Syracuse University Is Not ‘Okay’

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The school’s women’s lacrosse team has bowed to the mob after a student flashed an otherwise harmless hand gesture.

Have you ever configured your fingers in such a way that could signal your support for white supremacy and deny the humanity of your friends, colleagues, teammates, classmates, or other peers? I’d be surprised if you hadn’t.

Remember the Brett Kavanaugh hearings? Forgotten among all of the boofing, games of Devil’s Triangle, and careful examinations of the nominee’s high-school calendars is the pre–Christine Blasey Ford controversy touched off when a former clerk’s hand incidentally formed the “Okay” symbol behind Kavanaugh while he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Zina Gelman Bash, the clerk in question, is a Mexican-American Jew, so the idea that she would be spreading coded white-supremacist messages in Congress was always ridiculous on its face. Fortunately, while the very-online #Resistance crowd jumped all over her, even left-leaning outlets such as Vox acknowledged that the symbol’s occasional use by racists on 4chan did not mean that any and all use of it should be seen as racist.

After all, even Democrats such as President Biden and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have used the gesture in the past. And why wouldn’t they? Few Americans spend their time monitoring shady Internet forums to find out what words, phrases, and symbols the fringes are trying to appropriate. Fewer still believe that the fringes should be ceded whatever it is they’re trying to appropriate without so much as a fight. After all, the “Okay” symbol has an actual purpose — and an important one in the context of activities such as scuba diving. Why should we rewrite all of our society’s rules and regulations to accommodate a small number of vile lunatics? They don’t deserve that kind of power.

Most college students — or at least those at Syracuse University — seem to disagree, though. On Tuesday, a member of the women’s lacrosse team posted a picture of her making the “Okay” sign on her leg on the team’s Instagram page. Big mistake. Before you could say “Okay” ten times fast, the outrage mob was off to the races, insisting that the post was at best obtuse and offensive, and at worst a sure sign of bigotry and a toxic atmosphere on the team.

The mob’s power play worked, and the team released one of the most self-flagellating statements you’ll ever read. It begins:

Yesterday, as part of a social media campaign, a player on our team was “taking over” our Instagram account. One of the posts included a hand gesture that is interpreted by some as a white supremacy sign. The image was a background to a question sticker, but the hand gesture in question was clearly visible. Though it was never intended to do so, this justifiably offended and upset some.

Even this goes much too far. Was all of the offense and anger really justified? Was there any supporting evidence to suggest that the student who made the post even knew that the OK symbol was sometimes appropriated by hate groups, much less that she was using it with similarly bigoted intentions? No, but sadly, the statement gets much, much worse. It goes on to call the post “an unacceptable lapse in judgment and lack of awareness on the part of our entire team,” apologize for being “negligent and hurt[ing] people in the community we love so much,” and insist that the team is “grateful that the lacrosse community has held us accountable.”

Is it the responsibility of every American citizen over the age of 18 to monitor white-supremacist sites and understand their intricacies? How, exactly, is the rest of the team complicit in this supposed atrocity? Was anyone really hurt?

Most disturbing is the “thank you, sir, may I have another”–ism on display in the bit about being held “accountable.” What is it that they’re being held accountable for, and by whom? I, for one, do not appreciate the team’s inviting the mob to hold the rest of us accountable to its nebulous, ever-evolving standards by subjecting us to an endless torrent of online harassment.

To be clear, I don’t blame the students on the team for bowing so quickly and so low to the mob at their doorstep. I doubt very much that they wrote the statement released on their behalf, and would venture to guess that at least some of them are not happy with its contents. The culpability lies with the adults who threw these young women under the bus without a second thought to make their own lives just a little bit easier. Head coach Gary Gait, for example, is one of the sport’s most revered figures. Yet he did nothing to stand up for the team, instead calling the post a “mistake” and consenting to the tarnishing of the players he’s paid to mentor and protect. This is part of a larger trend of powerful adults and institutions failing in their obligation to shield the powerless from unfair criticism and unjustifiable consequences.

There’s only one word for it: cowardice.


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