Alex Blaze

MIT hate mail and cultural redaction

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 19, 2008 3:03 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: MIT, queer theory, Sloan Management School

Sara posted about this response to an email that the LGBT Club at Sloan Management School received this past week:

Last semester, on December 10th, the club officers at MIT Sloan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Club (LGBT) sent an email to the entire Sloan community (via a Student Master's announcement) inviting any and all Sloan community members to an end-of-semester lunchtime meeting. An hour later, we received the following reply from a fellow student. Note that the author's nationality has been redacted.

More after.

"I don't care what you do among yourselves, and I am not going to teach you how to live. But I feel seek when you are trying to promote it or offer to join your events. It is not a dancing club or something that I can just like or not. You know that but in [redacted] beating gays is encouraged by the vast majority because they insult society and nature. Your email implies that I might be interested in your perversions, and such idea to me is one of most insulting things that I can ever hear. I didn't get used to enduring insults, though."

Oh my. I don't know where exactly to begin with why I have a problem with the fact that the Sloan LGBT Club redacted the nationality of this individual. But I do know that I should stipulate the following:

  1. I can understand why anyone who'd receive such an email would feel threatened, offended, and insulted.
  2. Whatever county this person was from, his words don't represent everyone from that country.
The Sloan LGBT club felt that they should redact it, and I don't understand why we can't accept that some cultures have a different interpretation of same-sex desire than ours does.

Redacting the country of origin of this individual was done, I suppose, under the mistaken premise that homophobia is a monolithic entity and a universal wrong. An American writing those comments is the same as a Cameroonian, is the same as a Frenchman, is the same as a Russian, is the same as a Japanese man. Where they come from isn't important - the words are a text on a page, their meaning is the same to everyone, and their interpretation is devoid of the author's cultural context.

They, of course, didn't feel the same way about the writer's gender; the letter refers to him with male gender pronouns throughout. Maybe that's just because our language makes it much easier to speak if we simply choose a gender and run with it, but the fact remains that revealing that part of the speaker's identity, by extension, that part of his cultural context, probably wasn't even a blip on the Club's collective radar while his nationality was something worth covering up.

While I'm not opposed to universals nor am I saying that we have to put up with homophobia, etc. because a certain context would let someone off the hook, I am opposed to addressing these problem as if culture is completely unimportant. What works for fighting homophobia in the US isn't going to work the same in China, in Iran, or really any other country (well, maybe Canada). And a queer accepting US is going to look different from a queer accepting Lebanon.

As much as we try to pretend that we're all coming from the same place, we're not. Homosexuality and sexuality are interpreted differently along cultural lines, and homophobia acts differently along those lines as well.

It's hard not to think that the implication in erasing this person's national origin was to (re)create an abstract ideal for queer acceptance. And, of course, that abstract ideal would be "whatever works for America."

And isn't that the exact thing that we're supposed to be working against? Is the idea that there's "one way" to do anything - be happy, have sex, work towards social justice, have a family, be queer accepting, view homosexuality - the exact antithesis of queer liberation?

Perhaps being on vacation this past week just made me light-headed with possibility.


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Sportin' Life | April 19, 2008 4:14 PM

I interpret this much differently. The redaction (and the lack of consequences imposed by the Institute against this dangerous bigot) is more likely motivated by a paternalistic and patronizing attitude on the part of the administration which insists that the poor, benighted people of [redacted] are naturally superstitious and violent--and can't be expected to treat other people decently.

Which country it actually is has been covered up in order to suppress open discussion about whether or not this attitude is appropriate. I suspect the student is Muslim and that "religion" is part of the smokescreen.

I'm inclined to share Sportin's interpretation.

Any potential discussion on homophobia motivated by religion, especially marginalized religions, is avoided even by the most "progressive" colleges.

Oh, this post took half a week to write because I kept on getting distracted/drunk/interrupted while doing it. So, yeah, long and short of it, SL, that's what I meant, except a little different.

I don't know where this person is from, but, yeah, it's the idea that other countries/cultures can be judged on the same value system as we are. Whether the idea is that they're just too regressive/stupid to live up to that value system (as you think the LGBT Club thinks) or that this one individual who's not representative of that country (as I think the LGBT Club thinks), the idea that they have/want to play by the same rules as Americans do is still there.

Either way, I'm looking for a positive way to interpret this, other than a general "I'm sure their intentions were good."

Muslim? I don't know. From the sound of the letter, it's not an English speaking country.

Alex, is it possible that they redacted the nationality because the student responsible for the homophobic email is the only student from [redacted]--or one of a very few?

If the purpose of the club in sharing the email was to draw attention to homophobic threats and reactions, yet they couldn't or didn't want to single out the specific aggressor in a public forum, it's possible that leaving the identity of his country in the response would have made it easy for other students to guess who it was.

The mail could have just as easily come from a Latin American country, or even west bumfuck in hicksville america.

There are plenty of western cultures where that attitude prevails. All I have to do is drive about an hour or so in any direction, and be able to find that particular attitude.

I mean, hasn't the Kern mess taught you anything? We are still hated here in america. We do not need to look elswhere at all.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | April 20, 2008 2:14 AM

If the individual, speaking from the perspective of his country, is made "seek" and has sent the email he should anticipate that it could be quoted. I think this GLBT club has bent too far backwards. Did they even inform the university of this potential hate crime participant? Have there not been enough tragities on campus from unhinged, isolated, (foreign & domestic) hate filled students?

I agree that the message from the student should be referred to the proper authorities at MIT. They should be given an opportunity to handle this matter responsibly with a view to avoiding violence.

If another school in this country had been fully apprised of a situation, perhaps a life would have been spared if they had acted responsibly.

There are a number of cultures that could have produced the individual that wrote the message, and my guess is that they redacted the name of "redactia" to avoid identifying the student.

I do not buy that we have to be culturally accepting of certain parctices. Se certainly were not accepting of Boer Culture as far as Aparthied in South Africa, and rightfully so.

@shakay & Robert: Yes, the school was notified. See Sara's post (link at the beginning of Alex's post) for info on that.

I want to point out the gender pronouns Alex mentions. I think they probably ran with male pronouns just because if someone is coming from a foreign country that promotes violence against gays, that same society probably promotes violence against women. When was the last time you heard of an African/Middle Eastern/South-Central American woman sending threatening e-mails about "beating gays?"

As for nationality - it's the same thing I was taught in journalism class. Is it necessary for the story? No. It's not. The story is "Student sends threatening e-mail" It doesn't need "Albanian student sends threatening e-mail" or "Albanian female student sends threatening e-mail." By adding the adjectives you're just providing extraneous information that'll muddy up the point of the release/article.

FYI - I had to look "redacted" up in the dictionary. Just so I'm not the only one scratching my head, it means "edited."