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April is already the cruelest month. The evil of the month is sufficient thereto. So why ever compound its cruelty with a harshness of our own making?
I don't know whether sophomore Chelsea Diana asked this precise existential question when last Tuesday she was forced to resign as editor of the independent student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, at Boston University, because of the backlash against a misguided April Fools issue of that paper. In the mock print edition released the day before, emblazoned with the title, The Disney Free Press (in the familiar Walt Disney font -- a copyright violation already?), the lead story reported how seven fraternity "bros" had raped a girl who was "the fairest of them all" after her drink was "roofied" (that is, laced with the sleep and amnesia inducing drug, flunitrazepam). Other stories included one about Cinderella being arrested on prostitution charges and another on Alice in Wonderland buying LSD from a fraternity.
Consider that in recent weeks two BU hockey players were arrested for sexual assault on women, resulting in rallies and much consciousness raising, and you can understand how this "parody" would have struck many in the BU community as about as funny as a parody of the Trayvon Martin case.
The questions about this matter internal to the Boston University community do not interest me here: Instead of being forced to resign, should Chelsea, a student, not have been allowed to deal with her mistake as a chance to grow and learn? If she should have resigned, why should only she have done so and not also the authors of the articles? Can Boston University really disclaim responsibility, on the grounds that the newspaper is independent, when only last year the university gave an outright gift to the paper of $70,000?
I also agree with those critics who say that this one incident should not detract from the paper's reputation for good journalism, as for instance its valuable story last year about a BU writing professor who was not showing up for class, while drawing a high six-figure salary, because she was on the road for weeks on end promoting her latest book. (A dean excused it; the celebrity professor was never disciplined; and the students' tuition dollars were not refunded.)
My interest is rather in what students and parents generally should learn from this incident. When we see a young person especially crash and burn in the way that the Daily Press' editor did last week, it's right to look for lessons for personal behavior, beyond the interest-group and political considerations that have already been brought to bear. And there are questions that arise if we pry this April Fools "joke" away from the specific, charged context of BU. Suppose the same issue had been published on another campus, or even at BU some other time, what then? Other student newspaper April Fools editions have not been very different.
An obvious first lesson for parents is this. One does not need to be a Freudian to suspect that what a person jokes about reveals something important about them, either their character, company, or manners. Also, people tell jokes to an audience they suppose will "get" the joke and find it as funny as they do. What might it imply about the culture of a community, when the first thing a 19-year old girl thinks of for humorous parody, intended for all, is the coarsest and crudest type of sexual humor? (Remember, this student is a leader and exemplary among her peers.) Can we expect that the jokes in the dining hall or in dorm rooms, or popular music and media, will be very different? Do you think you would gain much from studying the "Iliad" or Shakespeare alongside peers who would even think of the rape of Snow White as a funny story?
Parents, I ask you to pay attention and read something about the "hook up culture" on campus and the widespread effects of pornography. Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons" remains a truthful read. I agree entirely with those students who insisted that The Disney Free Press should not be taken to reflect on Boston University in particular. The "culture of rape" which students are decrying there is no different from the culture at most other universities -- and that is the very same culture in which your college bound child will be submerged, if you do not take special care to see that it turns out otherwise.
The lessons for personal behavior are equally relevant, especially for a young person. Can it be pointed out that practical jokes are not funny? Christians should just avoid them; at least, always put charity first and humor second. Also, there is no such thing as a "moral holiday" (as William James put it). It is a huge mistake to suppose that once something is declared to be humorous and a prank, then ordinary standards of propriety no longer apply. A good sense of propriety and (dare I say it) modesty and chastity will keep someone a long way from offending others. Finally, in the days of the Internet and instant, international scrutiny, presume that everything published to anyone, even if only in print, is published to everyone.
Michael Pakaluk is chairman and professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.