An interesting news item popped up this week. Of course, that could be said at any time these days. This one came out of the great state of Oklahoma. I know calling Oklahoma great around these parts is akin to sacrilege, but bear with me as I flesh out the details. Apparently, some of the members of the fraternity SAE decided it would be funny to sing a racist chant on the bus before or after one of their formals. So far, the university and the national fraternity office have responded by eliminating the chapter from the university and national rolls. Members had about 24 hours to come to the frat house and clear out their stuff.
You can Youtube the video if you are really inclined to hear it. I feel no need to forward it as it is disgusting and completely devoid of any social value. You can also google the letter from the president of the University of Oklahoma. I give him kudos for his measured and pointed response to the incident. So far, no one has really been hurt. I managed to go through four years of school without belonging to a fraternity. It isn’t completely necessary to the college experience. This of course isn’t to trash those that did belong. That group includes my father. Simply put, in the grand scheme of things, belonging to fraternity or not does not register in the pantheon of life’s important things.
From here, the university is toying with the idea of expelling some or all of the participants that can be identified. In general, all of us would prefer in our gut for justice to be swift and sweeping. Someone wise once said that justice delayed is justice denied. However, people can never really agree on what is just in just about any situation. On the one extreme, you have those that would argue that these kids were just exercising their freedom of speech and expression and should not be punished at all. On the other hand, you have those that would want them expelled, flogged, and beaten with a wet noodle.
To me, both extremes seem silly. The first amendment was only designed to prevent government from imprisoning those for their thoughts and words. It doesn’t prevent you from suffering consequences for your speech. Most of the companies we work for have clauses in our contracts that allows them to discipline or fire us if our speech or actions publicly embarrasses them. I wouldn’t have it any other way. On the flip side, we really have to ask ourselves what the appropriate punishment is in this case. For me, that depends on which individual in the video we are talking about. In any situation I find myself asking two questions:
1) Is the person redeemable?
2) If they are redeemable, how can they best learn from their actions?
We have to start with the notion that not everyone is redeemable. That doesn’t necessarily mean we kill them on the spot. However, there are those that should never see the light of day again. None of these kids are in that category per se, but some of them have attitudes that have been bred into them. The ring leaders of the video are likely never going to truly internalize why their actions were wrong or offensive. So, whatever punishment you give them is not likely going to create an opportunity for them to gain any true insight into their actions. They will understand that what they did was wrong in the sense that they know they broke the rules. Unfortunately, that will be the extent of their understanding in the matter.
We can take heart in that their punishment is beyond anything officially handed down. If they are expelled they will not be able to earn a degree from the University of Oklahoma. It also likely will be a while before they are hired to do anything beyond a minimum wage type of job. Most companies do google checks on their perspective employees. The video will crop up and the stories related to the video will crop up. Yet, this kind of banishment is a double edged sword. For the warped mind, being black balled from any meaningful employment will have more to do with the black than anything these individuals may have done. This is how the warped mind works. In that vain, any punishment will actually have the opposite intended affect on those particular individuals. They will get to pass down to their children how the university “did them wrong” and how when they spoke their “truth” about black people, the man ruined their life.
The salient fact remains that there were others on that bus. They may have been singing along, clapping, or just sitting there. The other fact remains that at least one person didn’t approve. That person took the video and released it to the world. Expelling all of those people would be a grave mistake. It goes to the first question posed above: are they redeemable. Assigning things like “sensitivity training” seems naive and stupid. Attitudes are what they are and you aren’t going to change them. The greater answer is that you want to find out where everyone is coming from. Are they really racists or were they wrapped up in a culture where it is easier to go along with the herd than to take a stand?
Those are the people we want to redeem. Those are the people that can learn from the situation. All of the members of SAE have suffered something in this situation. Their fraternity is no more. So, even the ones not on the bus have suffered the same fate as the ring leaders. If you expel the ring leaders and spare the rest you show them there is proportional consequences for our actions. So, I would stop short of sending the rest to sensitivity training, but we could send them to “grow a backbone” school so they can stand up to injustice when they see it. Being an idiot may not be against the law, but idiocy does have consequences. Being a mouse is also not against the law. It also has consequences.