Offensive Offendedness

Every so often you read a story so utterly bizarre that it makes you wonder whether or not it really is true. It reads like a satirical take of whoever the reporting is about, as though the writer is trying to figure out a way to bring out the absurdity of the subject by extrapolating the position advocated outward to the extreme.

This week, I read one such story.

The Daily Emerald, which is the student newspaper at the University of Oregon, reported on a problem the student union was grappling with. “Since 1986,” the paper reported, “the University of Oregon has housed a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. in the lobby of the Erb Memorial Union. ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream…’”

The story goes on to say that the students were asked whether they wanted to keep that quote, which had been there since 1986, or replace it with another. Some students, it seems, found it to be somewhat offensive.

Yes, you read that right. They felt that Dr. King’s words make diversity to be only about the inclusion of people of various races. It is, however, according to these aspiring social justice warriors, about much more than just race. Therefore, Dr. King’s words do not represent them, and ought to be taken down.

Ultimately, the quote was left in place, but not after the idea of taking it down was given serious consideration. Despite this, and despite the fact that many people may wonder what impact a story in Oregon can possibly have on their lives, it is something that ought to concern us.

You see, what these students are doing is not confined to the University of Oregon. It is the strategy being used by the extreme left throughout the country in order to, as Roger Scruton writes in his most recent book, marginalize the old norms of social order. The goal of “social justice” “is no longer equality before the law,” as it was in the days of Dr. King; “[t]he goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society.”

The tactics they use are effective as well. I remember some years ago, speaking with a very close rebbi of mine, Rav Meir Pincovics, shlita. He made the point to me that the natural inclination of a person is to side with those who are persecuted; after all, the passuk says (Koheles 3:15): “V’haElokim yevakesh es hanirdaf — Hashem seeks him who is pursued.” However, he pointed out, the most despicable thing a “rodef” can do is portray himself as the “nirdaf.

This is a tactic as old as the most duplicitous person in history — Lavan. When Yaakov Avinu left to return home, Lavan pursued him, with murderous intentions. Yet, when he finally caught up to Yaakov, he complained to him (Vayeitzei 31:26), “Meh asisah, vatignov es levavi, vatenaheg es benosai k’shvuyos charev — what have you done that you deceived me and you led away my daughters as though they were captives?” Lavan, who cheated Yaakov time and time again, and whose daughters proclaimed to Yaakov (31:15) “Halo nochriyos nechshavnu lo,” employed this very strategy: I am the one who is being persecuted, he proclaimed, and as such, he must then be in the right.

We see this playing out in many different arenas. Palestinian terror is perhaps the clearest example, but it manifests itself on this side of the ocean as well. When, for example, the New York City Human Rights Commission sued several frum stores in Williamsburg over signs which asked patrons to respect a dress code, it was because such requests were deemed, by the HRC, to be “discriminatory.” When any group, whether from within or without, seeks to undermine our communities, be it spiritually or financially, they all do the same thing — claim there is someone or something that is a victim of our existence. Once they do that, seeking to “rectify” that by any means necessary is okay — especially if it means attacking the ostensible “rodef.”

In the University of Oregon, this isn’t the first time they’ve run into this kind of trouble over a quote posted on the student union wall. In 1985, a quote from a previous dean in the school which proclaimed the university to be “leader in the quest for the good life for all men” was replaced because “men” was not inclusive enough.

Seven years earlier, students had approached that dean and asked him to replace it. He refused, saying he was unwilling to be held “hostage to ignorance.” It’s too bad that almost 40 years later, his prescience is not appreciated. Perhaps the students at Oregon, and the other warriors for “social justice” would be well served if the dean’s response were hung alongside the quote from Dr. King. If they would do that, they might actually become a “leader in the quest for the good life for all men.”