Over the past few days, a maelstrom has been gathering at a liberal arts college– and no, it was not the snowstorm on Wednesday– it all had to do with Tony Matelli’s life-like sculpture of a sleepwalking man (the “Sleepwalker”) in his underwear placed in a prominent location on campus.
A few students have stated that the Sleepwalker endangers our campus and for those that have experienced sexual assault, makes them feel unsafe and is a “trigger” to many of the horrifying memories of their struggles with sexual assault. As they remind us, this college is a “safe space” and we need to be cognizant of their plight. Nonetheless, administration has said the statue will be remaining there until June and highly praised the statue’s ability to create intense dialogue about the nature of art.
As I watch the debate unfurl, the ugly underbelly at my college begins to show itself.
There is a running joke about our imagined model student, named “Wendy,” most recently known for her precise political correctness, self-righteousness and liberal use of the phrase “I’m offended.” Yet as exaggerated as this caricature is, it reflects an integral part of my college’s culture: the accepted and ubiquitous privilege to be offended, to be “I’m offended you’re offended I’m offended.” Regardless of whether the movement to remove the statue is correct or not, the image of my college as smug, self-righteous liberal arts students is being propagated. The media blankets the entire student body, saying we are all “frightened” or “creeped out”, and yes, even the New York Times is guilty.
Let me begin by assuring you, my dear readers, that the majority of students are simply amused, bemused, and neutral about the sculpture. Yet, I read an article from a previous alum who blasted the sculpture and who almost nonchalantly cited the fact that 1 in 6 women have been victims of sexual assault and that she herself suffered from PTSD. Two questions: (1) what about the other 5 in 6? (2) does having PTSD or having suffered from sexual assault make you qualified to speak about the sculpture in a significant manner?
The second question has frustrated me continuously, namely the way some students have been using their experiences as a way to step over valid arguments and assert their authority in addressing this topic. Anyone who tries to challenge this dubious authority is labeled as “insensitive.” It is ironic to me that my college is supposed to a “safe space”, yet many of my friends, and including myself, hesitate to voice our real opinions, because we know that it may not be as “precisely politically correct” as Wendy demands, and even the smallest things can be demonized.
I really wonder sometimes– is there anyone on campus that legitimately feels frightened of this sculpture? Or is this just a fabrication, because an almost-naked man is just such easy bait to latch onto? It is easy to imagine and I agree, quite logical, that some people will have an adverse reaction to it. Nonetheless, this is still imagination, creating a problem that really isn’t there.
I have trouble differentiating at my college sometimes: are we offended because we can or are we offended because we actually are offended?