What We Talk About When We Talk About Not Letting Each Other Talk About Sensitive Issues

Okay, let’s take it from the top.

Three weeks ago, the Local Noodle received a picture of a CHEM 103 test with a question asking students to calculate lethal doses of gas as it was used in the Holocaust. We unanimously agreed it deserved to be publicly known and formally denounced, but had heard nothing from the administration. We waited a couple weeks, and still, even after spring break, heard nothing. Not from the administration, not from the Community Bias Response Team (CBRT), and not from The Campus, whom we knew were also aware of the incident. So, we drafted our article, and after some group reflection and deliberation, we decided it ought to be published. Thirty-six hours after our article went up, at 9:12 a.m. on a Sunday, without having reached out to us, the CBRT sent out an all-school email. In it, they denounced the test question, acknowledged the student initiative to decolonize the curriculum, and criticized our article, saying its “light handed references to and engagement with the Holocaust have caused additional harm.”

That email, in our mind, was inappropriate. The CBRT grouped our article into the same paragraph as the chemistry question and apologized for both together, as if the professor’s question was equally offensive as our attempt to bring it to light. This joint condemnation of both the question and our article was then reiterated in an all-grade email to the senior class and again in an email to Atwater Commons. These new emails also announced that motions were made for the entire faculty, and yours truly, to have to attend sensitivity training, still without any attempt to contact The Noodle. (We reached out to the CBRT on Sunday and have yet to hear back from them, or from any other administrative body.)

Let’s pause.

This was not the CBRT’s attempt to give us feedback. It was not an attempt to respectfully open dialogue about this incident, or the implications of our article. It was a strong-arm tactic used by the administration to scare a student publication. It’s a way to publicly shame The Noodle, to make a show of denunciation while covering their asses. The CBRT did not explain their accusation beyond the fact that we “caused additional harm.” They don’t say to whom, or in what way, or why. This email was meant to clean up the CBRT’s image and deprecate the group that called attention to their initial failure.

As an editorial board, we struggled to figure out whether and how to respond to this shaming. Our initial thought was to issue a rote apology, because given how such denunciations typically unfold, we feared that defending our article would automatically be perceived as insensitive and ignorant. We nonetheless decided to respond because we think that not doing so would be a missed opportunity to have a serious discussion about who we are as a campus, and how we protect the role of social criticism even if it touches on sensitive topics.

It’s okay to critique satire. We are more than happy to hear and talk about when we may, in our attempt to expose abuses of power, bump up too hard against protected social values. But the CBRT did not try to engage in this conversation. It flattened the complexity of our article into a misstep, as a way to blame us and defend its own passivity and lack of public response.

In doing so, the CBRT shifted the conversation. They distracted it from the thing we ought to be focusing on — like, say, the actual test question, and their own public inaction — to a debate about whether our article is offensive. The truth is, like with any hard-hitting satire, some people will think our article was offensive, some will think it wasn’t, and there’s not much good trying to convince people one way or another. We stand by the publication of this article the way it is, but, to any who were hurt by it, we do honestly assert that was not our intention.

From what we’ve heard, most of the specific feedback has centered on the name choice of Richard Klement. To address this directly: this was unintentional. Our idea was to Anglicize the name Ricardo Klement, the pseudonym Eichmann used when he moved to Argentina. The fact that Richard Klement also happens to be the name of a Holocaust victim was a total accident. We appreciated the direct feedback on this because it helped us clear up a misunderstanding that had nothing to do with the satirical purpose of the piece.

Satire’s goal has never been to win everyone over. It uses tools like absurdism and irony to make its point, but its goal is to offer very real and constructive social criticism. It’s inherently provocative and uses humor to draw attention to social actors and reflect their failings back at them. Inevitably, satire echoes those failings, and thus can easily be confused with the wrong it seeks to criticize.

In this case, we feel like the public conversation surrounding this incident has been distracted by our article, when it could — and should— be directed at the things we ought to be talking about: an appallingly insensitive chemistry question. The fact that a professor asked students to calculate the mechanics of a gas chamber used in the Holocaust is unthinkable. The fact that the CBRT was not planning on publicly addressing it, even though news of it had spread amongst students feels unfathomable.

But at this point, the debate over our critique has taken on a life of its own, as evidenced by the mass reaction. Something seems to have struck a deeper note. What’s prompting such a forceful response, from students and faculty alike? Clearly it’s something much bigger than the question of whether a satirical article does or doesn’t cross the line.

We believe that the CBRT answered that question in their vague, blanketing critique of our article. The offense, again in their words, was “light handed references to and engagement with the Holocaust.” The fact that that was the only explanation of the “additional harm” our article caused highlights a questionable cultural norm: the idea that engagement with a sensitive topic, just by the nature of its engagement, must conform to a certain script or run the risk of being labeled as harmful.

Yes, we called attention to a problem, and yes, we did it in a provocative way, but that is the point of satire and of our publication. We aren’t saying we did it perfectly. But to condemn the article in such a reflexive and public way preemptively silences any constructive discussion of the topic. Such a reaction is antithetical to open conversation, and it speaks to a larger trend on our campus of fear-based self-censorship around topics that should and need to be to discussed.

We would like to use this platform to make a broader argument: that as a campus, we should be able to authentically engage with sensitive issues, free from the fear of being labeled, shamed, and denied the opportunity to open dialogue. If not, we’ll build barriers to engagement with the things that divide us— the very things that need engagement most.

The Local Noodle is a student-run satirical newspaper.

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Not Letting Each Other Talk About Sensitive Issues”

  1. Lisa Deutscher on April 10th, 2019 11:09 pm

    Well said! Keep up the good work!

  2. Jay H. on April 12th, 2019 11:25 am

    This gives me hope for the future of Middlebury College and the direction of our public discourse in general.

  3. CK on April 16th, 2019 8:38 pm

    Bravo! Good job students all around, and a win for free speech. If they try to shut you down or pull your funding, call me. This is what student publications are supposed to do.




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What We Talk About When We Talk About Not Letting Each Other Talk About Sensitive Issues