Opinion [From the Spectator]

An Apology for Orgo Night

By Averill Leslie
February 25, 2004

As the Columbia University Marching Band's Poet Laureate (scriptwriter) and Script Reader (performer), I was one of the most actively responsible parties in our Orgo Night performance last December. Faced with the criticism of our show, my immediate defense was based on the principles upon which I had originally written the show: classic arguments on the function of satire and on the value of holding Orgo Night as a liminal moment during which many conventions and restrictions are left at the door. During the course of increasingly intense thought over the last two months, however, it has become more and more clear to me that by narrow-sightedly clinging to these rationales, I have failed to sufficiently acknowledge the other pressing aspects of the issue.


Three weeks ago I resigned from both of my positions with CUMB. This letter is the beginning of an explanation of that action. It is an unqualified apology for my part in this affair. Finally, it is a challenge to the other members of the band--and to all members of the community--to consider how even our strongest defensive arguments cannot necessarily account for the actual impact of our behavior.

I apologize for the battered wife joke, a line reprehensible by itself but made even worse by the way in which it turned the rest of the joke into an extended enactment of a domestic abuse scene. One can theorize endlessly about caricature, but when the victim hearing the joke has a visceral response to what we've said, suddenly theory seems less relevant. And it is no good to claim that people likely to be offended at Orgo Night know what they're getting into and should therefore stay home in order to leave the fun to those who appreciate it. Such an argument seems to be predicated on a belief that there is no such thing as indirect harm.

I apologize also for the Barnard jokes. If a Barnard student feels demeaned or harassed, what consolation is it to inform her that the joke had no serious basis? The common technique of labeling such a student "hypersensitive" serves only to protect oneself from having to consider her objection in any depth. And even if I were confident in my usage of satire, how can I protect against the eventuality of some other guy laughing because of the misogynistic overtones? Sound intentions are insufficient. It is dangerous to assume one's behavior can never be sexist or contribute to sexism simply because one does not think of oneself as "sexist."

I also apologize for my part in the poster campaign and for an Islam joke in the script that as yet no one has complained about. Cleverness can go too far when held uncritically as an end in itself. There is much more that needs to be said here. Hopefully much of the needed dialogue will come out as the result of the current protests.

In many ways, this ordeal has been a process for me, in which I've learned that I am ignorant. I am a white male who grew up in an extraordinarily progressive family. How easy it is for me to believe that sexism and racism are sufficiently conquered to safely caricature them! I wrote many of the Barnard jokes for Orgo Night with the belief that I was lampooning situations so patently absurd that they couldn't possibly function as anything other than satire. Within days of Orgo Night, however, several women told me about how they had dealt with exactly those situations. It was a sobering challenge to my assumptions.

One can make all kinds of rationales for this type of humor, and some of them may even have some amount of substance, but ultimately--regardless of those rationales--some people will be offended, and some damage will be done. You cannot control the effects of your actions simply by insisting on the validity of your intent. Some harm will occur, direct or indirect.

That is why I stepped down as the Band's Poet Laureate and Script Reader, and why, in a more general sense, I must leave behind this type of humor completely. I no longer believe that arguments for satire and extremism can serve as debate-closing legitimizations for offensive humor. I cannot champion CUMB humor as simplistically as I used to. Other members of the band might still believe in the power and value of satire and of extremist humor, but I can no longer believe these things stand as a full accounting.

No longer can I continue acting as though our rationales successfully explain away any possibility of damage. I must recognize the validity of a larger set of truths. It is simply irresponsible to cling to such a narrow set. I am painfully aware of how much work lies ahead before I could possibly be ready venture back into this kind of humor responsibly. I am sorry that other people have had to suffer in order for me to learn this lesson. I can only hope that others will take this opportunity to reexamine their beliefs and behavior before they come to commit any harm.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in anthropology. He resigned as the Columbia University Marching Band Poet Laureate and Script Reader on Feb. 5.

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