious and sublime as much as they require explanation and clarity. But nothing more so than the experience of desire and the achievement of pleasure and happiness. I don’t see it as bold or revealing to proclaim in public space the alpha and omega of sexual experience in the name of freedom from discrimination or oppression. I’m not saying that we don’t need explicit writing about sexuality, or that erotic and pornographic culture is a bad thing. Put me down as being in favor of both. I am saying that while the truth may make you free, the truth of sex (either experience or identity) is not necessarily found in the stripping away of its ambiguities, uncertainties and mysteries.

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8 Responses to Free Speech Kabuki

  1. Joey Headset says:

    This is a very nice encapsulation of this ritual.

    One of the more infuriating aspects of all this is that the same people who argue that “anything that sparks dialogue is a good thing” also use the “shut up, you ignorant homophobe” defense against those who object. One may conclude, then, that anything that sparks dialogue is GOOD, but it’s BAD when people actually take your bait and engage you in dialogue. Unless, of course, we switch our conception of “dialogue” to the version favored by most Official Multiculturalists: the one where Diverse People level endless abuse at Non-Diverse People, while the latter group nods and tries to look sufficiently ashamed.

  2. withywindle says:

    So can we define Swarthmore Chalkings as a puberty ritual?

  3. Speaking of speech rituals, I’ll register my objection to equating a vibrant dramatic tradition with meaningless posturing.

    Why is the annual “Coming Out Day” discussion any more ritualistic or empty than the annual Shakespeare 101 discussion of whether Hamlet was nuts, or the seasonal World History I discussion of Hammurabbi’s code, or the Calc I tradition of someone asking over and over how to do second order derivatives?

    We live with annual cycles, and we profess education, which we do over and over again. No, I wouldn’t want to sit through semester after semester of Accounting; nobody does, and yet semester after semester someone is teaching it and someone is learning it. It’s always new, to someone.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure. I agree: that’s why I say it’s a learning experience, and why I wouldn’t want to overstress myself trying to intervene in a given year. I don’t regard this as meaningless posturing, which is why I do in fact respond to what I think the problems underlying it are. Where I think there’s superficiality isn’t in the act, but in the ways that the “dialogue” which follows are bracketed off and dismissed by the students who did the chalkings in the first place, at least in their initial reaction.

    Though one aspect of referring to it as a ritual is misleading, and what is happening is in some sense more intriguing and complex than that. A ritual is something that people rehearse, and know in advance what parts they are to play. I don’t know that this is what is happening in this case. If the students are more or less spontaneously recreating the same conflicts from year to year, then as a historian, that makes me wonder at what the persistent drivers underlying their action are. If it is in fact a ritual of sorts, it makes me wonder at what kinds of off-stage cues are coordinating its performance, and from whom they are originating.

  5. CMarko says:

    Thanks for the comments, Professor Burke. I cannot express how put off I am by the chalkings and by SQU et al.’s attitude. I’m not either anti-sex or homophobic (in fact, I’ve been openly bisexual since I was 15), but the chalkings are totally inappropriate. There’s a new batch of chalkings out this morning to replace the old ones washed away by the rain, including an explicit cartoon of an orgy directly in front of Parrish. In most circumstances, I accept the argument that if you don’t like something, you don’t have to look at it–change the channel, close the book, whatever–but it’s very hard not to see the chalk drawings that are all over the sidewalk in the central part of campus. It’s not just the drawings, either. The word “faggot,” among other terms, is prominently featured on the walk down to Sharples. I don’t care who wrote it or what kind of pride the writer is trying to express; that’s an offensive term and it’s not okay to shove it in people’s faces. We hear a lot about the campus being a “safe space,” but the language and imagery on the sidewalk at the moment make it feel a whole lot less safe to me.

    My theory at the moment is that the people responsible for the chalkings are trying to increase their own relevance. At the moment, the Swarthmore Queer Union serves very little purpose beyond being a social organization. SQU pursues very few political goals outside of Swarthmore, and there’s almost nothing to accomplish within Swarthmore itself, where virtually everyone is supportive (and the few who aren’t are silent rather than confrontational). Without minimizing the discrimination that GLBT people face in most of the world, it’s safe to say that at Swarthmore, gays are not an oppressed minority; it’s about as easy to be gay as to be straight on this campus. By chalking explicit messages on the pavement, SQU members incite controversy. They can attribute the controversy to the community’s latent homophobia, thereby reassuring themselves that there’s still work for them to do, and then pat themselves on the back for “challenging” their classmates.

    I don’t feel challenged so much as manipulated. I feel like I’m being pulled into someone else’s public sexual game, which I did not consent to. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the chalkings violate federal sexual harassment law by creating a hostile workplace environment. (I looked up the guidelines and this seems to fit.) I’m not an employee, so I’m in no position to sue, nor would I even if I could, but I do think it would behoove the chalkers to consider that they might be violating the rights of others.

    I should mention to Joey Headset above that I don’t frame this as Diverse vs. non-Diverse people, nor do I think that’s the issue at stake; I think this is about appropriate vs. inappropriate public behavior. (As my friends and I discussed last night, it would be no better to have all-hetero orgies underfoot.) I’d be perfectly happy with the situation if the SQU crowd kept the most explicit messages indoors somewhere. Preferably not in my hallway, though.

  6. Miles says:

    Yesterday, SQU/NOTA/et. al. released a “chalkings manifesto” in which they claim that “…because the chalkings serve to make public a core part of queer identity, attacks on the sexual nature of the chalkings are inherently homophobic and heterosexist.”

    I find it particularly interesting that their manifesto claims there is no political or activist purpose to Coming Out Week, but that it is instead meant to simply celebrate sexuality.

    I understand it to some degree—heterosexual sexuality is fairly prominent throughout American media, and there aren’t that many venues through which alternative sexualities are made public—but it seems as if there is a *huge* disconnect between what SQU/NOTA/etc. think they are trying to do and what the rest of the students at Swat think they are trying to do.

    At this point, the entire discussion seems to have deteriorated a bit too far to be at all constructive (“Shut the fuck up” is written between Parrish and Sharples) and is amazingly similar to a forum-flame-war. I’m just waiting for someone to post 50 Hitler pictures around as a way to end the debate…

  7. Joey Headset says:

    Of course they claim there is no political or activist purpose to these actions. It is part of a classic passive-aggressive gambit. It starts when SQU gets together and figures out what sort of chalkings are most likely to antagonise the rest of the community. Then, once they’ve done the chalkings and the community has gotten good and antagonized… that’s when they pretend to be SHOCKED that anyone took offense. “Aw, shucks… when we scrawled the word ‘faggot’ next to a crude drawing of three-way anal sex, we were just celebrating our sexuality. Why can’t we EXPRESS ourselves without you homophobes OPPRESSING us???”

    At Swarthmore College, all moral and intellectual authority stems from an assertion of victim status. As such, the tolerant nature of the campus is a constant source of frustration for groups like SQU. As CMarko said, they feel they need to push the community until they finally push back. Then they cry “HOMOPHOBIA!”, and it’s all good for another year. All is disingenuous and offensive to those who have experienced real (not simulated) oppression… but at least it sustains the ego of a handful of narcissists for a week or so.

  8. Walt says:

    Since I’m scolding you on another thread, I thought I’d add a late comment on this one. I think your post is very insightful, and has provoked insightful comments. I have been quoting you to my friends and finding other instances of recurring learning experiences all around us.

    I won’t keep saying this, but I thought it would be good to recite it once: When we don’t like your posts we tell you, but when we like your posts we tell everyone else.

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