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Very Poor Choice Of Words

Sorry that the site was down for over a month - my host was being bullied by his ISP. But now that the problem is over, I will make the post that I would've made at the end of March - about a protest that I tried to organize. Right now I am at the University of British Columbia and I live on campus in a residence called Marine Drive. I have quite enjoyed this place: the buildings are new, there aren't any first years around and for this particular building, I don't have to move out at the end of the year - I can keep staying as long as I keep paying. The rent includes all the necessities like a network connection which is very fast and has unlimited bandwidth (thanks to MAC address spoofing). So it would be a good idea for me to keep paying rent.

Logos for Rent and its censored version.

At the end of March, people in my residence and other residences put on a production of Rent. Close to the date of the performance, I was disappointed to see that the musical would in fact be the school edition. The program included the fine print: "With the permission of the Jonathan Larson Estate, this version of RENT has been adapted for use in schools and other producing organizations. While retaining the dramatic intent of this groundbreaking musical, minimal changes have been made to language and one song ["Contact"] has been deleted." They say that the changes are minimal. My ass. But the biggest lie they tell is that their censored musical retains the dramatic intent of the late Jonathan Larson. He died before the school edition existed and yet MTI presumes to know what his opinion of it would be. Did Larson just decide to put drug references in the script for the hell of it? Because he didn't think they were important to the show? I highly doubt it. You are either being true to an artist's vision or you're not.

It was frustrating to see that a university would be putting on this version of Rent even though it was designed for high schools. I think UBC should be more like Hollywood High School which performed the full version of Rent in 2010. The Wikipedia article says it was the first high school to do so - I am amazed it took this much time for one to act sensibly. However, I suspect that UBC's decision to use the school edition was made for financial reasons. It costs less to license the school edition - something else that bothers me because it has a chilling effect on the feasibility of performing the real show. I take some solace in the fact that the version performed was somewhere in between Rent: School Edition and Rent. The cast restored the swearing and other things, so I think they reverted the changes whenever it was easy to do so. The word "fuck" does not appear in the school edition but it was definitely in the play I saw. I was actually surprised to see that the full script only includes it six times because it seemed like I was hearing it a lot more. Anyway, everyone in the production was wonderful so this is not what I felt I had to do something about.

The problem that actually caused me to complain was a different instance of a university residence acting like a high school. The council for my residence decided to hold a "Red Carpet Formal" dance. This is not something that would bother me by itself. I hope that the people who went had a great time. People were zealous about promoting this event because things like this rarely break even. I had seen about a hundred posters for it by the time I saw Rent. But then came the annoying part. I opened my mailbox and saw a so-called invitation waiting for me. Look at what it said:

An invitation including fine print that puts people in their places.

I don't know about you but I did not appreciate the line at the bottom. Firstly, it insults the intelligence of everyone who did read the ticket properly. If tickets cost $5, the invitation that someone received for free is clearly not the ticket. Secondly, the comment and especially the "NOT" has a tone that I wouldn't use on someone that I cordially invited to an event. I don't think people were losing sleep over how pompous it sounded but I can't say whether it would have a small subconscious effect. If any student reading that suffered from depression or felt overwhelmed close to exam time, it certainly wouldn't help. I spent some time thinking about it and decided that there were three things I could do:

  1. File a complaint with the management.
  2. Find out who wrote the invitations and state my disapproval to his or her face.
  3. Publicly make fun of the invitations.

The first option would have been the best if I had discovered the invitations early. It would have been great if I could get them recalled on the first day. That way, nobody else would be put in his or her place and the organizers would have enough time to reprint invitations that were more kind. However, I don't check my mail every day so many people had already seen the invitation by the time I did. I didn't like the second option because the representatives change every year so the person who wrote that message was probably doing so for the last time. If I mentioned that the invitation should have been worded more carefully, I would probably receive a profuse apology and a promise to choose better words next time. But it would be a moot point because there would not be a next time. I also didn't want anyone to be singled out for criticism. A friend of mine who was on the organizing council said that the wording of these tickets was controversial from day one. I chose to make fun of them by circulating my own fake invitations. Semi-serious protests are the brainchild of free software.

Some people have said that the offensiveness was an accident and that the fine print was put there purely to avoid misunderstandings. I agree, but there are better ways to do this. Since the event was supposed to be formal, the organizers probably wanted to clear up the misunderstanding in a way that sounded as formal as possible. But there is a fine line between sounding formal and sounding rude. I know because I did this in middle school or maybe high school (I sure hope it wasn't high school). I had a spare LEGO set that I was giving away and thought it would be fun to give it away at my birthday party and make my friends pick a number between 1 and 10. Since I didn't want random people to show up just for free LEGO, I tried to put a formal sounding message about this on the birthday invitations. However, I got carried away and put a rude message: "a gift is required to be eligible for the draw." When my parents found out, they were rightly upset that I would call someone a friend and treat him this way. Even if it is an accident, such foolishness has the potential to piss people off. If the people writing the invitations were trolls who wanted everyone to be pissed off, I would actually be less inclined to make a rebuttal. Messing with people to get a reaction is time-honoured comedy. George Carlin did it, Gilbert Gottfried does it and everyone on Encyclopedia Drammatica does it. You will not find a bigger supporter of free speech than me. I made the rebuttal invitations precisely because I think the rudeness was accidental and happened because people were not aware of the impact that their words could have.

Tickets inviting people to a panel discussion about how the other tickets sucked.

I made 1600 of these tickets and decided to distribute them to the 1600 mailboxes for this building cluster by sliding them through the cracks of the mailbox doors. The goal was to make sure that everyone who got an unwelcoming ticket got a welcoming ticket as well. Maybe this would get people thinking about whether or not the original ones were appropriate. Even though the residence contract did not have any clause specifically against what I was doing, I suspected that it would not go well if people saw me stuffing mailboxes. I started distributing them at around midnight and hoped to finish within a couple hours. A few people saw me and didn't say anything but after three hours, I had still only given out 800. I went to sleep and decided to do the other half the next day.

I started with the other half in the morning. I was cocky enough to think that I wouldn't get caught or perhaps a part of me wanted to get caught. The building with the mailboxes also has offices where people work. The 800 mailboxes I had left did not have a direct line of sight with any of these offices but some of the people did exactly what I would do if I had a boring job - they got up and walked around and went to the washroom a disproportionate number of times. When I had 400 to go, one of the front desk staff told me to stop and took me to the office of her boss when I claimed that there was nothing wrong with my mission. The manager was not as hostile as she could've been. Instead of taking steps to remove the 1200 tickets that were already there, she just told me not to finish the job. She also wrote down my objections in case future event organizers want to spam mailboxes like this.

I understand why mailbox stuffing is frowned upon and I would not have done it if the "approved message" did not get distributed first. There are plenty of landlords who don't give a rat's ass if their tenants get annoying flyers in the mail but because I have not received a single flyer since moving here, it is clear that this residence holds itself to a higher standard. This only strengthens my opinion that they should hold themselves to a higher language standard as well. If we were dealing with a giant corporation like Tim Horton's, I would expect advertisements to have condescending fine print. An ad for "roll up the rim" would talk about how you don't need to purchase a cup to claim a prize. It would mention that odds are not equal in every province. It would mention that winners must pass a skill testing question and that prizes cannot be claimed after the contest expires etc. But this formal was being organized by friendly people whom I see regularly. Telling people that they have to pay money to get in is perfectly fine but when those people are friends or friends of a friend, it is alienating to use the same liability language that you see on coffee cups.

Of course this is a little thing to get hung up about. If there were as many people protesting over this as there were protesters for a free Tibet, we would have a problem. But it's enough of a concern that I think at least one person should challenge it. The example I am fond of using is the Boy Scouts of America. They are a private organization that sets their own membership criteria. Just like you can't break a law by writing something on a ticket, the Boy Scouts can't break a law by denying people who are not heterosexual or don't believe in a supreme being. Even though the organization has refused to budge on this issue, I am glad that the ACLU is standing up for the people who feel offended by this rule. Instead of living in a world that sucks, it makes me feel like I live in a world that has problems that are being worked on. If people make eachother feel welcome 95% of the time and only write these types of things occasionally, that is pretty good. But I don't want this community I am in to be pretty good. I want it to be a community I can be proud of.

Does anyone want 400 small pieces of paper?