The only effective limitation on speech is cultural expectation. That is to say, decency is a matter of prejudice rather than law. But American society is increasingly devoid of prejudice. The result is that Thomas Duffy, the director of the Yale Bands who last week suspended the Yale Precision Marching Band for displaying offensive language on a prop when they “marched on down the field” at The Game, should not be so worried about his professional reputation. While the band may be more likely to traffic in vulgarities in a liberated society, it is less likely that the vulgarities will cause offense.
One cannot presume to know Mr. Duffy’s motivations. Though his comments pointed toward a concern for personal reputation, he may also have had in mind the elevation of a chivalric ideal. If so, the means do not fit the end. Chivalry is a noble cause, but its work is imaginative, not legislative. Law entails an expectation of success that is foreign to Tilting at Windmills.
The suspension of the YPMB will do little to clamp down on vulgarity. An inevitably public act, the suspension will only publicize the content responsible for the suspension, further disseminating the alleged offense on which it was premised. And when the content is removed from the context of the halftime show, it may well seem offensive. But given the context of this year’s show, the suggestion of impropriety is particularly absurd.
The allegedly offensive material appeared on a prop of the Berlin Wall. In the first place, one would not expect the Berlin Wall to bear respectful graffiti; the prop would not be authentic in the absence of vulgarities. Second, the Wall was leveled in the course of the halftime show, doing away with the nasty insults and implying a new era of peace and understanding. This was one of the more fuzzy halftime shows in recent memory. It was good night, rather than roughhouse, to poor Harvard.
Come to think of it, if I were Mr. Duffy, I might be angry that the YPMB allowed the Cold War to end rather than nuking Harvard out of existence. Whatever happened to “Blood makes the grass grow, die, die, die?” At least then we could have matched the Harvard band, whose halftime show involved the creative use of a time machine to prevent Yale from having come into the world. Basically, the Harvard Band dramatized the abortion of Yale. Now that is offensive. Let’s sue.
Underlying the suspension is the idea that the band takes itself seriously. Newscast to those who have not spent much time with the band, and to Mr. Duffy: The band takes seriously cheering for Yale, not itself. That the band accepts cellists and squids is proof enough of the latter. As for the former, the YPMB is at every game whether in sun or in rain, and win or lose, it is there to the end and beyond, doing its odd “omega” dance and leading the faithful in “Bright College Years.” Would anyone even know “BCY” if not for the band?
Mr. Duffy’s suspension of the band is not merely misguided suppression of those in the YPMB. It is an affront to every groupie — to those who take pride in Old Blue and are inspired by the band’s clarion call: “Give me an O!” “O!” “Give me an R!” “R!” “Give me a G!” “G!” “Give me a Y!” “Y!” “What’s that spell?” “TEAMWORK, TEAMWORK, TEAMWORK!” Lest they be called frivolous, know this: Groupies are the best fans. The suspension therefore strikes at the very heart of Yale pride — of “E” “L” “I.”
But Mr. Duffy has forgotten an important truth: “The band always wins.” The band does not play at Mr. Duffy’s pleasure, but by the universal acclimation of the student body. It does not seek permission to assemble and perform; rather, rules of assembly are structured around its traditions. The suspension can only persist for so long before the YPMB leaves to find another home.
Who does Mr. Duffy think he is, anyway? Yale’s fun czar? Is he now supporting Harvard? Well, Mr. Duffy, “Harvard’s team may fight till the end but YALE! WILL! WIN!”
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.