Politically taboo words undermine spirited expression

| Op-Ed Submission

Despite the media circus that circulated campus last Thursday, asking for student opinions and forecasting the probable course of the debate, the degree of student activism was surprisingly low. Yes, student groups were passing out stickers and handing around petitions to voice support for this cause or that, but the atmosphere still seemed a bit apathetic.

We thought that, as students with definite opinions, it was incumbent upon us to make ourselves heard. Of course, the method chosen was certainly provocative—in a joking exchange, the idea that “Sarah Palin offends our vaginas” came up as a protest against her positions on various women’s issues, and found its way to a handmade sign that said “Palin is offensive to my vagina.” As the sign stood in stark contrast to the others displayed around campus, it garnered immediate media attention and received a great deal of support from many of the students who saw it.

We decided to take the sign over to the MSNBC live broadcast of “Hardball with Chris Matthews” for the 11 p.m. show (having been there earlier), and once there we took our position between signs reading “Obama/Biden” and “Sarah Palin is hot.” Just as the cameras began to roll, a man in a button-down shirt and headset confronted us and said, “This one needs to be taken down. It’s inappropriate,” slapping at it as he spoke. He was right. It was offensive, but next to other signs with potentially offensive messages, such as one reading “Obama Bin Laden,” it didn’t seem to stand out too significantly.

After we retreated, two other girls took the sign and attempted to hold it up, but he told them the same—it’s inappropriate. They asked why they were being asked to take it down; he replied that they were on “private property” and that he could have “been a hard-ass” and had them removed if they resisted.

They didn’t resist, and we went home, not knowing on what authority he dismissed us.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering moment at the vice presidential debate, but some aspects of the situation do merit consideration.

First, the offensiveness of the sign. Yes, it was provocative and somewhat juvenile; we could have simply said “Palin doesn’t support women’s issues” or something to that effect. But it seemed catchy, it added humor and we weren’t attempting to do anything actively threatening or destructive. Had we merely written “Palin offends me,” the sign most likely could have stayed up. But the “inappropriateness” lay in the word “vagina” more than in the actual message, vitriolic as it may have been. Without launching into a heavy political debate, it’s still saddening that the use of this word continues to create discomfort and that its discussion continues to be limited by the strictures of political correctness.

Second, our treatment as participants and students should be considered. The man who confronted us didn’t offer any proof of authority or any self-evident reasons for his insistence that we remove the sign; he dismissed and threatened us with removal as if we were simply children who didn’t understand. We were taken aback because we feel that Washington University encourages us to express our opinions and that our voices are respected here. We were on campus, participating in an event that was promoted campus-wide, having been reassured that this was a safe place to express ourselves, even in a provocative or otherwise non-traditional manner. Censorship was the last thing we expected.

Part of our upset, too, included the observation that our sign was working. People reacted, paid attention and many offered smiles and words of support; the media followed its creation and display across campus, reporters reacted with surprise and interest. Yes, the expression used was juvenile, but it still made its point. Although this is hardly a harrowing tale of censorship and blatant prejudice, it still underscores continuing issues with implicitly taboo words as well as acceptable political expression in our society.

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