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The McCarthy Era at Fordham

Originally published in:
The Fordham Observer

Fordham University has slipped through the Twilight Zone, back in time, to the McCarthy Era. During that dark period in our nation’s history, the government used fear tactics to silence dissenting voices. People were required to take loyalty oaths or face losing their jobs, or their liberty. A climate of fear blanketed our nation, in which people were afraid to speak out in support of their friends. Those who did take risks to stand up for the things they believed in were threatened, intimidated into silence and fired or jailed if they spoke up. In the 1950’s, in America, the ‘threat’ was Communism. Today, at Fordham, the ‘threat , it seems, is vaginas.

The Dean of Student Life has taken a very strong position on the Vagina Monologues, and refuses to allow the production of the play as a student activity. Undaunted, the students sought the support of the faculty. Outraged at Fordham’s attempt to censor this world-famous play, the faculty responded with enthusiasm. The Vagina Monologues will soon be performed as an academic event, proudly sponsored by 11 of the Departments on this campus.

As an academic event, it would seem that this play would now be out of the reach of the Office of Student Life. But there has been an astonishing new development: student employees of Residential Life have been instructed that if they show various forms of support for the play (such as attending in groups, or putting posters promoting the play on their dorm room doors) they will be fired. This new development is far more serious than the censorship of a play. We have now moved from censorship to economic intimidation. This tactic forces students who work for Residential Life to choose between their values (if they are in favor of the play) and their wallets. Unfortunately, most students don’t have the luxury to ignore the economic imperative . That, of course, is what makes this a very effective means by which to strong-arm students into submission.

What’s next? Will the Office of Student Life take up the practice of scrutinizing all other academic events, and set up a clear set of criteria regarding which events are sufficiently in line with Catholic teachings to render them suitable for support by their staff? Will talks by Fordham faculty on topics that offend the Dean of Student Life be placed on the forbidden list as well? Or, perhaps RAs will be encouraged not to take certain courses, with certain professors, or pressured not to chose certain majors? Does working for Residential Life now mean that students must be -- or must pretend to be conservative Catholics?

What a wonderful set of lessons for our students. They came to Fordham for an education, and here is what they are being taught: the best way to deal with a controversial message is to silence it. If that doesn’t work, the lesson continues, threaten those who support the message with economic sanctions; frighten those who would like to speak up on behalf of the message into silence. As they leave us, and go out into the world, our students will take this model with them. Are these really the kinds of policies we want them to support as young voters? Are these the kinds of policies that are truly consistent with Catholic -- or American values?

Let’s look for a moment at some facts about this ‘dangerous’ play: The V-Day movement is a global campaign to raise awareness about the many forms of violence against women and girls, including rape, incest, genital mutilation and sexual slavery. The Vagina Monologues has been running, around the world, for over 7 years and has raised over 25 million dollars. It was named as one of Worth Magazine’s “100 Best Charities”. Last year, over 2000 V-Day events were presented by volunteers around the world. On the college level, over 600 campuses will be staging productions of the show this year. All proceeds of the play are donated directly to local organizations working to stop violence against women.

How odd that Fordham University, which prides itself on training students to do good works for others would want to prevent the production of a show dedicated to helping prevent violence. At the heart of all censorship efforts is fear. Those who attempt to censor the speech of others do so out of the fear of what they see as the potential consequences of the ‘offensive’ message. What is the Office of Student Life so afraid of? The real risk here is not that someone will attend the Vagina Monologues and be offended by the script. Far more serious is the danger that our University will continue to abandon its principles to fear mongering and intimidation.

Op-ed published in Catholics For Choice, Summer 2003:
The Catholic church’s desire to censor is alive and well, but fortunately these attempts often rebound. Despite a recent campaign by the Cardinal Newman Society—a conservative campus group with links to the Catholic hierarchy—to prevent the Vagina Monologues being put on at Catholic colleges, all but one of the planned “V-Day” events took place. In fact, in response to news of efforts to ban these benefit productions, many community members offered off-site space to support the V-Day organizers who were being censored.

Indeed, attempts to ban the productions usually created a healthy public and media debate within the community about free speech, the problem of violence against women and the need to address it, and also raised questions about the true goals of the Cardinal Newman Society, which attempted to stop students from doing good works and pressured university administrators and their alumni toward censorship.

At Xavier University in Ohio, the attempted ban led to on-campus rallies and news coverage in the major daily newspapers and on radio and TV stations. In an article in the Cincinnati Post with the headline, "Play rallies campus on academic freedom," the reporter noted, "By Friday, however, the so-called "V-Day" project also had clearly become about censorship and student freedoms. 'What started as my idea to bring 'The Vagina Monologues' to campus has ended up being something that has united students and faculty alike,' said the play's director, a Xavier junior, Chris Sims." The faculty declared their overwhelming support of the student-run V-Day production.

V-Day is a global campaign that envisions and is working to create a world in which violence against women and girls no longer exists. V-Day hopes that the devastating and true stories that are the foundation of "The Vagina Monologues" will inspire people who see productions of the play to help V-Day create V-World and stop all violence against women and girls.

Through the V-Day College Campaign, which launched in 1999, thousands of student organizers have raised funds for local groups on their campuses and within their communities. To date, V-Day has raised over $14 million dollars for local community groups who do anti-violence work on the ground every day. Along the way, millions of people have been empowered and educated and have become active in the fight to end violence against women and girls. I don't wish to cast any aspersions on the motives of the Cardinal Newman Society, but isn't that a good thing?