The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not "Just Trolling"

This past year, Oberlin College, generally known for being liberal and inclusive, had a series of bias incidents–or, more specifically, hate crimes. Notes with swastikas were left in mailboxes, flyers advertising minority groups were defaced, signs were put up with ethnic slurs on them, and several students were physically assaulted or chased by people making derogatory ethnic comments. It all culminated when someone was seen on campus wearing, I kid you not, a KKK costume.

Recently, it’s come to light that the two students who did it were supposedly quite liberal. One worked on the Obama campaign and was apparently involved with some local anti-racist group. Some conservatives have seized on this as evidence that the bias incidents were just “a hoax.” Angus Johnson writes:

The Daily Caller cites Bleier’s support for Obama and his membership in an anti-racism organization as evidence that the hate crimes were false-flag hoaxes, but the student allegedly told campus police that he was simply trolling — that he performed the acts as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”

He concludes:

A sustained campaign of bigoted vandalism that has the intent and effect of provoking fear and panic among the members of your community may be a hoax, but it’s also something else.

It’s a bias crime.

Oberlin’s official response to the speculation about the perpetrators’ motives is excellent:

These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real. While Oberlin College takes great pride in its historic and ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respectful discussion of ideas, we draw the line at threats and harassment of any kind.

We will not tolerate acts of hatred and threats of violence regardless of motivation. We are proud of the way our community came together to respond to these incidents with education, discussion, and reflection. As Oberlin’s people have since our founding in 1833, we will continue striving to make the world better for all through education and discourse based on reason, facts, and respect.

At first, I was a little surprised that people think it matters whether or not the perpetrators were “joking” or “trolling.” The harm was done, right? But then I wasn’t surprised anymore, because I realized something.

These “trolls,” and everyone who complains about “political correctness,” are misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about hate speech. They think we’re trying to tell them that certain words are Just Bad, the way social conservatives think that premarital sex or masturbation are Just Bad. They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it.

They think that we believe that shouting the n-word in a forest where nobody hears it as just as bad as shouting the n-word in the lobby of the Black Student Union.

What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

We had a bunch of racist incidents at my undergrad school while I was there. Nothing quite as serious as the Oberlin incidents, but enough to rile the campus up and provoke administrative response. I saw the toll that it took on my classmates who were targeted. I watched them go from feeling like a part of the campus community to feeling like nobody wanted them there. I watched as their peaceful, powerful demonstrations against campus racism were deemed “divisive,” while wearing blackface (yes, that happened) to a Halloween party was apparently not “divisive.”

Hate speech is ethically wrong because it hurts people needlessly and accomplishes no good, not because the words are Bad and you just shouldn’t use them.

Likewise, as funny as you might think it is when university administrations respond strongly to hate speech (and as ineffective as their methods might be, which is a worthwhile aspect to critique), they’re not doing it because they’re Holier Than Thou Liberals; they’re doing it because it’s their job to ensure that they have a campus where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where everyone can devote their attention to learning and enjoying themselves and not to scrubbing racist graffiti off their doors.

That’s why it doesn’t matter why the students who blanketed their campus with hate speech did it. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were trying to make some Brilliant Point About the Human Condition. It doesn’t matter that they seem to have contributed to progressive causes in the past, or that they were trying to make fun of the administration rather than harass their fellow students.

It doesn’t matter, because you don’t know why someone wrote “No N*****s” on your bathroom door. It doesn’t matter, because no matter what the intent was, you and your identity have been used without your consent to make a joke or a statement. You have become a football lobbed by bored white boys at a university administration that they take issue with but can’t be bothered to address in a responsible, mature way.

Your painful history–the enslavement and abuse of your ancestors, or their internment and murder in concentration camps–are just a prop in a skit that you never auditioned to act in. The words that were invented specifically to make people like you seem less than human are now used to make some sort of grand statement about how we “overreact” to things.

When it comes to hate speech, I really don’t care how you feel in your heart of hearts. Maybe you really, really love women and Blacks and gays and Jews but just think it’s soooo funny when everyone gets up in arms about a swastika in a professor’s mailbox.

I’d encourage you, then, to find a way to indulge your idiosyncratic taste for humor in some way that doesn’t involve hurting and terrorizing others.

The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not "Just Trolling"

35 thoughts on “The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not "Just Trolling"

  1. 1

    This relates heavily to PZ, Jason & especially Avicenna, who certain people have been accusing of rape lately, then arguing it’s OK because they were doing it to make a point. You don’t get to drag in unwilling and unaware people to be props in your point.

      1. I’m not talking about satire or parody. My point is that, if someone’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of an actual bigot, it’s meaningless to claim not to be bigoted. The practical, real world effect is exactly the same.

  2. Pen

    Yes, because trolling isn’t ‘just’ trolling!

    (Mild devil’s advocate warning on what follows)

    Let’s say Bleier sincerely believes that some types of racist incident should be treated with the contempt and dismissal he thinks they deserve instead of an active response. He genuinely believes this would be best for everyone. His proper course of action is to say so and defend his view as vigorously as he sees fit. Not to carry out racist incidents in the hope of making the institution look so silly it changes its approach. There are channels for free speech, the only problem being that he’s likely to get lambasted rather than making other people unhappy. I think he should have enough courage of his convictions to take that risk (and also that others should treat his person, if not his opinion, with normal respect if he did so).

    The same applies, as Ace of Sevens said, to the action campaign of the MRAs over rape allegations. It’s the same with all social change. You have to campaign to obtain the consent of your community to whatever change you want. If you decide, in extremis, to resort to civil disobedience, you know you will almost certainly suffer whatever sanctions your community has chosen to apply.

  3. 5

    Wile I think Oberlin’s statement was excellent, I think that the response of the school when the incidents happened was unfortunate. Shutting down the school was giving these creeps too much power, regardless of what they say their motivation was. “You can’t scare us.” would have been much better, sending a better message to both the students and the creeps.

    1. 5.1

      …while leaving black people to bear the brunt of your braggadocio? well, thanks for thinking about the safety of the people being targeted before your Clint Eastwood image.

      I for one am glad that they did shut the school down instead of making some sabre-rattling double dog dare to up the fucking stakes, but maybe i just think that because I’m black and so I was the one who was in any danger, theoretical ha ha just joking danger or actual danger. and because of that, my feelings and thought on the matter or Too Angry and Savage to be taken into account.

      If it hadn’t turned out to just be hipster racist douchebags doing it for the irony, your way could have given someone an all expense paid trip to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, assuming survival of course. but who cares about that, eh?

    2. 5.2

      But they DID NOT shut down the school. They cancelled classes and the entire student body and many administrators and faculty came together in an assembly to speak out against intolerance and to celebrate the values of the Oberlin campus community. This and related activities sent a very powerful message to the perpetrators.

  4. 6

    Yup. Intent =/= Magic. Like that video ‘Asian Girlz’ by those asshats Day Above Ground. No amount of explanation can polish that turd.

    I stand unimpressed with the post hoc rationalizations by so-called allies, especially when they shout ‘political correctness has run amok’, and their only way to push this narrative is to be as demeaning and hateful as possible.

  5. 7

    When it comes to ‘it’s just a joke’ if you can create a climate of serious fear among a population, you’re just being an asshole, and the only people laughing are your over-privileged buddies who don’t need to worry about being targeted by people who use ethnic slurs and wear KKK hoods.

    Isn’t part of being *not racist* trying to understand the perspectives of minorities, and isn’t part of that realizing that certain ‘jokes’ that might seem funny to a bunch of white guys is not going to seem that funny to the rest of the population? Yeah, a bunch of white guys might *ironically* use racial slurs or the term ‘fag’ but how does this sound to the people who those slurs apply to?

    On the idea of a ‘hoax’ which prompted ‘overreaction’ would conservatives be so quick to dismiss a false bomb scare that causes a city to be shut down to be an example of ‘militarism run amok’ where people *are overreacting to a joke?* That’s all I can think of as analogous to this.

  6. 9

    who did it were supposedly quite liberal

    Democrats and the KKK have been quite fond of each other, so no real element of surprise there… if you believe in the “trolling” version offered by the lads, be my guest.

  7. 12

    Also, Democrat != liberal, progressive.

    These guys are full of shit because there are millions of ways to make some sort of point, including via hoaxes, which don’t involve punching down.

    Back in the day, I recall a segment of the student population who did actually use “politically correct” in a positive way, which kind of drove me nuts. I knew what they meant, but they were using the enemy’s disparaging phrase to do it. Quite liberal, but bandwagon-y almost to a fault. If the climate is still similar, I can see someone with a certain attitude wanting to have a poke at aspects of the culture, but these jerks described above are waaaaaay off base, causing pain with their horrible behavior. Also, ineffective regarding their stated intents.

  8. 13

    Whiggle and whine as much as you like, fact remains fact: They did it.

    Either they did it out of conviction or they did it as a false-flag operation. “Hoax” is not an alternative explanation, because it contains no explanation. It’s a content-free cop-out.

    It doesn’t matter if you trample down on people because you want to, or if you trample down on people because you don’t give a sh*t about hurting them. In either case, these boys are rampant racists.

    However, that raises a…

    Question: How do you reconcile the boys’ wrongdoing with their liberal “activism” ?
    Answer : That would only be an insurmountable obstacle if the two were based on mutually exclusive principles. But you know bloody well they aren’t.

    1. 13.1

      You seem to be ignoring or dismissing the explanation given, which is that they did it to test the administration because they thought they would respond badly and they could go after them for their lack of dedication to social justice. This would speak badly to their understanding of social justice and suggest they were in it to score activism points instead of actually helping people, but I do think it’s meaningfully different than a false flag.

      1. Actually, the boys themselves made it sound like they did it for teh lulz, not to actually “test” the administration in any meaningful way. So yeah, they did it to see the administration “overreact,” but not in order to point out that change is needed, but just because it’s funny to them.

        1. It’s not exactly clear, but you may be right. It seems they thought of the victim here as being the stuffy old dean and the university administration because it would make those stuffed shirts look bad. They don’t seem to have cared how it would affect the black students and likely never even considered it.

  9. 14

    Tiberius, wiggle and wine all you like, but you know bloody well the conservative side of the aisle PRIDES ITS ASS ON BEING RACIST AS FUCK. Or maybe I was wrong to say you know better and were just starting shit, because you seem to be doubling down on that blatantly wrong position.

    Yes, we’re aware of the history of southern democrats being the main proponents of Jim Crow laws, and of the hypocrisy of blinkered privileged jackasses who are progressive on one hand and shitty on the other, and of the lingering presence of democrats who are sheisty moderates at best – like, oh, say, Obama. The position you are putting forth is absolutely inconsistent with the contemporary understanding of progressive politics,

    Whereas xenophobia, race baiting, and racist dog whistles are par for the course on the conservative side. I’ll never forget when the 2008 candidate (who had previously opposed to the creation of MLK day) had to struggle to keep the lid on the racist grandmas in his audience.

    “I don’t trust Barrack Obama… He’s an arab.”

    “No, I know him and he’s not arab, he’s a christian and a good family man, etc…”

    He couldn’t even do that without being ignorant and racist. The right thing to say would have been “He isn’t an arab and he’d be a perfectly acceptable American and candidate for president if he was.” Instead he defended Obama by conceding that being an arab is undesirable, and erased the existence of Christian arabs.

    1. 15.1

      Well, they claimed that they were responsible for some but not all of the bias incidents (I’m not sure if that includes the assaults). If they told the truth, that suggests that their actions inspired copycat crimes, which makes sense. Doing things like what they did creates a norm that suggests to others that such behavior is acceptable, so others start doing it. One more way that such “jokes” can be terribly harmful.

          1. I.e. as you said, if the assaults and or chasing were carried out by copycats, the behaviour by the ‘trolls’ made it appear OK, or at least alloed the copycats to feel part of a bigger group, thus sort of normalising negative behaviour and actions.

  10. 16

    “Shock” displays might work in the context of a play or setting which is enclosed and seen not as part of reality (e.g. the “have a nice day” smileys on KKK robes in “Blazing Saddles”, “springtime for hitler” in “The Producers”). One can get away with it if one has a point and the point is understood by the audience.

    But if people don’t know it’s coming, there’s no way such acts can or should be tolerated. It wasn’t trolling, what happened at that college was the equivalent of Michael Richards’ racist rants in a comedy club back in 2006. The only thing that’s “edgy” about it is the metaphorical knife with which they are slitting their own throats.

  11. 17

    Yea, holding up a store with a fake gun gets the same punishment as holding up a store with a real gun. They are both considered Assault.

    From the storeowner’s point of view, you are terrifying and threatening him. He thinks his life is at risk. Saying afterward that the gun is fake is not a defense.

    I consider this the same kind of thing.

  12. 18

    There are people who may publicly claim to be liberal, but harbor genuine private sympathy for bigots. Who is to say what their real views were? A person is what they do. Were they liberals pretending to be bigots in some strange way, or bigots pretending to be liberals?

  13. 19

    They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it….What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

    Well put! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think you’re spot on. That suddenly puts a lot of arguments I’ve had over “PC” in a different light.
    And the analogy to a bomb threat is apropos as well: it makes no difference if you meant it as a joke or not. At most, your “good intentions” might let you plead for a more merciful sentence, but they won’t make you any less guilty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.