EDITORIAL: Tribal Frosh and the Tone of Campus Debate

The Tribune applauds the Management Undergraduate Society’s decision last week to change the name of their frosh week from “Tribal” to “Superhero,” though we are deeply concerned over the predictably hyperbolic reaction to the original idea.

The change came after howls of protest over the initial theme, and the online dissemination of a promotional video depicting a handful of Management students posing as members of various African and Central and South American tribes. MUS pulled the video from the Internet once the extent of oppositional fury become apparent, so some of us have not seen it. However, those who did were concerned by insensitive imitative attire and mock tribal dances. The decision to change the theme was right for several reasons.

First, Frosh is an environment in which the goal for many students goes no further than to get drunk and get laid. Regardless of the theme, Frosh is not a serious environment. It’s commendable for MUS to want, as they explained in their letter of apology, a Frosh that emphasized camaraderie and group cohesiveness. However, they should have realized that the chaotic environment in which the event takes place would inevitably undermine any benefits of such a theme.

Second, depictions like those in the MUS video reduce the complexities inherent in any society to simple, easily understandable, if not always accurate, stereotypes. We are divided over whether depictions of tribes are inherently offensive-of course, no one has a copyright on specific dress or movement. However, the fact that real tribes were chosen for depiction leaves little room for interpretation, and thus the concern over their stereotypical portrayal.

It’s also reductive to speak about indigenous societies only when referring to their experiences of oppression. They should be as fair game for discussion as established countries. Still, in light of injustice and adversity that cannot be ignored, some extra sensitivity is to be expected and is generally justified.

Yet the Tribune feels that there’s a lot more at issue here than the correctness of a single MUS decision and the poor taste of a previous one.

While the Tribal Frosh theme was insensitive, “racism” is a serious accusation. A term with more connotations than real definitions should not be used lightly. Nobody can be seriously convinced that Management students harbour a secret hatred of indigenous people. MUS did not intentionally spread hate and they did not incite anyone to violence.

We’re appalled, though certainly not surprised, by the breathless protests calling the original idea “imbued with white supremacy.” The tone and content of the anti-MUS campaign sounded all too familiar. A small subset of the student population claims to be offended-sometimes justifiably-by something said or done by a fellow student or administrator. Immediately-and baselessly-they assume the most malicious intent on the part of the supposed offender, and respond with fierce and accusatory language stolen from their professors and postcolonial studies textbooks. Eschewing any possibility of actually teaching anybody anything or trying sincerely to correct the perceived wrong, they hammer the opposition over the head until the latter submits to their overpowering will. It’s trigger-happy and desperate, a university-level version of bullying, hardly less brutal than if it were of the physical sort, which, as we saw during the Choose Life protests last year, it actually does occasionally become.

At the beginning of a new school year in which these types of controversies can only be expected to multiply, it’s important for everyone to consider what the proper goal is of debate on a university campus. Should it be to bludgeon others into compliance, or to share with them the insightful ways of thinking we have ourselves only recently discovered? Self-righteousness and antagonism make poor teachers. Serious and thoughtful discussion is something we would like to see more of.

Similarly, we need to re-examine the knee-jerk rapidity with which we generally assume the worst intentions on the part of our fellow students. Is there anything in our personal experience to which we can refer that would suggest our opponents live their lives with fundamentally less wholesome motives than we do ours? If not, does there remain any legitimate justification for the screeching temper tantrums some students immediately resort to upon deciding something has offended them?

The Tribune urges you to consider these questions, and the many ways in which you might personally contribute to or detract from what, if we all decided to give it a shot, might be a truly unique atmosphere of moral and intellectual education and boundless growth.

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