By Andrew Innes
Ivy climbed the walls of the impressive red brick building of the university. Perched high in the mountains of Kobe, Uguisu International University had the vibe of a summer camp. Students lounged around on the grass discussing the latest café in town or which teacher was the likeliest to give you an easy A grade while the occasional sound of Japanese bush warblers rang out from the trees. The subtle scent of cherry blossom hung in the air and framed the new possibilities of spring; and in summer, the sound of cicadas provided the soundtrack of lethargy as the heat and humidity sapped energy. In the middle of all this, a path emerged from the forest surrounding the campus and led to water features and carefully tended flower beds.Emerson loved her students and would never usually joke about them behind their backs, but she couldn’t let the anecdote go.
The teachers were on a break, and it was just a cheap story that nobody would remember after they went back to class. She couldn’t resist, “So, this student, yeah. I hold up her essay and say to her, you’ve clearly put a lot of effort into this book review, and you draw on some good examples to illustrate why you like the book. But may I just remind you, one more time, that the title is `Moby Dick`, not `Moby’s Dick` as you have written.” The bell went to signify the start of the next class. A few people chuckled as they gathered up their books and headed out of the door, and the unfortunate student gaffe had mostly been forgotten by the time the door had swung shut. However, one person sitting in the corner shook their head in disapproval as they engaged with social media to announce the latest transgression of the ever-shifting sands of acceptable discourse.
This was precisely what Emerson had been looking for when she’d returned from travelling the world and had found herself working at a call centre in New York. She’d seen the job online, filled out the application in her lunch break, and never looked back. Textbooks were eschewed in place of creative expression, and the campus had a reputation of being a crucible of forward-thinking, liberal ideas. At least, that was what people had said about the place. The bell went, and the teachers filed back into the teachers’ room.
“Did you hear that a university in the UK recently banned clapping?” Julie, a teacher wearing a tight t-shirt and a pair of John Lennon glasses, asked.
“I did, and quite right, too. It’s non-inclusive isn’t it?” offered a voice from the corner.
“Not to mention discriminatory and potentially triggering for many,” added Julie.
“What are they supposed to do instead?” asked Emerson.
“Use jazz hands?” the teacher asked, turning the declarative statement into an interrogative.
“Aren’t jazz hands a little bit, ah, problematic?” Julie’s sandwich paused in mid-air as Emerson made this point.
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Julie, now turning to face Emerson with a puzzled expression.
“Well, it just seems a bit hypocritical that they’re trying to placate one group of people by substituting an action with something that perpetuates, ah, never mind. Forget I said anything.” Julie gave a slight look of disdain and resumed eating her sandwich. A few minutes later, she raised her eyebrows as she came across another story that had grabbed her attention.
“PETA is saying that we shouldn’t use the word pet anymore.”
“What’s PETA?” asked Emerson.
“Who is PETA?” corrected Julie. “It stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?” Julie once again managed to turn the statement into a question.
“Sorry, why is PETA saying that?” asked Emerson, trying to keep things light.
“Because it likens cats and dogs to inanimate objects, patronises them, implies ownership, and removes their agency?” Julie replied as though addressing an annoying child who kept asking why the sky was blue.
“It’s a good thing they can’t understand English, then. That’d really open a can of worms, wouldn’t it?” Emerson joked.
“Open a can of beans is the more politically correct term I think you’ll find,” Julie shot back, her gaze fixed on her sandwich.
“What, in case some worms might be eavesdropping and get triggered?” Emerson did her best to raise a smile.
“It’s clear to me that some people around here need to take these issues a little more seriously. Now, if you don’t mind…” Julie grabbed her books and stormed out of the room with a face like thunder.
Shaking her head, Emerson picked up her phone and headed to Warbler, the university’s discussion board. The lead story was about a recent cherry blossom viewing party. A young Kiwi had worn a Japanese yukata and was being accused of cultural appropriation. The resulting dog-pile had been so fierce that the student had stopped attending classes. Emerson noted with irony that none of the `calling out` had been from anyone who could claim cultural ownership of the item of clothing at the heart of the issue.
The school’s guidance counsellor came through the door of the teachers’ room, a look of concern on her face.
“Emerson, can I have a quiet word?”
“Sure. Is everything okay?”
“Well, I’d be lying if I said it was. I was just wondering—have you seen social media today?”
“You mean, the cultural appropriation story?”
“No, no. Not that one. Although, shocking, wasn’t it?” She hesitated, considering her words.
“If you just scroll down a little further, you’ll see what I mean. I’ll just give you a minute to read through it.” Emerson read through the post as the guidance counsellor busied herself making notes in a file.
WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED!
Corrections of grammar and punctuation by those in positions of power constitute a form of harassment. This is, without doubt, a bold statement, and you would be forgiven for scoffing at the idea. Yet, with a simple flick of her red pen, Emerson Hall tried to silence a student’s voice and perhaps thought no one would notice.
In a recent book review, a student made the case that the proper title of Herman Melville’s classic novel had long been suppressed by insidious forces. With the deliberate inclusion of an apostrophe and a lower case s, Melville’s true message, that the story is a clever metaphor for phallic power, is finally made clear.
Let us examine the evidence. Note how the whale violently thrusts upwards towards the sky before thrashing the ocean with its tail. Picture its blowhole, recklessly ejaculating spray and foam into the ether with no care for whom or what is in its path. Examine the phallic shape of the whale itself, the very embodiment of Moby’s `Dick`. Not convinced? We need only look at the etymology of the word phallus to find that it derives from the Greek phállaina, which, as I’m sure you are no doubt aware, is derived from the Greek for whale.
Clearly drawing on the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault, the student shows that, by writing about it, Melville serves to normalise and celebrate the whale’s toxic behaviour. In this way, it becomes the idealised form of conduct, the hegemonic, and by extension, a form of social control. The real message had been hiding in plain sight all these years. It was just waiting to be revealed with a simple apostrophe and an s.
This dovetails with a broader theme, which is indicative of the notion that there exists a ‘correct’ English vis-à-vis the ‘dialect’ of the ‘Other’. Who is Emerson Hall to plant the American flag of her pen into the ground that is the student’s essay and claim it as fertile land to be modified to meet her Western standards? Who is Emerson Hall to mark her territory on this student’s paper like a dog pissing on a lamppost? Who is she to be the gatekeeper that determines how the apostrophe should be used?
While the student vehemently disagreed with me—proof (if any were needed) of an unconscious prejudice and fragility—she eventually agreed with the following statement, “Microaggressions such as these serve to wear students down and cause them to feel unsafe. Corrections of grammar and punctuation by those in positions of power are nothing short of brainwashing and punctuationism.” Join us in the fight and sign the petition today to rid the campus of this toxic individual. #CancelEmerson.
Various people had warbled their support, and plans for a protest to cancel Emerson were building by the minute.
“Oh my god. The student doesn’t feel safe?” Emerson said—a hand clamped over her mouth in shock.
“Yes. That’s the problem. If the student had merely said that they were offended by your correction, it probably wouldn’t have come this far. However, with health and safety laws being what they are, we are compelled to investigate any instance where a student specifically states that they feel unsafe.”
“But it seems to me that the student was coerced into saying that.”
“Emerson, I’ll be frank. What you did was in line with university policy, and we are fully behind you. Part of your role here is to correct grammar and punctuation. However, after a meeting this morning, we have concluded that the best course of action would be for you to apologise and say that you misspoke during your feedback.”
“But, I didn’t misspeak. I simply put a red line through the apostrophe and the s as they were both unnecessary. The title is clearly Moby Dick, and I don’t buy this theory that it’s some coded metaphor as though the student has just written the latest Margaret Atwood dystopia.”
“Yes, yes. But unfortunately for you, that isn’t the way many are seeing it.”
“Honestly, the whole thing is just ridiculous,” said Emerson.
“Yes, well, there is an infinite number of viewpoints, and they’re all equally relative, Emerson.”
“Except for when they aren’t,” Emerson shot back.
“As a teacher, there is a power relationship between you and the student. In short, you have more power, which means that, ironically, your viewpoint has less weight.”
“But shouldn’t an opinion stand on its own and be judged on its own merits, not based on who said it?” asked Emerson, “if you see a message scrawled on a wall, you don’t ask who wrote it before passing judgment on the validity of its content, do you? Surely it should stand or fall on the basis of its premises.”
“Emerson, the problem with you is that you try to see things too logically. As I said before, just say that you misspoke.”
“I don’t think I’ve got any choice in the matter now, do I? But I still assert that all I did was correct the student’s punctuation. I’ve been totally misrepresented, and I’m not even sure I believe they don’t know that.” Emerson felt her head swimming. From somewhere off in the campus, a faint chant echoed through the corridors.
Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Emerson Parker has got to go. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Emerson Parker has got to go!
She looked through the window onto a courtyard that afforded a view of a corridor on the opposite side of the building and saw a group of students roaming the hallway. A few of them were filming events on their phones while one or two held placards aloft. One held a baseball bat and ran it along the bars on the windows as they searched for the person who had transgressed their rights.
“Emerson, come out, come out, wherever you are,” said someone wearing a mask.
“I think it might be best if you left via the back,” suggested Jane. Emerson slipped out of the room and stealthily made her way down the corridor away from the sound of the chanting.
Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Emerson Parker has got to go. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Emerson Parker has got to go! The voices got louder.
Emerson continued in the opposite direction from where the chanting was coming from and rounded a corner. As she approached the main door leading to the car park, she realised that someone had locked it. Turning the handle, her hands slipped on the cold metal as they grew damp with perspiration. Adrenalin flooding her body, she yanked and heaved at the door to no avail.
“There she is!”
“Goddamn Dick denier!” shouted one of the students. The group made its way towards her, several students holding their phones right in her face as they livestreamed her reaction to Warbler.
“Why do you want to silence student voices, Emerson?!” A voice echoed through the corridor from a student with several facial piercings.
“I’m not silencing you,” Emerson tried to reason.
“You’re a goddamn phallic power sceptic Emerson,” an imposing student twice her size pointed a baseball bat in her direction.
“You are not allowed to speak! You have lost that privilege!” came a voice full of anger and hate.
“Stop with the adultsplaining Emerson!” a couple of students laughed at the term coined to shame, humiliate, and shut down debate with elders.
“Fuck you, Emerson, get out of our safe space!”
“Yeah!” came the collective cry from the students.
“Who are you to tell us what punctuation we can and can’t use? Own your mistake!” shouted a voice.
“Yes, perhaps I did make a mistake, but…”
“Get your hands off our apostrophes, Emerson.” The voices came from all sides and reverberated around her.
“Depunctuate our curriculum!” demanded one student to a loud cheer.
“God damn punctuationist!” said another.
“Take your apostrophes and go rot in hell, Emerson!” one student was crying and visibly shaking as he screamed like a baby.
The chant started up again.
Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Emerson Parker has got to go. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Emerson Parker has got to go!
The cameras pressed in closer as students filmed her reaction. As the voices got louder, the sound of a bunch of keys jangling emerged through the cacophony, the sound of hope. An elderly caretaker had appeared on the other side of the door to clean the campus. Emerson heard the reassuring sound of metal as the grooves of a key aligned the pins which allowed the tumbler mechanism to rotate. As the pins of the lock fell into place with a satisfying clunk, the door creaked open. Emerson saw her chance and ran past the old man into the sunshine like her life depended on it.
“Irrashaimase!” Four waiters shouted a warm Japanese welcome as the two teachers walked through the izakaya’s shop curtain. Emerson was on leave from work, and it was the first time she had ventured out since the incident in the hallway. They found a table in the corner and ordered a round of beers.
“Kanpai!” said Robert—a tall, long-haired teacher with a beard as impressive as his stomach was large. Raising his frosted glass and clinking it against Emerson’s, he took a large gulp of beer through the foamy head.
“Kanpai,” said Emerson a little less enthusiastically. She took a large swig and enjoyed the cool sharpness in her throat as it went down.
“So, tell me about this problem you’re having,” Robert said as he leafed through the menu.
“There’s a campaign to have me cancelled.”
“A campaign to have you what?” Robert looked up from the photos of raw fish, and chicken on sticks.
“Cancelled. Kicked off the campus. Sent packing back to New York. I can’t say for sure who’s responsible for the Warble that started all this, but I’ve got my suspicions.”
“Ah. Moby’s Dick, right? But it doesn’t make any sense. Why would someone want to take you down for correcting a misused apostrophe?”
“Because they’re trying to signal to everyone else just how virtuous and woke they are, I guess. It’s like a new religion.”
The food arrived, and they sat back from the table to make way for a shared selection from the menu: Vietnamese spring rolls, fried chicken, a couple of salads, grilled meat and leeks on skewers, and a selection of sushi— typical izakaya fayre.
“So, you were saying something about people wanting to appear woke, right. What’s wrong with that?”
“Everyone wants to be seen to be woke, that’s right. They don’t necessarily want to do the work, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Being woke used to mean something important. It was all about being sensitive to social issues such as prejudice and racism—very virtuous goals. It was about being able to see systems of oppressive power invisible to others. The problem is that people are finding issues with everything from the cereal mascots to traffic lights to math to Sesame Street to the way desks are arranged in class.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, as I say, these are all very virtuous pursuits, but it’s become a race to the bottom. It’s become more of a quest to problematise issues where others can’t see them. It’s all about finding the rapper who said something inappropriate twenty years ago and getting them cancelled rather than going after the politicians and corporations that really perpetuate these systems of oppression,” Emerson said by way of example.
“Irrashaimase!” rang the chorus as a group of drunk salarymen staggered through the noren curtain hanging over the door.
“This is a pen!” one of them slurred before his colleagues grabbed his arm and pulled him away.
“Never gets old, does it?” Robert said as he took a large gulp of his beer.
“So, Math is problematic? I don’t follow.”
“Please don’t tell me you subscribe to the notion that two plus two equals four?” Emerson peered over her beer.
“Careful Robert, denial is merely proof of one’s guilt and fragility. Which of Freud’s defence mechanisms would that be again?” Robert couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not. “You know, the thing I hate the most is the hypocrisy. Think about it—the thirty-second commercials that talk of female empowerment while selling those same women the same razor blades as men for twice the price. Or consider the multi-nationals proclaiming to support Black Lives Matter while simultaneously lobbying Congress to weaken Labor Prevention Acts so they can force ethnic minorities to engage in modern-day slavery. Or what about Nivea pretending to embrace body positivity while promoting skin whitening creams in Africa? Or…”
“Whoa, okay, I get it. Take a breath. Slow down. My advice to you, Emerson, is to just be careful and keep your head down. You’ve already apologised. Listen, I gotta take a leak. Can you get a couple more beers in?” Robert excused himself and headed to the gents. Meanwhile, the screen of Emerson’s phone lit up with a notification from Warbler. She couldn’t help but read it.
In her recent apology and claims to have misspoken, Emerson Hall of White Heron Residence apartment number 87, Himeji, has reminded us who the real victim in all of this is: herself. Make no mistake, for it is clear from her recent post that it is first and foremost her own emotions and safety that take centre stage. As Emerson picks her words carefully, she offers up the dog whistle that, “I was only trying to `help` the student,” she fails to see her own privilege when she adultsplains about, “lessons having been learned,” and gaslights us when she states that, “I want to become a better person and move forward.”
As a Dick denier, perhaps we should expect nothing less, especially when she remarkably fails to see that this is merely the thin end of a very thick wedge that contributes to a hostile campus climate. Decades of research have concluded that there is no inherent standard of English to which we should strive. Language is forever in flux; words change their meaning over time. One person uses a `dialect` while another speaks `the Queen’s English`, but who gets to decide? The fact that Emerson fails to acknowledge this and focuses on her own victimhood only serves to delegitimise student voices. If that doesn’t constitute a tone-deaf response, I don’t know what does. Meet with us tomorrow outside White Heron Residence, and let’s show Emerson that she really has messed with the wrong crowd. #CancelEmerson.
Robert came back to the table and sat down to find Emerson holding back tears, “I’ve been doxed,” were her first words, “I can’t go back,” were her second.
Three years had passed since Emerson’s address had been made public on Warbler, forcing her to leave Uguisu University out of fears for her own safety. She’d had enough of all the discussions of cultural appropriation, cancel culture, and virtue signalling. Initially, she had struggled to find work back in New York; prospective employers politely declined after a quick Google search dredged up the old story. She was now working at a sandwich restaurant.
It had been a busy day with the oppressive heat drawing customers into her shop for ice-cold drinks and homemade food. Lunchtime was winding down, and she was about to close the shop for the day when a customer walked through the door.
“Hi, I’ll have the Vietnamese Ban Mi sandwich, please. Oh, with a side order of French Fries and a large Coke to go. Thanks.”
“Coming right up,” Emerson said, smiling as she took a knife and started cutting the baguette in half.
“Hold it right there!” Emerson looked up at the customer, the knife hovering in mid-air as she met the customer’s gaze.
“Is something the matter,” she asked.
“What is this?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you have any food allergies that we may need to know about? All of our ingredients are ethically sourced, Free Trade, organic, and completely vegan,” Emerson said while laying the knife down.
“No, no, no, no, noooo! Remind me, what kind of sandwich is this again?” demanded the customer with an air of outrage, their hand clenched on the counter.
“It’s a Vietnamese Ban Mi sandwich.”
“And, if I may ask, what kind of bread is it made with?”
“Well, we make them with either ciabatta or baguettes, depending on what we have in stock that day. We usually have a gluten-free variety too, but it’s sold out today. I’m…”
“You make them with either ciabatta or baguettes depending on what you have in stock on the day,” the customer parroted while looking towards the ceiling as if in deep contemplation of this last piece of information.
“Do you not see how that is… problematic?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The customer hit their forehead with the palm of their hand in mock incredulity and looked around the shop as if checking to see if anyone else could believe what they were hearing.
“As a person of non-Vietnamese heritage, I’m assuming you think it’s okay to appropriate their culture in this way?” the customer paused for a moment. “Oh, but I suppose you’d just retort that it’s a form of fusion as you’re using a ciabatta today, merely passing it off as a piece of authentic Vietnamese cuisine, is that right?”
“We have French bread if you’d prefer?”
“French bread! Now, this is where it gets interesting. I mean, are you even aware that it was the Vietnamese who appropriated French bread? Now, we could stand here and chew the fat over whether this constitutes cultural appropriation or not. After all, weren’t the French the colonial oppressors in Vietnam? Right? Wouldn’t it be a good thing for the oppressed Vietnamese to rise up in some small way and appropriate the oppressor’s culture?” the customer asked, warming to the drama of the situation.
“I’m sorry, I don’t see where this is going. We have a nice selection of toasted sandwiches if you’d prefer an alternative,” Emerson said, frantically looking around the shop for moral support.
“Would you consider that to be a positive move on the part of the Vietnamese?!” the customer barked.
“No, it is not, is the correct answer!” the customer shouted, looking directly into Emerson’s eyes before she could answer. “Are you aware that the influence of colonialism has meant that Vietnamese chefs consider their local bread to be an inferior product when compared to the supposed superiority of French bread? It’s almost a kind of…” the customer looked around as if the words they were looking for were somehow suspended in the air, “…sandwich Stockholm Syndrome, right?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so? Do you know what this leads to?”
“Held hostage by the dominant culture, the victim comes to develop feelings of affection for the very people holding them captive,” Emerson had the feeling that the customer had committed their speech to memory, that they’d maybe even rehearsed it in the mirror. “This leads to a hatred of their own culture. The very act of you selling me a Ban Mi sandwich is a form of violence towards the Vietnamese people. You have blood on your hands. You probably have Vietnamese slaves working in the kitchen back there, don’t you?” The customer craned their neck as though expecting to see a group of refugees dressed in rags crouched in the corner.
“Wow, that’s a lot to take in,” Emerson said, deciding that she’d had just as much as she could take.
“Now, if you don’t mind, I have a business to run and would prefer to make my sandwiches without a side order of customers signalling their virtue to a culture they’ve got nothing in common with.” Emerson put down her knife. The customer took a step back, caught off guard. “Look at your shoes, made by workers in a sweatshop in Asia earning a dollar a day. Look at your phone, made by minors working sixty-hour shifts and living in cardboard boxes. Look at the coffee you’re holding, made by a company that is lying to you by failing to disclose their ongoing enablement of child labour. Look at your designer shirt with its endangered species logo. A company that sells gloves made from—wait for it—deer leather! Do you not see the hypocrisy written all over you? Now, answer me one question,” Emerson asked the customer.
“What’s that?” the customer winced, realising that they’d been outwoked.
“Would you like pickles with that?”
“No, thanks, hold the pickles. They give me heartburn, but thanks all the same. Oh, but give me one of those sushi burgers and a slice of that curry pizza you’re famous for around these parts. I’m absolutely starving.