When bad judgment is at the top of the menu



Recently a food stand on my campus was the topic of online discussions because it was named Grills Gone Wild.

The name was, of course, a play on words related to a series of videos in which young, frequently intoxicated women bared their breasts or engaged in other lewd behavior for the camera. The discussion started when a member of the campus community overheard some students expressing their irritation and shared their concern on an email list. Although the name was not particularly new, public debate about it was.

You can imagine the two sets of responses. On one side were those complaining that the name was insensitive. They presented rape statistics, noted the national spotlight on sexual assault (we’d just had a statewide training day on our campus), and pointed out that half or more of our students were women. On the other side were those saying that because the off-color name was funny and not legally prohibited, it was an acceptable choice. This second group decried the kowtowing to political correctness.

The university has a relevant policy of sorts; well, it’s really more of a pledge than a policy. But the idea is to remind everyone on campus to be civil and respectful. It’s called the \”We Are One\” promise.

So did the Grills Gone Wild moniker honor that pledge? Was it required to? The answer to both questions is \”probably not.\”

Surely we can agree that the name was legal. So is consuming gallons of soda and dozens of doughnuts. That doesn’t make them wise choices. Despite the stupidity and self-defeat inherent in such a diet, I am not legally prohibited from going for it. How could I be? What kind of law could be crafted to require that I use common sense and adhere to health standards?

The same balancing act seemed appropriate here: Was a name that jokes about sexual objectification the wisest choice for a campus community with a \”We Are One\” commitment? Was it a way to promote safety for women? Was it good to have parents, escorting their high-school seniors around the campus, stop for a bite at Grills Gone Wild?

Still, what kind of law could (or should) be written to codify common sense? And would we want to live in a society that legislates those things?

Here on my campus, as elsewhere, this is a time of budget reductions and fierce competition. We need students to attend our university; they are what keeps us going. At best, the name of the cafe, right on the quad, just outside the student union, was certainly not a selling feature for families weighing their college options. It might well have given pause to some parents, seeing the implications for their own children in an environment that tolerated this particular model of sexuality. \”What other school can I afford?\” those parents may have begun thinking.

The cafe’s name had been a source of irritation to some faculty members for years, although a complaint went unheeded. There seemed to be more-pressing issues for many of us, like saving our programs from budget cuts.

In 2011 the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reminded college administrators that their institutions have an obligation to deal with sexual assaults. Although the notice was essentially a reminder to address the situation after rape happens, it makes as much, if not more, sense to monitor the campus climate — including sexualized objectification — before a rape happens.

So you can tell where I stood on the name-that-grill question. The name was legal, sure, but that did not make it a wise choice. For me, not the least of the reasons was a self-interested desire for continued employment. If we scare away prospective students and their families, we are not violating the law — just throwing common sense to the wind.

Fortunately, the university’s decision-makers came to the same conclusion. After the campus emptied for the summer, administrators announced that the name would be changed.

Here is what troubled me most about the argument to keep the name: the implication is that \”political\” correctness is a different animal than plain old correctness. It suggests that doing something politically correct is not actually right but a coerced injustice. Therein lies the thing that makes my eye twitch a little.

The term \”politically correct\” implies that inclusive language or behavior is, in itself, not correct. The qualifier \”political\” reliably turns correctness into its opposite. When that term was applied to the grill discussion, it had the effect of dismissing everything that was correct about renaming the grill, without ever having to weigh those parts of the discussion. The term rendered all those points insignificant: creating an inclusive climate, naming a common area with a commonly engaging term, clearly rejecting sexual objectification of women, creating a campus that reassures rather than scares off new students.

All of that is swept off the discussion board by putting \”political\” in front of \”correct.\” Doing so says that such a change is not correct at all, and that it represents only capitulation to hypersensitive chicks who don’t speak for everyone. As it turned out, it was a man who first objected, and it was men who raised some of the very issues that were so quickly dismissed.

I have come to the realization that, whatever the \”We Are One\” pledge says, playing the \”politically correct\” card says in no uncertain terms that supporting a name change is not correct; it is only politically correct. Standing up for an inclusive climate is not correct; it is only politically correct. Working to create an environment that deliberately chooses not to lightly sexualize women is not correct; it is only politically correct. And so making our campus appear welcoming to families who will pay to send their young adults here is somehow not correct. It is only politically correct.

Author Bio: Trish Oberweis is a professor in the department of sociology and criminal-justice studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.