Is it possible for an entire institution to go crazy?
Two years ago, posters were placed around the Indiana Wesleyan campus before Halloween warning students against wearing costumes that perpetrated crimes of cultural appropriation.
- The text had the standard plea for sensitivity, with a heading “THINK IT THROUGH.”
- A request, “Let’s actively care for each other & our community.”
- And a few criteria: “Does this costume attempt to represent an entire culture or ethnicity?” “Does this costume mock cultural or religious symbols?” “Does this costume trivialize human suffering, oppression, & marginalization?”
- It finishes with the Office of Intercultural Learning & Engagement inviting students to call if they have questions.
Nothing unusual there, just the same obnoxious solicitation of thoughtfulness in anticipation of the feelings of historically disadvantaged groups. It’s the kind of summons that doesn’t make anybody who reads it happier. The people who believe they have been victimized before are encouraged to remember that victimization and turn it into an abiding attitude. Young jokers and gadflies who like to tweak others are put on notice to watch themselves on October 31st. The rest—the liberal kids who generally behave well and don’t want to offend anyone but don’t think it’s such a big deal if a guy downs a beer and dons a sombrero—feel a bit more constrained in what they can think and say and do. The ostensible goal of the poster is to create a kinder social climate. The actual result of it is to create a more tense climate. The real victims in the case are free speech, undergraduate humor, and the virtues of strength and maturity.
One undergrad had enough. When Micah Sample saw the post, he wrote this on his Facebook page:
Just to mess with the ideologically possessed people who made this cancerous sign, I’m very, very tempted to dress as an incarcerated Muslim Native American chieftain, wearing both a hijab and a ritual headdress. If anyone can get me some face paint and a headdress, or an authentic hijab, please message me here on Facebook. I’m going to culturally appropriate as much as I please, and I couldn’t possibly care less about who gets offended. If my choice of costume is restricted by “social justice”—that is, “victim” worship and fetishizing—I’m going to rail against every boundary these people set up. Let the virtue-signaling games begin, and may the odds be ever in your favor this Halloween—if you’re a member of a non-privileged, non-white, non-male minority, that is.
Also, please don’t dress up as a Wild Western cowboy outlaw—that’s appropriation of my culture, and I find that really offensive. Just, like, be culturally sensitive and stuff, so we don’t have to send the thought police after you.
That was the post: sarcastic, impatient, dismissive. What was the right response to it? A cackle, if you are equally tired of virtue reminders, a sigh or a shrug, if you don’t like this brand of criticism. Either way, you take note of it and move on with your life.
But this is a college campus in 2019. A few students at Indiana Wesleyan who saw the Facebook post couldn’t do that, nor could the officials in the administration. Mr. Sample’s little bit of raillery launched a process that culminated in a 91-page document that testifies more than anything else to a bureaucracy that has lost any understanding of the ordinary frictions of social interaction. It also cost Mr. Sample his standing in the school.
I spoke with Mr. Sample by phone awhile back, and he sent me the document. It is a remarkable display of perverse incentives, distorted expectations, and petty administrators who should never have the power to decide the fates of others.
The document begins with categorical information. The heading reads, “Bias Incident Report,” with “Type: Ethnicity/National Origin” and “Gender” underneath. Mr. Sample’s name is listed under “Involved Parties,” along with the names of five witnesses that have been blacked out. (This version was the copy emailed to Mr. Sample. In order to see the unredacted version showing the names of his accusers, he would have to go to the administration and peruse it in the presence of officials.)
This is the first step in the presentation, and it’s a crucial one in modern times, as Kafka recognized 100 years ago. An ordinary human reaction must be labeled for processing. We have an ironic provocation on one side and hurt feelings on the other side, and they are to be handled with objectivity and clarity. Words and emotions can be slippery; a categorical tag helps pin them down. With these designations (“Bias Response” etc.), a system has been activated. We now have the type of crime Sample has committed (“Gender”). We can speak of it in abstract terms and submit it to a procedure that Michael Foucault, in his studies of surveillance and discipline would have appreciated. With each categorization, we move farther from the concrete reality of the affair and closer to an ideological realm of moral tabulation.
In other words, we have begun a sequence of dehumanization. Do not assume that the surface concern for the feelings of victims past and present means that this labeling truly captures the human dimension of the act. Actually, the opposite has started.
Following these labels, we have the original Halloween poster and Mr. Sample’s Facebook reply. The Facebook post includes comments by readers and rejoinders by Sample.
Next comes the witness statements. Each witness must answer two questions: the first instructs the witness to describe the incident; the second asks, “What impact did this incident have on you? How did the incident make you feel?” Number One calls for objectivity; Number Two urges students to emote.
The first complainant describes the Facebook post, but adds a judgment to the description: “The post was extremely insensitive, ignorant, and offensive to anyone who has been a victim of cultural appropriation.” Note carefully the generalization. This complainant presumes to speak for all victims, a collectivization, which is, in fact, an essential element of the grievance process. True, the follow-up question about how it impacted the complainant himself makes the experience personal, but in the logic of victimhood, that experience must have a representative value. His experience must embody a group’s experience.
And, by the same inference, what Mr. Sample has done to him must be aligned with what cultural appropriators have done to disadvantaged people in America over and over for centuries. This little Facebook taunt is now in the territory of historical shame from 1619 forward.
This first complainant terms Sample’s conduct “vicious neglect of the well-being, both emotionally and mentally, of others.” Sample is a leader in Student Government, too, and a member of the Honors College, and so he is supposed to be a “World Changer,” not one who “marginalizes and offends” minorities. When it comes to the impact the Facebook post has had, the complainant says he feels “incredibly sad” and “was personally offended and bothered.”
The next witness suffers similar pain. “HIS WORDS ARE FUELED w/HATE,” he says of Sample’s post, and it has caused him a near breakdown: “I’m not going to lie this has broken me to a certain degree.” (The punctuation error, a missing semi-colon, is in the original.)
Another witness notes “the evil in his words” and charges that Sample “has no regrets or shame for his venom.” The next witness states that the post “is one of the most disrespectful things I have seen.” It made him “feel attacked and completely dehumanized.” Allowing Sample to continue serving in student government is “absolutely terrifying.” That claim, we should note, is a sign that the complainant either is lying or needs to be referred to the school’s psychological counseling center.
There is also a text message sent to Sample by the residence hall assistant, an older student in the Honors College who calls his sarcasm “untasteful and vile.” Apparently, she and Sample were friends, and she is used to his dissident outlook and has sometimes admired it, but this time, he has gone too far. The exchange includes Sample’s answer to her as well, in which he acknowledges some tastelessness but holds fast to the underlying point. He characterizes the original Halloween poster as issuing “a false sense of moral therapy.”
Following that, there is an email exchange that includes a follow-up Facebook post by Sample. Obviously, Sample was surprised at the reaction to his sarcasm, which has circulated around campus and sparked debate among the undergraduates. In this new post, Mr. Sample regrets the tone and mockery of his previous post. It begins, “Friends, I apologize for the rather provocative nature of my Halloween post here on Facebook.” He maintains his belief in “dialogue and freedom of expression,” however, while acknowledging that the way he presented his opinions ended up “foster[ing] disunity,” not “Christian charity.” This update appears in an email sent by one Indiana Wesleyan official to others, and it notes, “I don’t think this changes our course of action, but I wanted to make sure everyone still had the full information.”
Next comes a letter to Mr. Sample written by the Dean of the Honors College. It says that the Honors faculty “was made aware of your Halloween FB post by numerous students who found it to be deeply problematic and offensive. We were beyond disappointed at what we found.” One wonders where they have ended up when they have found themselves “beyond disappointed.” Where is that? Wherever it is, we may be sure that only earnest and reflective and caring souls end up there. The Honors College will have to issue a public statement about the affair, Sample is told, though his name will not be revealed.
That public statement follows, and it is such a blathering, insipid, twaddling, irritatingly solemn, and annoyingly sincere specimen of virtue signaling that to quote it would cause Minding the Campus readers more pain than they deserve. It has 12 signatories.
The next entry in the document is a letter from the Director of Student Conduct & Community Standards informing Mr. Sample that he is being investigated for Harassment and for Disruptive Behavior. This looks like the first time Sample was apprised of official action underway. A meeting is being arranged whereby he can respond to the allegations. The meeting will also “allow questions to be asked of you as part of the investigative process.”
When I read that last part of the report, I wondered what kind of bureaucratic bully, what small but presumptuous sensibility, would choose to spend his time putting a 20-year-old kid in the Star Chamber for an hour or more of grilling, all for having written a few sentences of fed-up sarcasm?
Right after that letter comes the same official’s rendition of the subsequent meeting. One paragraph stands out:
I asked Micah if he could help me to understand his intent for the post. I explained that based on only reading the post, he seemed to have no concern for how others might respond. I explained that it did not seem to invite a conversation, but rather antagonize individuals to respond with their opinion, even though his mind would not change.
Got that? The crime here is not harassment. No person has come forward to accuse Sample of doing anything to him apart from this declaration on his own Facebook page. We have no threats; no targeting of any individuals appeared in Sample’s post. He is guilty of . . . insensitivity. He is obtuse and stubborn. That’s it.
To Sample’s credit, he doesn’t back off the substance of his post. Nothing in it was “inappropriate,” he insists, and he interprets “cultural appropriation” as a form of “sharing,” not exploitation. In the eyes of his accusers and judges, though, this stance only proves that he had not learned anything and is just as insensitive now, under interrogation, as he was when he wrote the original post. He is unrepentant. He won’t respect the pain he has caused. The official tells Sample that his “language use and the impact he had on others in the IWU community is where his post falls into the Disruptive Behavior policy.”
She pronounces him guilty as charged and proceeds to assign him “one of the “three levels of warning status at IWU” (sounds like “double-secret probation”). He merits the highest one, “Citizenship Probation,” she determines, which shall be in force for 60 days. He will lose his student government position, too. When he asks if there is anything he can do, she tells him that there isn’t. “So, the decision was made before this meeting?” he asks. No, not completely, she answers, but nothing he has said in the meeting has changed her mind. The official also requires that he complete a “two-page reflection paper.”
The official’s name is Laura Bronsink. Her account of the meeting and her determination of guilt make for a sickening read.
Sample tried to appeal the decision but got nowhere.
But that’s not the end of the affair. In subsequent pages of the document, after statements of Indiana Wesleyan policies and an email back-and-forth between Sample and an official over the appeal process, we have the two-page paper which Sample had to write to finalize the case. The purpose of the paper was clear: to explain how much he has learned and grown from this process and to pledge that he shall be more mindful of the feelings of others in the future.
He didn’t comply. Here is the opening of his paper:
Throughout the humiliating process of being berated and condemned by Student Conduct for the sole purpose of appeasing offended parties, I have come to realize that the impact I have had on this campus due to the Facebook post in question has been immensely positive, despite mid-ranking faculty (who I will neither name or indicate here) doing their absolute best to convince me otherwise. Not only am I wholly innocent of the charges at hand—because I neither harassed anyone, nor instigated disruptive behavior, but instead merely spoke the truth in a humorous fashion—but I have also created a conversation among students surrounding the restrictions of free speech on this campus, which is a highly necessary conversation.
He goes on to say that the dismay the officials allege he has caused is outweighed by the hundreds of students who have contacted him privately to express their support. He judges the investigation “a kangaroo court,” and the bias reports “laughable.” He has an anxiety disorder that has been aggravated by the whole thing, but “I do not view myself as a victim.” It was worth it, he concludes, “a necessary sacrifice for the sake of freedom of expression,” even if the experience was “insulting.”
Instead of accepting his discipline meekly, he proclaims the opposite: “My condemnation is something I wear as a badge of honor.”
If anybody wishes to have a copy of the full Indiana Wesleyan report, contact me and I shall forward it.