As I walked to Usdan the other day, I noticed a small bake sale in which people were being charged different prices based on their race. The student group holding the bake sale, the Cardinal Conservatives, said they intended to protest affirmative action, which is a perfectly legitimate cause. Unfortunately, their “satirical” bake sale was a thoroughly unfunny and unintelligent way to address the issue of affirmative action.
There is no reason not to tackle controversial issues with humor. Great satire and controversy often go hand-in-hand. But if you’re going to tackle a sensitive subject with satire, you actually have to be funny. That’s the only thing that sets apart edgy comedy from ugly comedy.
Take, for example, the reaction to Vince Vaughn’s homophobic joke in the trailer for his upcoming movie, in which he says, “Electric cars are gay. Not homosexual gay, but my parents are chaperoning the school dance gay.” Gay and lesbian groups protested the joke, Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres publicly denounced it as homophobic, Vaughn’s film received a heap of bad publicity, and the joke was removed from the trailer.
Now compare this to the lack of any negative reaction to a similar joke in the 2005 hit, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” in which two characters trade insults about how gay the other one is (an example: “You know how I know you’re gay? You like Coldplay.”). Both jokes equate being gay to being lame. But whereas the joke in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” had a fun tastelessness to it, Vaughn’s joke was awkward and required an explanation for why it shouldn’t be considered offensive. Similarly, the need for the Cardinal Conservatives’ bake sale to feature a banner saying, “This is a SATIRICAL event” should have been an indicator that something was seriously problematic about their satire.
Secondly, given the fact that the Cardinal Conservatives’ bake sale was a Wesleyan event alluding to affirmative action on the part of the admissions committee, the lack of Wesleyan-specific information was telling. If their argument is that affirmative action is bad for Wesleyan, then they must argue that the quality of the student body has decreased with the adoption of affirmative action policies. If they are not able to provide any evidence that the quality of the student body has decreased, then their argument is purely racial.
As it stood in Usdan, their bake sale’s only coherent argument against affirmative action was that it allowed more minority students into the school. It targets minority students as being inadequate for Wesleyan while providing no evidence of inadequacy. Thus, the Cardinal Conservatives simply produced a racial provocation, not the grounds for a legitimate discussion about a controversial issue.
There are plenty of good arguments against affirmative action. Several African American conservatives, such as Clarence Thomas, have complained that affirmative action undermines the legitimacy of their accomplishments. Affirmative action that is completely race-based raises plenty of problems. At my high school, for example, I frequently saw highly-privileged students who had a minuscule percentage of minority heritage get actively recruited by universities for the supposed diversity they would bring to a school.
Affirmative action is also fraught with many important issues about the nature of race, as well as the basic idea of making up for past wrongs against a segment of society. It is truly unfortunate that, instead of thoughtfully addressing any of the problems that can come with affirmative action, the Cardinal Conservatives went with an argument resembling Fox News rhetoric; essentially, that minorities are favored in our society and that white people face unfair odds.
Wesleyan is very much in need of liberal-conservative debate (as opposed to Democrats vs. the Green Party), and there is plenty of room for conservative viewpoints on campus. Mytheos Holt, for example, was able to create healthy political discussions at our school. His opinions, while rarely ones that I agreed with, were generally well-thought-out, opening the door for constructive debate.
The Cardinal Conservatives have failed to do this. By fumbling the heated racial issue of affirmative action, the Cardinal Conservatives have lost the legitimacy that could have fueled respectable discussions. I truly hope that, in the future, the group will engage in active and informed debates over the controversial issues of our times. But for the moment, they have portrayed themselves as little more than petty race-baiters.