Last year, students at Brandeis produced what I was sure would be a long-reigning champion in the “you can’t make this stuff up” department. Brandeis’s Asian American Student Association (AASA), in order to draw attention to “microaggressions”—unintentional slights—against Asian students, put up signs displaying various offensive statements and questions, such as “I totally have an Asian fetish” and “Why can’t people learn English when they come to this country?” Lest anyone mistake their intention, the Association explained on its Facebook page: “These papers are invasive of a space that you often inhabit and must pass through; similar to how these remarks invade our communities and the space we share as a whole: Brandeis.” They also included on the signs a web address where students who bothered to look could have found an explanation.
No matter. The signs, intended as an education about microaggressions, were themselves perceived as microaggressions. The AASA felt compelled to apologize to students who were “triggered” by the exhibit.
But this incident, while amusing, was not a complete embarrassment. For one thing, the AASA kept the exhibit up, simply adding an explanation of it instead of relying on people to follow the ample clues they had left to the meaning of their campaign. Surely, the language of “triggering,” once confined to post-traumatic stress disorder cases, is overblown. Though while it takes a certain thick-headedness not to be able to figure out the purpose of the display (in which all of the statements were placed in quotation marks), it’s not that surprising that a thoughtless student or two might have misunderstood and complained.
And so, perhaps it’s also not surprising that we already have a new champion. Just an hour or so North of Brandeis, Salem State University put its more prestigious neighbor to shame. As a way of expressing the view that our President-Elect is a purveyor of hatred, an artist at Salem State, who was invited to “create works inspired by the election,” produced digital oeuvres drawing on historical photos of Ku Klux Klan members and of Jews rounded up after the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Subtle.
Although the pictures were in a museum gallery accompanied by literature explaining the exhibit, students, and even some faculty members, seemingly could not figure out that the exhibit was an attack on Donald Trump and not a celebration of hatred. They let it be known that they found the exhibit distressing and offensive (not because they voted for Donald Trump but because they thought, apparently, that even pictures of the KKK are too hot to handle).
At an open forum, the artist explained the purpose of the exhibit, no doubt imagining that if he explained that he meant to attack Donald Trump he would be let off the hook. No such luck. The exhibit has been temporarily suspended and an apology has been issued.
I’d like to think Salem State’s reign will last, but I’ve been wrong before.