People tend to grow into the roles that are given to them. Stanley Milgram gave a famous proof of this in his prison experiment. He placed average, mentally healthy students into randomized roles of prisoners and guards and watched them grow into them with alarming and dangerous accuracy, speed and ‘success’ (the experiment was ended early because a ‘prisoner’ had a mental break down).
I bring this up to help explain my deep distress over the University’sresponse to a recently-discovered, shockingly vulgar, Redsuit Songbook. On the positive side, the University’s speedy denouncement of this book, as well as their call for an independent investigation, is completely appropriate. It is offensive – even a bit frightening – that the disturbing images in the songbook appear to have been written and repeated by McMaster students. However, I find it hard to justify the University’s choices to:
(1) Fail to consult the associated groups, the McMaster Engineering Society (MES) and Redsuits
(2) Disempower and publicly condemn the student leadership in the MES and Redsuits, and
(3) Punish and disempower the entire faculty by banning all events involving alcohol (it affects grad celebrations, EngMusical, and clubs and teams trying to attend/compete in events).
The thing is that the engineering songbook in question was not in popular use. Few seem to have even known of its existence. I find it hard to believe that many engineers would support the violent songs like “S&M Man,” which are receiving so much attention, or wish it to be perceived as part of their culture. Unfortunately, the University has not given students that option. The media, faculty comments, and the structure of punishments all send a clear message to all members or observers of Mac Eng: McMaster engineering is home to an extreme culture of sexism and violence, and it can only be controlled through drastic action. This is an unfair attack that puts anyone wishing to defend engineering culture against those condemning the songbook – an unnecessary division in a student culture that would already denounce the unusual vulgarity of many of the songs in question.
In addition to creating an unnecessary divide between the Faculty and some of its students, the University’s reaction is also deeply disempowering to its students. It dishonours the work of many hard-working, non-sexist, non-violent students who are trying to pursue their passions, nurture their ideas and contribute to their community. This is not an example of working with your students to build a better campus (and a better world). It is an example of unfeeling bureaucratic behaviour that I would hope the University is teaching its students to question, not obey.
It also upsets me that there is evidently a poor trust-relationship between the Faculty and its student leaders in the MES and Redsuits. This is something I hope both sides will work to address in the future. The lack of consultation with engineering student leadership seems to imply assumed guilt. This is damaging to a young person’s sense of self-esteem, justice and leadership.
If there had been sufficient trust, I believe the Faculty could have seized this upsetting incident as an opportunity to promote leadership, ethical behaviour, and partnership by bringing student leadership into their decision making process from the beginning. This could have kick-started a process in which Faculty and students work together to determine what changes McMaster eng culture needs, and how they will be executed. I want to go to a school that is training its students to engage in this kind of process, rather than responding to uncomfortable situations with wild attempts at control through discipline and fear.
Thankfully, there is still time for the University to switch strategies, and I hope they do. I am not sure why this authoritarian track was taken. Perhaps because the lyrics in this songbook do evoke an extremely large emotional reaction – this may not have been a rational decision. Perhaps it comes down to very low Faculty trust in student engineering leadership. Perhaps, the University has taken this as an opportunity to roll out an unrelated agenda. In any case, I would be hard-pressed to be convinced that the means justify the ends. When you act like an unfeeling bureaucracy, you may find yourself growing into the role. And when you treat students like poorly-cultured, untrustworthy children, you may discover you have created exactly that.
With their hands tied, McMaster University was forced to swiftly punish the Redsuit group for their “intolerance” and “sexist mindset.” The only tragedy of the entire event is the censorship brought on by the fear of retaliation by those who do not understand satire.
The book is crude, rude, and random in its endeavours, but what it contains is an unfiltered perspective on modern dark humour. It contains an embracement of gender roles instilled from generations prior, a willingness to break these definitions with concepts of sexuality, and shock value to smash through any other confining views in all imaginable forms. Though praise is given to Trey Parker and Matt Stone in the form of Emmys for their work on South Park and accolades given to music artists for twisted views of the world, punishment is given to similar hyperbole created by amateurs.
It is up to each individual student whether or not to embrace these open views. These Redsuits are merely one, optional part of the McMaster Engineering Society as a whole. The perception that this type of musical parody must be embraced by all is incorrect. In a Redsuit group containing several members of the larger LGBTQ community of Hamilton, the point of the songbook being about ridiculing conventionally taboo subjects rather than serious consideration is only emphasized further. Creativity can come in all shapes and forms, and this book is a brilliant and disturbing satire and portrayal of the human psyche. In any other situation not so politically correct, this would be considered art by most.
The only mistakes they made were the inability to communicate this with absolutely everyone. Though this was a differing perspective inside of a larger community, the willingness to accept and embrace these differences between people is a central part of mankind’s resilience, fortitude, and sense of community. This is an opportunity to change the mindset of the faculty and students as a whole by allowing open communication. Some were unable to make light of the larger situations that deeply affect some people’s lives, and that’s perfectly fine. Given this knowledge, we as a school will continue to grow closer to one another and embrace their perspective. The appalling nature of the vice-president’s comments stating, “The Redsuit songbook that we have learned about is highly disturbing and is the exact opposite to everything for which the University stands,” could not be any further from the desired truth and future of this university. I do not wish to feel threatened talking to another faculty’s office members about an issue; I want to promote openness and other outlooks. This university should stand for embracing both the negatives and positives of what make each of us individuals, though in a more controlled manner than this.
This event is being portrayed as a low point in our school’s history when it should be portrayed as having potential. The Redsuits know perfectly well what it feels like to be different and to have a different perspective. I trust all of them to make the right decisions towards a better future.
We all reach a point in our lives where we are faced with ideological decisions that test our conception of what we strongly believe to be right or wrong. These ideological decisions, though they wander and plummet in the realm of the conceptual, can have very pragmatic consequences. I was faced with such a decision in September, and dare I say, that my view of the ideological and the pragmatic has never been so uniformly synced.
Back in September, I received the Redsuit chant book from a source that I will not be relaying to the public. My source had come about this chant book, had read it thoroughly and was in complete awe with the content of the book. I was told that there might be a possibility that the chant book itself or some of the chants contained in the chant book were obsolete even though it was compiled as recently as 2010. My source further warned me of the ghastliness of the content of the chant book. But, no fair warning could have prepared me for what lay within the pages of the chant book. What I thought of as horrid in that moment was in relation to something wholly less vile.
These chants were abhorrence and insecurity personified and they represented discrimination at its core. The chant book went on to trivialize serious issues such as child abuse, sexual violence, and misogyny - issues that we can all agree deserve our utmost attention, no matter your internal conception of morality. All of these issues were trivialized under the pretext that they were ‘jokes’. But, no matter how I read the chant book, the fact they were written in ‘jest’ could not somehow alleviate its depravity.
I decided to publish the chant book because I recognized that its content represented bigger issues that we need to address as a community. The issue lay partially in whether the chant book was still in use or not, and this is a question whose answers remain coloured. Although many have categorically denied ever using the chant book, I have received a few messages on my blog that make me think otherwise. A few people have said that on some occasion they have vocalized some of the chants and saw nothing wrong with them. But I will not assume to make what may turn out to be unfair presumptions at this point.
The bigger issue that I recognized was how a community of persons could actually presume to compile such revulsion in jest. What lay at the core of the case was the empathy gaps that seem to exists within persons of unshared realities and how this gap makes some people feel unsafe. But, when we learn to, as a community, lessen these empathy gaps, until they are virtually irreducible, then we can make our society a better and safe place for everyone.
When we address serious issues such as this in jest, we ought not to simply take our perverse tickle for humour into account, but we ought to consider what people, whose realities are being represented within these ‘jokes’, will think. What you feel is irrelevant insofar as you do not take into account the victims/survivors of those experiences.
I absolutely recognize that the Redsuits as a society have done a lot of good things and nothing anyone says can discount that good. But morality is not a sliding scale. The good things that you have done don’t somehow work against and balance out the harm you have caused, whether intentional or otherwise. Your good and bad interact with each other in ways that can help people understand the type of community you want to be. But, to the extent that they are being judged, your good and bad ought to stand independently.
I have been receiving a lot of angry and harassing messages on my blog and hate mail.
I can tell that quite a few of you hate my guts, and some of you might even hate me as a person. People have said the most horrid things to me. They have frustrated my mental composition and left in a constant fear of confrontation, verbal or otherwise. This endured state of trepidation is affecting my ability to focus and it is continually accompanied by sleepless nights.
I try to appear calm and composed but I am neither of those things. However, I will not apologize for doing the right thing and I will not give in to the fear, irrespective of the personal costs to myself. I do not dance to the tune of intimidation and fear. I dance to the tune of morality and a search and fight for justice and what I believe to be right.
I have been told that everyone will be better off if the chant book had remained hidden. Now that I have exposed it, I am responsible for the injustice that follows. But an injustice is not an injustice because it is somehow known and widely propagated. An injustice can occur whether anyone knows about it or not, and we must all as a community find ways to deal with these issues, whether we care for it or not. Yes, when a tree falls in the forest it does make a sound regardless of how many people are there to hear it.
I will not be privy to a cover-up especially when I believe accountability and transparency to be one of the greatest virtues. My stance on this issue will remain unchanged irrespective of how much you try to intimidate me and make me feel unsafe. I want to use this opportunity to thank my friends for their support through this ordeal.
I may be the dumbest person on the planet, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I’ll never know for that very reason. All I do know is that what follows below is a bumbling attempt to muster up a defence of the indefensible by understanding the Redsuit songbook – why it was made and how it fits into the larger picture.
Maybe I’m drawn to the total destruction and almost disbelief of the situation. Maybe I am just a masochist with a penchant to take on a harder stance than I can handle. Or perhaps I’m doing so because I like to imagine the students who produced the vulgar text were very much like myself with little, silly dreams, who participated in McMaster culture daily, who were educated in some of the same classes I was, and maybe I’m afraid that with these shared experiences, I might one day make the same mistakes they did. Maybe I’m afraid because I might be those same mistakes all the same.
Whatever the reason, let it be known that what happened is not a sudden resurfacing of antiquated chants long forgotten. There was no ancient map that led to a dusty shelf, no bygone translation of some eroding book found in Thode. Instead, the songs were the culmination of unchecked excess years in the making.
This fact seems to be forgotten in between the almost reactionary and certainly warranted repugnance. Though the lyrics seem to alienate, ostracize, and isolate members of its population, I don't think that was their intent. Like gladiators bellowing in the ring, they purposefully feed off the extreme, the disgusting, and the savage. The hooting and hollering is meant to strike fear and shock because in doing so, in sharing in the horror and revulsion of the text, the people singing those same songs have transcended the abhorrence together.
While this seems strange to admit, it must be remembered that the Redsuits work to facilitate the goal of Welcome Week: developing a collective experience that bridges the gap between students. These chants, though admittedly not all those copied down in the alleged songbook were known to all of the members, are the extreme perversion of such an aspiration. At the very fringe, they are insulting with a purpose. For that reason there is no apology offered. The ultimate goal is not comfort but to move beyond comfort in some contorted collective camaraderie.
This does not condone the hymns in any way, but it may point to a larger problem of Welcome Week: we are to come together at whatever the cost. More often or not, the cost is decided by those in charge, not by those participating. They do not define what is good or right; it is the others - the apparently wise, mature students - who do, and we, fickle louts at the bottom, are meant to follow their lead.
This divide between one's perception of what is tolerable and what is not is where the harm results. Part of such a divide is the consequence of Welcome Week being situated in the broader sphere of society. With its perverse notions, its over-sexualized tones, its blatant misogyny, its tendencies to idolize the foolish and inane, Welcome Week usually reflects the worst of our gluttony. Pop monstrosities such as Pitbull's "As Se Eu Tu Pego" or LMFAO's "Party Rock" croon about sex this and sex on every corner. People yell as a way to instill a forced, artificial excitement. Parties are rampant. Alcohol flows easily. And with these brute force methods where the younger of us are told that Welcome Week planners know better and isn't socializing good for you and come on, come on, have a little fun, the cost is a blubbering, messy, and insensitive cheer, if those in the book can even be called that.
Such a discrepancy between individuals is not good or bad necessarily. Part of me feels as though a person’s comfort zone should be challenged and poked at if only to grow in some ways. Of course this is coming from a person who welcomed the Welcome. Yet I can see the discomfort and creeping complications of enjoyment for the sake of it as it is defined by someone else. This gap is further muddled by coexisting under a larger social bubble: McMaster’s Welcome Week is sucked into the vacuum of unmitigated and arguably disrespectful cultural mores. Ultimately this is the cause of Welcome Week's unease, not the result of it, and the consequence is continually growing, unfiltered chaos. Point and proof: the alleged songbook.
Is there a solution? I don’t know; it's hard to imagine a social event without being social and without the problems that accompany such an identity. How to draw the line between acceptability becomes blurred too: one person's minimum is another person's excess.
Still, acquiescing to the complications is too easy. While we all can voice our disgust and incredulity, this is not enough. Neither is saying that it is one faculty's responsibility. It isn't. If anything, such isolationism is what led to the problem in the first place and it is contrary to what Welcome Week suggests - we are all connected to this place if only for a little while.
If we do not think this way, and if we alienate ourselves to our own trite faculty concerns, nothing will be different in a few years and the Engineering fubar will be the first of many. Instead all of us need to be conscious of the environment around us. We need to be aware of not only our limits, but those of others. And we need to start today.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) I began the article admitting my stupidity, which might be reaffirmed by the article itself. But I like to believe, perhaps in the naivety of not knowing and ignorance and damn fool heartedness, that this is possible. We can be better, this fiasco can sober us up in every sense of the word, and we can work on strengthening a week, a faculty, an entire University that is weakened by its unrestrained mirror to society and its failings.