Letter to the Editor: On Campus Scandal

Time has a mutating effect, but a few elements of the Lawrence experience remain constant over the decades—room parties, mayflies, midterms, nervous administrators, happy hours at the Viking Room and a juicy campus scandal about once per semester.

The most recent example is the now-notorious screening of “Can We Take a Joke?” in the Wriston Auditorium, which resulted in a rowdy back-and-forth and student Sabrina Conteh being ejected amid flying profanity.

Similar uproars erupted when I was editor of The Lawrentian more than a quarter-century ago, and they almost always touched on matters of race, class and sex. I came to understand these kerfuffles—even the silly ones—functioned like collective discharges of pent-up feeling and resentments, such as that described by Rene Girard in his classic text “Violence and the Sacred.” They are pressure-valves for anxieties roiling underneath the surface.

I want to argue here that these contretemps ought not to be dreaded, but to be welcomed. Fighting about touchy issues is part of the American collegiate tradition, and I would be far more worried about Lawrence if there were an absence of discontent. The key is how to creatively manage a scandal for useful purposes.

It can be enlightening (and amusing) to watch how certain personalities behave in the midst of the trouble. Do they make their points well? Do they try to sweep everything under the rug and pretend everything is fine? Do they search for common ground in a way that does not surrender their own integrity? I learned more about moral courage and cowardice through campus blowups than I did in some of my classes.

We learn to listen to the other side, and even when we reject their arguments, we can feel our visions getting sharpened and clarified through life experience that goes beyond academic theory. Even the rhetorical overreach of the other side can be helpful, for it can teach you how not to craft an argument. It can also teach you the invaluable skill of leavening disagreements with a sense of humor. Navigating the field of combat is a part of college you won’t find in the admissions brochures, but it is an important one nonetheless.

Free speech was once a hallmark of leftist politics and one of its finest legacies. That heritage has now been hijacked by conservatives because of the heightened paranoia about saying the wrong thing and getting publicly shamed—and because leftists have forgotten the fine art of a good campus scandal. Don’t stomp down on what you don’t like. Let it breathe and expose it to the light. If it has no merit, it will dehydrate fast.

Though my own politics are markedly different from Students for Free Thought, here is what I would like to say to them on behalf of the extended Lawrence family: thank you.


—Tom Zoellner ‘91