Regarding Yesterday's Article on Riccardo Muti

ArchTo our readers, Yesterday, Sherman Ave published a short article titled “Class of 2014’s Senior Citizens Thrilled with Selection of Commencement Speaker.” To summarize, the 160-word article made the joke that the only people excited for Northwestern’s choice of commencement speaker, Chicago Symphony Orchestra director Riccardo Muti, were the very elderly, playing with the culturally-accepted (possibly incorrectly so) idea that very few young, college-aged people listen to (and therefore enjoy) classical music. Upon its publishing, the article received strong negative backlash, both in WordPress, Facebook, and through emails to Sherman Ave directly; primarily from people who (in their postings) identified themselves as students or faculty of Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. It was referred to as “embarrassing and distasteful;” it was said that it “reflects horribly on NU;” and one commenter, who identified himself/herself as a “Bienen professor,” stated that it proves “your website is worthless and not remotely representing the values of Northwestern University…you are an embarrassment.” At the author’s request, and as per multiple comments demanding it, the article was removed from Sherman Ave early this morning.

Let me say that the article was in no way, shape, or form meant as a sign of disrespect towards Maestro Muti. Clearly, he is an incredibly talented, intelligent, and well-spoken individual; if he wasn’t, Northwestern wouldn’t have chosen him as commencement speaker. He’s had a profound impact on not only the artistic culture of Chicago, but the overall culture of the world, and to insinuate that he has not had such an impact would be asinine and, to put it frankly, wrong. I for one am incredibly excited for Muti to speak on campus, and you should be too, as he is a remarkably important and fascinating individual. So, as the editor-in-chief for this publication, I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely and truly apologize to any readers who were offended or hurt by what we posted. To offend was not our intention, nor is it ever.

With that in mind, however, there is something I, personally, would like to say.

I’ve spoken with Stephen Rees, the founder of Sherman Ave, many times about what he thinks Sherman Ave’s purpose and place in Northwestern’s culture is. His answer to this question is a very profound one, so I would like to replicate it here: Sherman Ave’s main objective is two-fold; mainly 1. to illuminate or reveal truths about culture, both Northwestern’s and otherwise, through the use of humor; and 2. to encourage Northwestern University to laugh, both at other things and at itself; the campus of which often takes itself too seriously.

There are dangers in attempting to accomplish both of these points. In achieving point 1, we have often had to take risks regarding the subject matter and tastefulness of the humor we create. Sometimes those risks have paid off. Sometimes they haven’t. But we stand by every risk we take, because, at the end of the day, we believe that such risks illuminate the truths of this campus in some way: for example, the (undeniable) truth that many college-aged students do not listen to classical music; and therefore, may not know who Riccardo Muti is (which can be seen as an unfortunate reality - and unfortunate realities often make the best subjects for satire, by definition). This was, in essence, the “thesis” of the article. And I don’t think I’m making that radical of a statement when I say that most college students are not familiar enough with classical music to be especially familiar with Maestro Muti’s accomplishments and influence – including, I would estimate, many of the approximately 8,200 undergraduate students at this University who are not enrolled in Bienen.  Is this disappointing?  Depending on your relation to classical music, yes or no.  If you feel it is, then that is a truth to this campus; a truth that, by the mission of this website, we tried to illuminate in our own style.

Point 2 seems simple, but is in reality far more complicated, mainly because not everyone is going to think the same things are funny. One person may find humor in one of our articles; another may find it offensive; but ultimately that’s the reality of any piece of satire, or joke, or what have you. And as a reader, you have every right to be offended at something we post. You’re allowed to have opinions. In fact, you’re encouraged, because without different people bringing different perspectives to the table, Northwestern would be a boring and monotonous place.

But consider this: When a reader says that an article like this takes a “step too far,” that reader is, indirectly, insinuating that the other risks we have taken in the past – risks that have been far more explicitly offensive than this one – are not taking a “step too far.” Furthermore, the reader is operating under the ideal that jokes about other types of students or people are acceptable, but jokes about that reader, and the type of student that reader is, are not. This line of thinking puts the reader on a higher plateau than the other students at this university; it adds a greater weight to his/her own interests, opinions, and actions.

It’s amazing to me that I have to actually write something stating this, but that is frighteningly disconcerting. It not only is, in essence, the reader exposing his/her own insecurities on a public platform, but it also casts his/her peers and equals in an ugly and ignorant light. Demanding that a piece like the one we published should be removed is in fact the very opposite of being “open-minded:” it strangles the arguments against your opinion; thereby disrupting dialogue, thereby stifling creativity, thereby fostering a campus that now contains one less point of view.

As the person in charge of this publication, and therefore the person to whom the responsibility of this publication’s voice falls – a voice that has grown significant and far-reaching, and a voice that has allowed us to comment on very serious issues in the past – I refuse to accept that this campus have one less point of view. One of the reasons I love this school so much, and love the people who attend it, is that we’re all so fantastically different, and that we differ on levels that are virtually incomprehensible. These differences, while in many cases slight, are profound. And no one difference is greater or more important than any other difference. With this in mind, I cannot in good conscious operate Sherman Ave under the guidelines that one particular difference carries more weight than any other.

You may disagree with this essay's argument. You may write a nasty comment on this article about how ignorant we are and how the damage has been done and we can’t take back what we did. You may share this article on Facebook saying what a disgrace, what an “embarrassment,” of a publication this is, or share it amongst your friends and say how sick it makes you feel that students at this university could be so horribly uncultured.

Conversely, you may write a comment on this article saying how spineless we are, saying how weak-willed it was of us to take down one of our pieces. You may say that this essay is ironic and hypocritical and full of bad grammar and nothing more than a masturbatory piece that says nothing at all, and that the author should feel embarrassed and ashamed for writing something so fundamentally useless.

But you know what? If you feel that way, you can do that. Because you have the right to feel that way, and say those things, and carry those opinions. You have the right to stand up for what you think is just and correct and fair, and you have the right, especially in this day-of-age, to voice those opinions on whatever platform(s) you want. Because you’re a detailed and complex human being, and you are important, and you matter.

But everyone else is important too. And you should – no, must – respect that. And part of that respect is allowing any opinion the right to stand firmly on its own.

In the near future, the Muti article will be re-posted, without any alterations.

Let me directly quote one of the individuals who commented on the article: “If we represent the future of a well-educated society, with that comes the responsibility to be open-minded.”

I await your negative responses.

-Paul Riker

Editor-in-Chief, Sherman Ave

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Class of 2014's Senior Citizens Thrilled with Selection of Commencement Speaker