An Offensive Voice

Racist stereotypes have no place in campus satire

The Harvard Voice, a group on campus that runs a satire blog called “Noice,” has come under critique for a post that appeared on its blog last week. The post, entitled “5 People You’ll See at Pre-Interview Receptions,” attempted to present a “satirical” take on the types of people who turn up to on-campus recruiting events. The author unfortunately included the category “The Asian,” noting that Asian Harvard students at recruiting events all dress similarly and are “practically indistinguishable from one another, but it’s okay.” A few days after it was originally published, the post remains, but the second category has been changed to “The Super-Interviewee.”

Of the many ridiculous elements of this situation, one was the litany of editors’ notes and unexplained corrections that appeared on the blog post in succession. For example, the author of the piece was changed from “The Voice Staff” to the not-much-more-elucidating “Anonymous.” The Voice also published different versions of an editors’ note while it repeatedly revised the article to edit out racist content. Notably, the author of the piece also left a comment, which read in part, “Clearly, I’ve been censored, which in itself is an interesting reflection on free speech in America. If you couldn’t tell that this article was satire, then we have bigger problems than me being ‘offensive.’”

Although this particular post has come to national media attention—perhaps in part because of the editors’ ridiculously poor ability to recognize and handle offensive writing—this kind of satire is not new to the Voice’s blog. For example, a post written last year entitled “Ten Guys You’ll Meet at Harvard” joked about “The one who’s gay” that “The Harvard homosexual guy is well-dressed, charming, good-looking, smart and gets you… Except that it’s physiologically impossible. Unless you drug him or something.”

Every publication should strive to exclude content that is explicitly or implicitly oppressive, be it, for example, racist, sexist, or homophobic. Of course, The Crimson has not always been perfect itself in this regard—for example, as news writer Amy L. Weiss-Meyer noted in her story about the blog post controversy, the Crimson published an offensive endpaper about ten years ago that made similar generalizations about Asians on campus. Promulgating racial stereotypes, even in the name of humor, promotes a wider social fragmentation that is sadly very real on campus. And it should be clear that neither the ethnicity of nor the intent at humor by an author matter if the content produced simply serves to reinforce the kind of problematic stereotypes that oppress groups of people.

Importantly, a paper or publication redacting offensive content, or refusing to publish it in the first place, is not a limitation of anyone’s free speech. The writer who penned a “note from the writer”—and others who have protested that “censoring” offensive content by refusing to publish it is a limitation of freedom—demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of free speech as well as a poor standard of journalism. A publication has the right to decide what kind of speech or writing is acceptable for inclusion. Deciding not to publish or to remove oppressive content is not an inhibition of anyone’s free speech, and is an important measure for editors who strive to make their publications decent, just, and well-respected.

We do appreciate the apology posted yesterday on the Voice’s blog by the Voice’s co-president and editor, April A. Sperry '13. The apology noted, “The Voice is not always politically correct, but it never actively aims to hurt or insult. Snarky and pithy writing is amusing—offensive writing is not… hyperbole, humor, and social commentary can all happen without singling out a person or group of people. Talking pejoratively about Asian students in the recruiting process was both unnecessary and uncalled for.”

We agree with Sperry that there are plenty of ways to do satire that are not offensive yet still funny. Unfortunately, it seems that the writers of the Voice haven’t caught on to them. Of course, there are also ways to attempt to do satire that simply aren’t funny at all. If that’s your thing, you might want to comp the semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.

No matter what, though, campus publications and their writers should not publish racist or otherwise oppressive commentary. Like it or not, one does hear these kinds of stereotypes in the Harvard community. The fact that Noice’s post has brought this problem to national attention makes it an all the more unfortunate contribution to discourse at Harvard.

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