The naughty graffiti at Pompeii have entertained archaeologists and students of the classical world at least since the city’s rediscovery in the eighteenth century. Before that, when it was a thriving watering hole for rich Romans, the lewd drawings and inscriptions presumably entertained the denizens of that cosmopolitan outpost as they went about their daily lives.
It’s a good thing they didn’t try any of that randy badinage at a modern American liberal arts college. At those citadels of moral sensitivity, they would be likely to find themselves—as a still-unknown perpetrator of graffiti at Williams College finds himself—hounded as a social pariah and the object of an article in The Huffing-puffington Post titled “Violent Hate Speech Incident at Williams College.” What happened? “At approximately 12:30 a.m. on the morning of November 12, 2011,” a vigilant undergraduate reported seeing a racial epithet, including the “N-word,” inscribed on the wall of a college dorm. That’s not all. Back in 2008–09, someone drew images of ejaculating phalluses on the walls of several dorms and administrative buildings. This, the article continued, “led members of the college’s Rape and Sexual Assault Network and Women’s Center to call for a campus discussion about the use of sexually-charged vandalism as a form of sexual harassment and intimidation.”
Now, don’t get us wrong. We do not like racial epithets. Nor do we condone the defacement of private property. Last spring in this space we had some tart things to say about the elite vogue for graffiti, i.e., defacement art (The New Criterion, May 2011). But isn’t Williams College going a bit overboard in its reaction? Presented with a graffito in its midst, the college goes into lock-down mode. “In response to student reactions,” The Huffington Post reported,
the administration in conjunction with the faculty steering committee decided to cancel all classes, athletic practices and other extracurricular activities on Monday to host a college-wide meeting and lunch at 11 a.m. on the lawn outside the Paresky Student Center. In an email to Williams alumni, President Falk stated that the cancelled day of class would, “be an important day for us to unite to begin to heal from this terrible act and reaffirm that such harmful behavior has no place at Williams—or anywhere.”
Let’s say you didn’t know what had happened at Williams and only read the President’s communiqué. What, you would have been justified in wondering, happened in bucolic Williams-town? Were a dozen students gunned down? Did a freak earthquake swallow the English department? Was there an outbreak of Spanish flu or the bubonic plague? No. Someone scrawled a racially noxious graffito on the wall of a college dorm, just as, a few years ago, someone, presumably a different someone, drew crude sexual images elsewhere on campus. Those might well be offenses the college should investigate and punish. But are they really “hate crimes” and “forms of sexual harassment and intimidation”? Are they “terrible acts” that require “healing”? What’s going to happen when these sensitive souls venture outside the protected purlieus of the college campus? How will they deal with a trip to a public washroom, a stroll down to a city newsstand, fifteen minutes of unguarded surfing the internet?
The peculiar moral miasma suffusing elite so-called liberal arts institutions these days is not hypocrisy, exactly, but it is nothing pleasant either. Smug self-righteousness figures high on the ingredients list, as does a perpetual sense of entitlement abetted by an unassuageable sense of grievance. We were chatting with a friend well acquainted with the situation at Williams, and he suggested the idea of moral hazard may well pertain to this latest efflorescence of pseudo-victimization. Moral hazard describes a situation in which a person or institution, partly indemnified against a certain risk, behaves differently because of that indemnification. Everyone knows what happens on a college campus when something like the Williams Graffito Incident occurs. It’s overreaction-time all around, with breast-beating, public calls for solidarity, and, who knows, maybe a new committee, deputy dean appointment, or tenure review panel. That’s quite a lot of upside for the “diversity community.” Hence the moral hazard and, as our friend points out, why, “when these events happen, it often turns out that the acts have been committed by members of that community.” It will be interesting to see who the culprit is, assuming the witch hunt finds its witch.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 4, on page 3
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