No winner in Thurtene t-shirt battle
Normally each year, the Thurtene Junior Honorary has, naturally, thirteen members. However, this year Dave Garland, a member of Beta Theta Pi, dropped out, leaving the group with twelve. In response, Beta and its partner sorority Chi Omega made t-shirts with the word “Twulve” in handwriting font printed across the back. Thurtene has not allowed the shirts to be worn on the lot because it claims they are offensive.
This action-reaction raises several questions. Should Beta and ChiO have considered how Thurtene would view the shirts? Yes. Do the shirts make fun of Thurtene? Yes. Does Thurtene have the right to ban them? Yes. Should they have banned them for the reasons they did? No.
To avoid the controversy, both sides should have been more honest about the issue from the beginning. Thurtene should not have tried to broaden the scope of the offense to other Greeks or the charity. Beta and ChiO should have realized how the shirts could be interpreted and at least consulted Thurtene first.
Beta senior Josh Gantz argues that the shirts are not offensive; they are simply making a small joke and were made with no intention of offending any member of Thurtene. Thurtene Public Relations chair Kate Greenbaum disagrees: “The shirts are offensive to our organization, the charity, the students involved and undermines the work that goes into the entire carnival.”
In this case, Gantz and Greenbaum are both mostly wrong. While Beta and ChiO may not have intended to offend, it is not up to the actors to decide what is offensive. Betas argued that they are really making fun of their own brother, Garland, and not Thurtene as a whole.
Thurtene as an organization decided to ban the shirts and did not consult other Greeks first, many of whom found the shirts quite humorous. Thurtene should not be representing others and dictating when they should feel undermined or insulted.
I may tell a Jewish joke, but just because I don’t intend the joke to bother someone or because I myself am Jewish does not immunize me from offending others. When it comes to (dis)respect, intent is a part, but not the long determinant as to the indecency of the act.
While Greenbaum claims they would have banned the shirts no matter who wore them and that Thurtene has nothing against Garland or Beta, but Betas don’t see it that way. Several angry Betas told me they felt Thurtene was infringing on their First Amendment rights.
While they are correct, they are kidding themselves if they think Thurtene is the only one to do so at Washington University. Campus political activity and free speech is dictated by University policy (as in no partisan campaigning, loud rallies, etc. are allowed). Or think back to wearing hats in high school or shirts with profanity, the first amendment is not an unchecked power.
Greenbaum told me that “Thurtene technically has discretion over what comes onto the lot.” While the Beta and ChiO shirts are so far the only banned set of clothing, Thurtene sets many other regulations mostly for safety reasons.
The bottom line is that the shirts do make fun of the fact that Thurtene lost one of their members. Republicans don’t wear shirts saying “John Kerry is a big loser” to rub it in the face of Democrats. That would be unnecessary, which albeit though not a reason to avoid a joke, could easily be seen as offensive.
While Beta and ChiO may not have intended to offend, they force Thurtene into an awkward position. Instead of setting regulations for safety or efficiency or any other justification, they are, as Gantz complained, “Using their power for personal reasons.” If it were kept at that, it would be a non-issue.
Instead, the battle over the shirts then gets lumped into the broader issue of Thurtene as an organization. Several Betas planned on (as of Wednesday) wearing the shirts in defiance. Those opposed to Thurtene’s regulations on building materials and fire codes see the shirts as another example of Thurtene controlling the actions of individual Greeks.
It’s like Dr. Seuss’s “The Butter Battle Book.” In the story, two guys-in an argument over which side of the bread gets the butter-bring out bigger and bigger weapons to counter each other and it of course gets out of hand. Thurtene’s exaggeration of the offense has sparked an actual aggressive and equally ridiculous response. The Butter Battle teaches us about tolerance and respecting the other side, hopefully Beta, ChiO and Thurtene can learn something from it.
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