An Editorial

by John Paul Reid | 5/30/01 5:00am

I once read a novel entitled "The Lathe of Heaven" by Ursula Le Guin. The novel is about George Orr, whose dreams change reality, and Dr. Haber, who tries to manipulate him for the benefit of humanity. On one occasion, Dr. Haber has George dream of a world without violence or tension caused by race, religion, gender and so forth. The result is that all humanity is changed into a gray-skinned, single-gender, non-religious group, stripped of individuality, which arguably is as synonymous as humanity in the first place.

Let's face it: as long as there are two genders (which I hope will be the case for a long time to come), there will be gender relations, of both the good and the bad variety. The Zeta Psi newsletter has become the epitome of the latter. I found the newsletter disgusting, and I won't shed any tears over Zeta Psi's derecognition. Still, I question whether such regulation is necessary, or even good.

Here at Dartmouth, we allow some "offensive" activities. We have a College Course named "Offensive Art." To the ultra-liberal, it's probably not offensive; to the ultra-conservative, it's probably not art. However, since most of us fall somewhere in the middle, it's not too hard to imagine students being offended by art that's meant to be, well, offensive.

I find it difficult to support the administration's decision to derecognize in this case. Why not raid a party and catch underage drinkers? Illegal activities seem to be good reasons to derecognize. Of all things to ban, though, why personal opinions? The College's decision will hardly stop private conversations, both by male and female students, about members of the opposite gender.

If we ban the Zeta Psi newsletter, what comes next in our quest to make sure no one is offended? Should we forbid the New Testament from campus because of statements such as "Wives, be submissive to your husbands?" Or should we instead strive to understand the author's intent, given what we know of the time, place and social context of where it was written? Do we take "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" off the Baker shelves because it contains racial slurs? Or do we allow it because of the historical situation it presents? Must we revile Shakespeare, whose deceitful and lustful characters engage in such criminal activities as murder? Or do we see the flaws that all of us possess?

One reader might think that the brothers at Zeta Psi were making a modern day comparison to gender relations in "The Taming of the Shrew." A psychologist might use the newsletter to examine the social life of the fraternity system. A historian may use it as an example of the struggles of Dartmouth since it became coeducational. You and I might not believe any of these, but look at what we read into writings from the past.

Recently, I've read of three cases where political correctness has been taken to an extreme. A Vermont court ruled that a woman could not have the vanity plate "IRISH," not because it was offensive, but because the plate would make an "offensive" plate such as "NO IRISH" legal. (Ironically, the judge in that case had a vanity plate too -- MIK.) In Michigan, parents complained about an environmental program which they say promotes ideals of the Wiccan faith. In Pittsburgh, a group held a book burning featuring Harry Potter books because they promote magic to children. Does the Zeta Psi newsletter have a deeper social context? I can't claim to know; I'm not a fraternity brother, nor have I dared to venture into the depths of their basement. I do know that almost every Coed Fraternity Sorority brother/sister/member on campus, or at least the ones I know, would argue that their individual house is its own community, a societal microcosm, if you will. Can we condemn the newsletter's content? Certainly, as long as we realize that we too have lustful thoughts and physical desires. Does derecognizing Zeta Psi cross the borders of political correctness? You and I may not think so, but then again, the people who banned the license plate "IRISH" and burned Harry Potter didn't think so, either.

Whose values are we to use? College President James Wright's? The administration's? The faculty's? The students'? George Orwell had it right when he wrote about the enemy you never saw, the one who judged your every word and action, Big Brother.

Of course, to promote positive gender relations, we need to rewrite "1984." Big Person is watching you.