The word mad is politically incorrect these days, having been displaced by terminology that celebrates the insights of people with “different mental abilities.” But it really is the only word that will do to describe a recent act of censorship in Chicago.
In late February, a dance troupe from Robert Morris University (RMU) took part in a national competition in Minnesota organized by the United Performing Association. The student dancers frizzed their hair, smeared black make-up around their eyes, donned straitjackets, and executed a dance routine inspired, in a nutshell, by life in a lunatic asylum. To the strains of “Fast As You Can” by Fiona Apple, they wriggled, writhed, shook their thang, and finally ripped off their straitjackets to reveal the word “HELP” scrawled on their t-shirts.
They placed eighth. So it can’t have been the most memorable routine in the world. They packed away their mental-patient gear, de-frizzed their hair, and returned to normal university life. End of story.
Well, not quite. A few weeks later, Chrisa Hickey, a blogger who writes about mental-health issues, saw a photograph of the dancers on an Internet site and she didn’t like it. Not one bit. As the mother of a teen with a schizoaffective disorder she felt this image of young women pretending to be mad was offensive. So she complained to RMU. And this single complaint—from a woman who had not witnessed the dance or even known that it had taken place prior to stumbling across a photograph of it online—set in motion a chain of events that would transform the Robert Morris students’ lives forever.
After everyone from the Chicago Tribune to the Daily Mail in Britain picked up this story, the dancers were made to apologize for “any offence we may have caused.” Then the university itself issued an apologetic statement in which it said the costumes were indeed “inappropriate” (even though no one seems to have thought so when the dance was being performed) and assured Hickey that “they would not be worn again.” The dance routine would effectively be erased from history.
As if that wasn’t apologetic enough, as if desperate to prove that it was truly, abjectly sorry for allowing some of its students to dance as they saw fit, RMU went so far as to rewrite some of its fundamental rules. From now on, the university declared, dance troupes will have far less leeway to choose their own costumes—instead all outfits will have to be approved by the school itself and submitted to the same committee that okays the uniforms of sports teams.
The frizzy-haired dancers explained that they were tired of routines that aimed only to “look pretty and act sunny” and had wanted to do something more challenging, in keeping with the fact that dance is “a form of art and a great outlet of expression.” Now, with an Orwellian-style costume committee that will no doubt be more interested in preserving RMU’s reputation in the eyes of super-sensitive bloggers than in guaranteeing students’ right to free expression, what student will ever aim to go beyond “sunny and pretty” and do something a little edgier?
Finally, promised RMU in the wake of Straitjacketgate, the school will do more awareness-raising amongst students in order to “increase sensitivity toward people with [mental] disorders.” So not only will the school police dancing students’ glitter, tassels, and leotards, it will also police the student body’s thinking about mental illness.
In short, in response to a single, isolated act of vicarious offence-taking, where a woman who had not witnessed the dance routine decided on behalf of mentally ill people everywhere that a photograph of the dance routine was offensive, a university has banned said routine, censored the dancers, apologized, changed its rules on dance costumes, and stepped up its efforts to cleanse its students’ minds of allegedly insensitive, inappropriate thoughts about mentally ill people. I told you that the only word that could accurately describe these bizarre events is “mad.”
Why did a university so quickly and willingly genuflect to the complaints of one blogger? And why have media outlets across Chicago and elsewhere treated this weird episode as if it were perfectly normal? Chrisa Hickey, the blogger in question, gets all defensive when I ask her what she thinks about the impact of her complaint. “I surmise that you intend to write an article about how I am a soul-crushing busy-body,” she says (well, if the hat fits). But, she continues, “I never requested that the school censor or in any other way stop the team from dancing in whatever costumes they see fit.”
This is somewhat disingenuous; Hickey has not complained about RMU’s overreaction, which suggests she’s quite happy with it. But nonetheless Hickey does have a point: she didn’t explicitly demand censorship of the dancers and possible censorship of future routines. Instead, those things were offered up to her as a kind of sacrifice by RMU, with school officials desperately hoping they might appease the gods of sensitivity and media fury.
What Straitjacketgate really shows is the power of sensitivity today, its extraordinary influence over public life and freedom of expression. But this is a two-way process. It is not enough simply for someone to feel offended; there also must be spineless institutions willing to bow and scrape and promise never to do it again.
Indeed, the true power of the politics of offense-taking today, as Stefan Collini discusses in his new book That’s Offensive! Criticism, Identity, Respect, is contained in the cowardice of public institutions, from universities that ban dance routines to galleries that hide away awkward art to political groups that self-censor their speech. It is modern-day institutional cowardice, the deeply-held elite conviction that words and images are potentially hurtful, the notion that causing offense is the worst thing any respectable institution could ever do. This is what empowers “soul-crushing busy-bodies” like Hickey, it’s what allows individuals or tiny groups of people to wield enormous influence over what the rest of us can see or read or tap our feet to.
The top-down sanctification of self-esteem effectively grants people a license to be offended. It tells them: You are sensitive, you are weak, so don’t hesitate to moan about and potentially crush any image or words you find hurtful.
In this sense, RMU has set a dangerous precedent. In caving in to one letter from one woman, it has waved a red rag to those sections of society whose offense-antennae are permanently switched on, effectively inciting them to try the same thing with other universities. You might just be one person, but you too can bring a university to its knees!
Does RMU have any regrets about what it has done? Is it worried that it has sacrificed students’ free expression at the altar of blogger intolerance? Is it really up to a school to tell its dancing students what they can and cannot wear or how they can and cannot dance? Suddenly, after making all those promises and statements in relation to Straitjacketgate, RMU seems inexplicably shy. “No comment,” it tells me.