Some Animals are More Equal than Others

Posted: Nov 17, 2003 12:00 AM
Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Wonderland (UNCW) sometimes have a hard time striking a balance between the right of free speech, and the right of minorities, women, and homosexuals never to be offended by anything at any time. Recently, it seems that they were handed an easy case.

The recently released November/December edition of the UNCW Campus Activities and Involvement Calendar included a promotion for an event known as "Open Mic Night." This event simply allows students to get up on stage at the student cafeteria to sing, tell jokes, or exhibit any talent they deem worthy of public display. These nights are usually entertaining and seldom controversial.

However, the graphic used to promote the occasion has proved to be anything but uncontroversial. That is because it shows a picture of what appears (at first glance) to be a monkey singing into a microphone. The nose and mouth resemble a chimpanzee and the singer also has a tail. But upon further examination, it (he?) also has cornrows, an earring, and clothing covering dark skin. In other words, it appears to be a combination of a chimpanzee and a black male.

Naturally, many consider the graphic to be racist. And I agree wholeheartedly.

The graphic could easily be interpreted as suggesting that blacks are intellectually inferior, less evolved, or any number of offensive conclusions. While many accusations of racism are predicated upon watered-down definitions of racism, this one is in line with even the most stringent definition of racism.

The good news is that the Campus Activities and Involvement Center has done the right thing and issued an apology for their "insensitivity and careless oversight" in publishing the graphic. But many who recently read the Center's apology are wondering why the university has not issued similar apologies in the past.

Last February, the Women's Resource Center (WRC) placed a sign in front of the cafeteria with obscene references to the female anatomy (too obscene to reprint) in order to promote a feminist play called The Vagina Monologues. The same office that apologized for the racist graphic was also contacted about the obscene sign sponsored by the WRC. Of course, there was no apology offered for the sign. And the WRC did not remove it after numerous complaints were directed to them.

Furthermore, gay activists have recently been leaving magazines with pictures of nude men engaging in sexual acts, in visible locations all around the student union. But, to date, there has been no apology from the university to those who might have been offended. Such an apology from the university would make sense because some of these magazines appear to have the specific endorsement of the university. In fact, one is promoted on the university website via a link to its online edition.

Anyone who is trying to make sense of these seemingly contradictory results must understand that universities seldom adhere to principles when deciding free speech controversies. Instead, they make decisions on the basis of group identity. Specifically, they carefully monitor speech that is offensive to blacks, women, and gays. However, complaints from anyone not in one of the aforementioned groups are never taken seriously.

I am certainly pleased that the university has taken some responsibility for this recent blunder. But I would be more pleased if they would apologize for other obvious transgressions without considering the characteristics of the people offended. Like Justice Potter Stewart, they may not know how to define obscenity, but they should know it when they see it.

Mike S. Adams ( is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Wonderland. He just finished reading Animal Farm. He is currently re-reading Lady Chatterley's Lover. After that, he intends to read Welcome to the Ivory Tower of Babel, when it is released on April 15.