Examining whether Cornell’s fence protest campaign goes too far
By Tim Bidon and Sarah Ward
Let’s face it: If you don’t own something that says “Ithaca is Gorges,” then you don’t go to school in Ithaca. These jokes have sprung off hundreds of parodies, such as “Ithaca is Cold” or “Ithaca is Stairs.” But the newest spin on the unofficial town motto pertains to the fences built over the gorges at Cornell University. Walking over bridges in Collegetown, it’s hard not to notice these “Ithaca is Fences” bumper stickers, which have been plastered nearly everywhere in the past year. Given the reason that the fences were built in the first place, the sticker campaign begs the question: Can humor ever cross the line?
In March of 2010, temporary fencing was placed on some of the bridges on the Cornell campus as a result of six consecutive student suicides earlier in the year. The construction of these fences has become a local controversy that has escalated because these fences could potentially be adjusted and made permanent. These bumper stickers arrived as a form of protest against these fences, which obstructed the view of the natural gorges.
Get it? Instead of ‘Gorges,’ they say ‘Fences.’ So punny!
Or is it?
“It’s kind of funny,” says Ian Carsia, an Ithaca College freshman. He adds, “Obviously people are going to be hurt by that sort of thing, [but] just because something is offensive doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be able to say it… The world isn’t going to put cushions on all [its] corners.”
Pushing the issue of whether the stickers are too harsh aside, we should consider whether our freedom of speech trumps our moral compasses.
IC freshman Christina Neist says no. “I don’t think anything related to suicide should become a joke,” she said. Other students seemed to be less certain about the issue.
When asked if humor could cross the line, IC freshman Emily Haff does not think twice, replying with laughter and a flat-out “No.” Haff has a complete change of heart, however, when faced with the question of the stickers. “That’s not funny…that’s a serious problem,” she states.
We all love to laugh, but is it all right when our laughter is at someone else’s expense? “The truth hurts, bitch!” says IC freshman Tori Safner. It seems that Safner and Carsia are both in agreement: The world sucks. It isn’t always going to be kind and it isn’t always going to be polite; some people are just going to have to learn to deal with it.
Lee-Ellen Marvin serves at the Director of Education and Interactive Arts at the Suicide and Crisis Prevention Hotline in Tompkins County. She speaks for all of the staff at the suicide hotline when she says that she is in support of the fences being built to prevent suicides at Cornell. Marvin states that the fences were “proven to be effective in suicide prevention.” She also expresses her understanding of humor as a tool for protest, saying, “The ‘Ithaca is…’ model is a great blank canvas for humor to respond to issues.”
Although Marvin may recognize the benefit of humor being used in protest, she asks for sensitivity from those who choose to post the stickers across Collegetown. “I would ask the people who are opposing permanent bridges to think about what it means to lose someone… A simple [physical] barrier might cause someone to stop for five minutes and reflect on what got them to the place of thinking about suicide,” said Lee-Ellen.
Regardless of whether or not you’re in support of these fences, the facts must say something: With six suicides this year alone, it’s clearly a problem that cannot be ignored. Just as these stickers adhere to the bridges, the suicides adhere to our minds as memories. Some people may be opposed to the construction of these fences, but is it acceptable to protest at a site carrying so much weight? “There should be peaceful messages for these people rather than derogatory ones,” says IC freshman Rosaletta Curry. Suicide is never funny. If this is such a serious problem, why are we using it as a punch line?
Tim Bidon is a freshman journalism major and Sarah Ward is a freshman in the exploratory program. Only three months into school in Ithaca, they’re already sick of the “Ithaca Is…” jokes. Seriously. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.