Dumb Brutes

ELLEN GOODMAN

May 27, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--Now, at long last, we can return the water buffalo to the political menagerie. This beast of burden has been working overtime. It's carried the heavy weight of arguments about racial harassment, free speech and political correctness for five solid months. Give it a rest.

In case you missed the incident, it began January 13 on the University of Pennsylvania campus when a group of African-American sorority sisters, in high spirits and high volume, disturbed some other students' peace. A few midnight scholars went to their windows to yell and some hurled epithets -- those little verbal beasties -- down at the women.

According to these women, ''the N word,'' the female dog word and assorted slurs were used. They say somebody bellowed: ''Shut up you black water buffaloes. Go back to the zoo where you belong.''

The only one who admitted anything was freshman Eden Jacobowitz. He confessed to hurling ''water buffaloes,'' although not ''black'' ones. The Israeli-born Mr. Jacobowitz insisted that in Hebrew, water buffalo was an equal-opportunity insult, not meant as a racial slur.

The women took their grievances privately to the university authorities. Mr. Jacobowitz took his grievances publicly to the press. And soon we were all off and running -- faster than a speeding water buffalo -- on one of the, uh, pet subjects of our era: Free Speech, P.C. and The Academy. To get the full slant of this spring seminar, the only required reading you need is TC headline from the Toronto Star: ''What Race Is a Water Buffalo?''

Monday the whole sorry event came to an unsatisfying end. The women withdrew their charges, but not their bitterness, saying ''we have been disappointed by a judicial process which has failed us miserably.'' Mr. Jacobowitz expressed his wish, through an adviser, that ''he could have talked with the women from the beginning.''

Most everybody else on campus seemed to be depressed, embarrassed, angry or sad. As Claire Fagin, the new interim president of the university, said dolefully, the whole story ''has a level of pathos to it.'' But if everyone is unhappy, there's still got to be a lesson somewhere in the offal left by this buffalo.

One lesson is simply about politics. Mr. Jacobowitz became a prize show horse and Penn became a whipping dog for conservatives because many were after bigger game: the outgoing president, Sheldon Hackney. Mr. Hackney, a thoroughly civil man, has been picked to head the National Endowment for the Humanities -- a favorite battleground for ideological warfare.

The harder lessons are about the university as a microcosm or midi-cosm of society. Colleges these days are proving grounds for all the issues of diversity and shifting power relationships in the wider society.

At their best, universities are painfully, self-consciously struggling to hold together communities while supporting individual rights. But they are midi-cosms of society in another way. Too many personal disputes in America are polarized into see-you-in-court legal disputes. That's also true on campus.

The careful procedures, the elaborate codes of justice, the formal system of law often gets replicated in a collegiate form. The law is the chief tool for resolving conflicts -- and, as they say, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. As Ms. Fagin ruminates, ''We have become fanatic about using these kinds of legalistic procedures, so we get caught up in seeing these as solutions to problems.''

But what if the problem is that people in a diverse community have to see each other's point of view? This legalizing hardens people into opponents who only defend their own point of view.

What if the problem is creating a community where people can go on living together? The law creates winners and losers, not co-habitants.

What if the problem is that people can't talk directly, personally, honestly with each other? Tell it to the lawyer? The very system gets in the way of the solution.

Mr. Jacobowitz came to Penn from a Jewish parochial high school. The five women were members of an all-black sorority. More than a proper cultural translation of the word ''water buffalo'' stood between them.

Yet both sides feel alienated and ill-treated by the judicial process. This is a process that can foster grievance but not understanding. It can assess blame but can't promote community. The judicial system should be, but isn't, the very last resort. Especially on campus. What we need are more mechanisms to help us talk and talk and talk until, with luck, we understand.

Talking. That's what separates us from the water buffaloes.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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