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Category: Feminism, Education

Lewd, Hateful Language Should Have No Place in Campus Debate

| March 14, 2012

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An anticipated commencement address set off a rhetorical firestorm that sickened the author, a Barnard undergrad who calls for action by her campus community.

Tuesday morning last week I phoned my parents—a rare occurrence for a weekday. As a 21-year-old undergrad at Barnard College, I'm usually too busy to call for a chat. But they’re still the people I want to talk to when I’m feeling sick, or hurt, or sad. And I was feeling all three after reading the 864 (and counting) comments that have been posted on Columbia University’s student-run online blog, “Bwog,”  in response to the news that Barack Obama will be speaking at the 2012 Barnard commencement of Barnard College.

Columbia and Barnard students have been using President Obama's impending visit as an opportunity to launch into a broader conversation about the two institutions' often confusing relationship. Both colleges maintain an independent admissions process, endowment, and curriculum, but give their students access to the classes and facilities of the other.

The comments on Bwog run the gamut of opinions. Some posts by Columbia students say they’re rankled by the fact that Barnard students get access to Columbia without going through its more competitive admissions process. In others, Barnard students insist that the classes offered at Barnard are just as rigorous as those offered at Columbia, and that the academic superiority they perceive many Columbia students to feel is undeserved. None of this bothered me. What did was the profoundly disturbing number of lewd, misogynistic, and hateful comments that sprouted up among the rest.

Some of these comments were so obscene—"slut" being one of the tamer terms used—that I couldn’t even bring myself to summarize them in later conversations. In a New York Times article, Richard Pérez-Peña likened the Bwog comments to the “hair-pulling,” and “eye-gouging” of a schoolyard brawl. I don’t know if the worst went up after he surveyed them, but the image of school children roughing each other up at recess doesn’t convey the appalling vitriol that some of these comments contain.

What struck many of us at Barnard was the focus of this hostility on Barnard women’s bodies and what they choose to do with them. Written by both men and women, the comments spotlight the purported sexual habits of Barnard students, suggesting, for example, that Barnard women spend more time refining their sexual techniques than studying. What’s worse is that this rhetoric is familiar, echoing that of Rush Limbaugh when he labeled Georgetown student Sarah Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute,” because she advocated for women’s access to contraceptives. And none of the Republican presidential candidates have censured him for them. Santorum made the excuse that Limbaugh is an entertainer and that’s what entertainers do, while Romney just said: “it’s not the language I would have used.”

The ambivalence that’s playing out in the administrations uptown is almost as bad. Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, initially diminished the hate rhetoric on Bwog, saying that the “harsh” comments “reflect the view of hardly more than just few people.” Deborah Spar, Barnard’s president, who is herself such a powerful female role model for students like me, brushed off the comments as “probably…19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” Together in a statement they said, “we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community.”

Such verbal shrugging falls short of what’s needed from Spar and Bollinger, especially in light of the war being waged on women in this country and the commentary of people like Limbaugh. It may be true that only a handful of Columbia students are responsible for the comments, but the fact that such ugly things are being voiced at all needs to be thoroughly, unequivocally condemned. After all, where does misogyny begin?

The comments signal a mentality that corrupts our college communities with very real consequences. A 2010 Department of Justice Study found that about 25 percent of college women have been victims of sexual assault. At Barnard, I've watched one of my dearest friends endure a physically and verbally abusive relationship in which her partner pressured her to wear revealing clothes while disparaging her physique.

Another of my friends was told by a male Columbia pal that Barnard is an antiquated institution that fabricates gender issues out of thin air and “otherizes” men. He seemed to think Barnard widens inequities between men and women by acknowledging them. And yet, women still account for only 16.8 percent of Congress.  We are responsible for less than 20 percent of op-eds written in the United States—one of the key vehicles for thought leadership.  We make 77 cents to the male dollar. Obama’s choice to speak at Barnard highlights the fact that he thinks women’s issues are still of supreme importance.

If the objectionable posts only reflect the opinions of a handful of students, then the student bodies of both schools need to make that clear—to one another, and to the many watching this embarrassment unfold on our campus forums. According to a Columbia Spectator report, petitions have begun circulating condemning the sexist Bwog comments, and Facebook groups have been set up to “take a stand against the anonymous mud-slinging.” This is a good start, but sexism doesn’t evaporate with a signature or an on-line conversation among like-minded students.

We need to be absolutely vigilant in our efforts to quash misogyny, because it is all around us. I’ve been called a whore by a friend because I beat him at a party game. When I did policy debate in high school it was commonly known that some judges would mark female speakers down for being “bitchy” while marking male speakers up for the same behavior, calling it “assertiveness.” I have friends who complain that their boyfriends and sexual partners think that porn provides a model of healthy sexual relationships. We need to recognize as a community of young men and women that these things are not okay. They amount to a culture of misogyny that perpetuates violence and gross inequity.

The Columbia and Barnard administrations need to up the ante as well. Spar and Bollinger must make it clear that this hateful rhetoric is not to be tolerated. There are no two sides of the aisle to misogyny. The institutions are preparing 8,090 young individuals to assume roles of influence in the world. That training needs to include lessons in respect.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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