The Monopoly of Offense

At Harvard, multicultural sensitivity extends only so far

Harvard College prides itself on a diverse student body, a restless social conscience and concern for the less fortunate, and, of course, a boundless tolerance for all cultures, creeds, and sexual pastimes.

Indeed, the slightest insensitive insinuation is roundly condemned, its perpetrators publicly renounced, and multicultural organizations tasked to host community “conversations” and “raise awareness” to repair the damage. One need not unduly exert his memory to find copious examples. The Salient—Harvard’s impeccably edited premier journal of opinion—several years ago printed a parody of a Barbie-type doll marketed in the Middle East to criticize some of the more repressive policies of the region’s regimes. Unsurprisingly, many campus Muslims interpreted this spoof as a slight to their religion and released a deluge of offended dispatches to House e-mail lists as well as pointed Crimson opinion pieces and letters to the editor. All of this culminated in a session of hand-wringing and finger-pointing, sponsored by the healers at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.

More recently, a Crimson sports columnist criticized Dartmouth’s politically correct apology for scheduling a hockey game against an opponent with an Indian mascot. He ended his remarks with what, in retrospect, seemed like an ill-advised turn of phrase, speculating that, had the Harvard ladies’ basketball team played Arkansas State, “the Crimson would’ve slaughtered the Indians.” As expected, the Native American community responded with a shrill round of protests and recriminations—the most dramatic of all from a freshman of the Shinnecock tribe, describing how “the image that went into my head was me, my baby cousin, and my family lying dead in a pool of blood.”

Indignant and self-righteous responses to real or perceived provocations, indeed, have remained a constant fixture in the Harvard multicultural dialogue. S. Allen Counter, the gregarious and garrulous head of the Harvard Foundation, is himself prone to overwrought bursts of sentiment on such occasions. Amid the infamous “Quad incident” of 2007, Dr. Counter denounced the “apartheid techniques” of the Harvard University Police, who, responding to calls, had checked the IDs of Black Student Association picnickers and allowed their field day to continue unmolested. Dr. Counter is not above retaliatory insinuations himself, either—as he once labeled his media critics as “Crimson writers active in Hillel.”

So, in a college community where possible insensitivity is often handled, so to speak, insensitively, one ought to expect any violations—intentional or not—to be descried and those offended to be succored. Yet recent events in Eliot House demonstrate exactly the limits of open-mindedness and the extent of hypocrisy.

The most apparently popular submission for the Eliot House freshman day T-shirt featured the likeness of House Master Lino Pertile as the character of Don Vito Corleone, the eponymous crime boss in The Godfather. An Eliot House resident, who was also a member of the Italian American Association, had written to the e-mail list explaining that the implicit association of “mobsters” with Italian culture still offends many people who share her heritage and requested they consider another design for the shirt. The message was polite, made no accusations, and presumed upon Harvard students’ justly famous cultural understanding.

To the contrary, many did not conform to that benevolent stereotype. Many contributors to the Eliot e-mail list feigned outrage that “political correctness” could impede upon their Housing Day festivities. Others dismissed her concern as baseless or even insulting to other groups who have to endure apparently more hurtful discrimination. One respondent even marshaled statistics to demonstrate the factual basis for the association between Italians and organized crime. Many did not eschew ad hominem attacks—or harassing phone calls, angry personal e-mails, and judgmental stares in the dining hall.

Pertile, in an e-mail circulated throughout the House, explained that he personally did not find the shirt design offensive but understood how many could and especially was worried that it might put off some of the incoming freshmen. Such prudence, indeed, eluded many in the Eliot House community for days—some of whom, as members of minority cultural groups, expectedly would have been more sympathetic to how certain stereotypes can offend.

If Harvard should continue to boast of its politically correct values and dedication to multicultural awareness and understanding, it ought to extend that sensitivity to every culture. To question whether Italian-Americans deserve that consideration—being largely considered, on everything from census forms to college applications, as generically “white”—or whether the mobster stereotype legitimately can offend is unfair. Certainly few questioned the rights of Native Americans and Muslims to cavil about The Salient or the Crimson sports page for their commentary. In this instance, however, the parody of The Godfather does not intend to illuminate any larger issue, political or cultural—it is admittedly a joke. To the critical observer of collegiate political correctness, this episode begs the question: Where is the outrage? Where is the consistency? Where, we may wonder, is Dr. Counter?

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House and the editor emeritus of The Salient. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.