From the printing press to Twitter, the modernization of media technology has made information more easily accessible to the distant masses. While this has been largely to society’s benefit, it’s not without drawbacks. Among these is the ability of journalists to create narratives of outrage that can bully small figures without proper nuance.
One of the latest victims of these rhetorical rampages is Robert Nanni, a writer for The Gazette, a school newspaper for a not-terribly-significant Ontario University. In his article entitled “So You Want to Date a Teaching Assistant?” Nanni lays out a disjointed series of flirting mechanisms for undergraduates to gain the romantic attention of TAs. Since its publication, accusations of sexism, harassment promotion, and a host of other things have made Nanni’s article into a nation-wide discovery.
But is Nanni really deserving of such a witch-hunt?
First of all, this article was placed in the humour section of the paper. Humour, by its very nature, pushes boundaries and relies on the alphabet of stereotypes. If deliberately sought, one can easily find things to be offended by in nearly any corpus of humour.
If we were to expect the same level of political correctness to regulate comedians as other public figures, it would strangle their raison d’etre. Therefore, as a society we give more leeway to people operating in the arena of humour, letting people like Colbert, Leno, and Mercer say things that we would never allow Couric, Obama, or Harper to get away with. This is a leeway we need to afford to Mr. Nanni as well.
Both the author and the newspaper displayed courage in defending themselves from national outrage.
Secondly, we need to realize that, while Nanni seems to be encouraging people to develop inappropriate relationships, his intended audience are the undergraduates, not the TAs themselves. When we develop rules to prevent romantic relationships from developing in circumstances of a power imbalance, we need to understand the primary onus is on the person with greater authority, not the one with less. If Nanni was suggesting predatory behaviour on the part of the TAs, even with the cloak of humour, he would be well deserving of angry censure. But this is not what he did.
Perhaps the most serious charge people have leveled against Nanni is that he has promoted sexual harassment. But if one actually reads the text of the article itself, rather than merely relying on the sound bites picked up by the national media, one sees a picture that is far more nuanced. The Canadian Labour Code defines sexual harassment as “any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offense or humiliation to any employee.”
The actions Nanni actually suggests in his article — glancing at a TA’s public Facebook profile, asking smart questions during class, or wearing moderately revealing clothing — hardly qualify for this designation. Unless his critics are suggesting that TAs should insist their students only ask dumb questions or have the authority to control their tutorials’ dress code?
Both the author and the newspaper displayed tremendous courage in defending themselves from the onslaught of national outrage, and while they have stated that “[their] priorities concerning such topics remain the same,” they have understandably removed the article from the internet. Here, as in so many other places, ire seems to have triumphed over nuance.