Pop tarts are dangerous—or at least they seemed that way to faculty at Park Elementary School in Baltimore and ended up as such for 7-year-old Josh Welch. He was suspended for two days after shaping his toaster-pastry into an approximate gun-shape; the school’s official letter said the “student used food to make an inappropriate gesture.”
Before you laugh—or cry—ask yourself if it would be more or less absurd if it had been a college student who was suspended for chewing a Danish into a sideways ‘L’ and saying “bang.”
Additionally, imagine that instead of shooting imaginary bullets with a pop tart, the college student had made a YouTube dance video based on the viral “Harlem Shake” meme. Such was the case for several students in student programs, who put a video of themselves, gyrating hips and all, on YouTube. Apparently the clip was “offensive” to certain staff members; it was promptly removed from YouTube and the students who participated had to write letters of apology about the incident to the assistant dean of student programs. Everyone in Student Programs has maintained a tight-lipped silence about the whole issue, since, as one member put it, “it’s no longer in [our] hands…we want to protect the student’s due process in case it becomes a bias incident.”
Wait, apologies for what? How can they get in trouble for a YouTube video? Why is this bad, even supposing it was as offensive as it has been portrayed? No one is forcing anyone else to go watch a video. There are countless YouTube videos that are far more disgusting than a Harlem Shake redux, videos that I choose not to watch because they bother me. I don’t ask for them to be removed; I just don’t watch them. Is that so hard?
The problem is two-fold. First of all, an extraordinarily large part of our society has been convinced that people have a right not to be offended. This is most tellingly proven by our own school’s bias incident policy. A bias incident, for those who aren’t familiar, is “conduct, speech, or behavior motivated by prejudice or a bias toward another person that does not rise to the level of a crime.” These are inherently subjective standards, of course. I might be offended by non-organic food, or by petroleum-based products or any number of other things but that doesn’t give me a right to take away other people’s rights to use these things. Like shooting pop tart guns, creating a less-than-perfectly politically correct video for YouTube is a “victimless crime.” Or, to be more accurate, is simply “victimless.”
Riding off of this non-existent right, the second part of the problem is that people have become convinced—sometimes even taught!—that they are victims. I’ll never forget interviewing a student earlier this quarter who said that another student had made him “feel inferior,” by bumping him in passing when the other student was trying to walk away from a verbal altercation. This sentiment is only reinforced by Bellevue College, which claims in its “Don’t Let the Haters Win” pamphlet that, “The college’s highest concern is for the emotional and physical well being of a person affected by a bias-motivated incident…” Really? I would have thought it would be education. I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s more than a little condescending that the school wants to protect me from having my feelings hurt, and I say this as someone who has been verbally attacked solely on the base of my race and gender. I can take care of myself, thanks, and I’m paying for an education, not for therapy.
Part of growing up is learning to live with other people, people who look differently, talk differently, think differently and find different things humorous. If people didn’t hear this as a child, it’s never too late to learn the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It would be one thing if students were jumping out of the screen and attacking people, but we walk a dangerous line in imposing “our” idea of what’s appropriate or inappropriate on others. What would the school do, I wonder, if someone claimed to be offended or hurt by these inescapable policies? The claim of offense at unconstitutional rules would certainly be more justified than someone claiming offense over a YouTube video they could just as easily not watch.