St. Thomas’ “Camelgate” exemplified the American tendency to overreact. This characteristic is especially evident when viewed from afar.
There is a collective watchful eye these days in the United States, peeled for opportunities to fix others and right wrongs. Those who spearhead this collective of hyperactivity really want to help, but instead are spending their time bothering others because they want to save the day or just put out the fire of their perceived offense.
The University of St. Thomas wanted to bring a camel on campus to lighten up the mood at the midway point of Finals Week earlier this month. (Wednesday “Hump Day” — get it?) But some students heard about the plan and became offended — so much so that they were motivated to put down their textbooks and organize a protest.
The Twin Cities’ ABC affiliate KSTP-TV said of the ordeal, “[Some students] felt the event was a form of animal cruelty and disrespectful to the animal. Others felt it was racially or religiously motivated.”
So some students went to Facebook to express concerns and to ask others to join the cause. The proposed protest even made national news and, as a result, the university canceled the camel arrival and released this statement:
“When the event was announced, some students wrote Facebook comments protesting the visit, suggesting the event would not be a good use of funds, would promote a negative carbon footprint and would remove an animal from its ‘natural habitat.’ ”
Budget concerns? Environmental damage?
Comparing the costs of the event ($500) with what St. Thomas has and with other expenses on campus that are much, much larger but cause no protests, and scratching my head over how the event would “promote a negative carbon footprint,” I surmised that these reasons are masks for and vehicles driving that motivational thread weaving its way through the American psyche: overreaction.
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This example from St. Thomas falls right in line with something I’ve observed since I began traveling and writing from different parts of the world. I place myself in these other cultures to learn more about them — but also, to learn more about my home country.
And the biggest flaw of the American character — viewed from afar, currently in a culture (Tanzania) not typified by this trait — is this streak of not being at ease, of not being OK (or even looking for reasons to not be OK) with what is. Then we complain, argue, demand and waste a lot of time.
This tendency toward quick and dramatic reactions to perceived offenses and threats affects those from varied social spheres and political leanings. A conservative-minded person screams “socialism” anytime the federal government initiates or proposes a program. Meanwhile, a liberal-minded person might do as students at St. Thomas did and turn a camel visit into a reason for climate change.
I think it would do us Americans all some good to realize that this reactivity — this heightened state of seeking reasons to cry out — isn’t normal. Outside of the bubble of our society, you find that people in other places don’t fuss as we do to the point of unnecessary disruption and counterproductivity.
Nor do we have to look far to see a culture unlike ours.
An ethnic Chinese, Canadian-born friend of mine is a graduate student in the Twin Cities. She once commented to me about how race is such a taboo subject in the United States.
Recalling her days in high school in Toronto, she said that she and her diverse group of friends made light of one another’s respective ethnic stereotypes all the time. Do that in the United States, though, and you’re not just being racially insensitive — you’re a racist.
I’d like to see us Americans take a collective breath. Do some meditation. Put down the coffee. Think about our reactions and realize when they’re unreasonable.
In the case of the St. Thomas “Camelgate,” I believe the protest-organizing students would have served themselves and their world a lot better by getting off Facebook and studying harder for that exam.
Brandon Ferdig is a writer from Minneapolis currently in Tanzania. He shares his observations about East Africa, the United States and humanity in general at ThePeriphery.com. On Twitter: @brandonferdig.
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