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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Should Carleton discourage public nudity?: An ethicist examines a controversial issue on campus

<on’t know what your siblings have been up to lately, but my sister Carolyn has been busy making national headlines. While I affectionately refer to her as the Junior National Snowshoe Champion of 2007, currently she is known as the girl responsible for the suspension of 13 varsity lacrosse boys.

Carolyn was asked to prom via a message on the bare bottoms of 12 players, which read “Will You Go to Prom With Me? Yes or No?” at a JV lacrosse game. Amused, my sister accepted the invitation of the 13th player by patting the lower back of the player whose bottom read “Yes”. While most of the students enjoyed the display, not everyone was pleased. The boys were suspended for a day from school and their lacrosse games have been indefinitely canceled, prompting a national debate on the appropriateness of public nudity.

Most of the comments I’ve read from online articles concerning this invitation express outrage over the punishment of a “cute”, “creative”, “refreshing” prom proposal. An online poll by revealed that 30% of responders believed the penalty was fitting while 66% thought “Huron High needs to find a sense of humor”. Though a strong majority of people have no qualms with this sort of behavior, a significant minority believes it merits punishment. Recognizing that not everyone appreciates public nudity, Carleton has made a substantial attempt to discourage streaking this year. E-mails were sent out before Late-Night Breakfast explicitly prohibiting public nudity and as the year began student leaders were warned that such displays were possible grounds for termination.

This noticeable change in policy, or perhaps merely the enforcement of policy, has so far realized success. Streaking episodes experienced a significant decline this year (at least to the best of my awareness through campus gossip). This decrease is much to the dismay of many students; throughout new student week the freshmen on my floor were anxious with anticipation of streakers and disappointed when classic streaking events were not “struck”. Streaking has a history here at Carleton…it’s one of those quirky things that we do and enjoy.

Not everyone experiences the amusement that streaking brings to the majority of Carls, though. For some people, public nudity is offensive and makes them feel uncomfortable. Those of you who witnessed the nude walking display at Late Night Breakfast of Spring ’06 might agree it was hard not to squirm when naked people paraded through a packed LDC.

Still, the vocal majority of Carls enjoy the streaking culture. Is it fair that this tradition and expression of free speech is being silenced? Should the views of the minority take precedence over those of the majority? These look like questions for the Ethicist. Let’s consult the two dominant ethical theories: consequentialism and Kantianism in hopes of finding an answer.

The goal of consequentialism is to maximize the aggregate well-being. Whichever course of action yields the preferred consequence (the most well-being) is considered superior. If the enjoyment of those who appreciate streaking exceeds the displeasure of those who do not, then by all means streak. If going to class naked improves aggregate well-being of the campus, let’s do it. Sure there may be the few people who are seriously creeped out, over half the campus might be disturbed, but provided the aggregate utility of the nudists exceeds that of the dissenters, consequentialism insists we should allow nudity in classrooms. However, if this doesn’t sit well with you, fear not, Kant offers an alternative.

Kantianism proposes that morality is not found from comparing the consequences of certain actions, but rather through considering universal maxims, courses of action that ought to be followed, regardless of the particular circumstance. One maxim that might be considered is “one ought to not offend others”. Applying this to our streaking dilemma, we deduce that if through streaking we offend anyone then we ought not to streak.

It appears that our ethical inquiry has left us with the difficult choice of all or nothing. Either the preferences of the majority run rampant or the slightest minority ruins the fun for everyone. Since neither of these options appear desirable to me, let’s see if we can come to a more comfortable compromise through examining the context of actions (a.k.a. using common sense).

Those who participate in public nudity must consider their environment. A JV lacrosse game where younger siblings are likely to be present is not the ideal stage for a mass mooning. Where would be more suitable? Somewhere that minimizes the potential number of people offended. A crowded dining hall where streakers are likely to collide with un-suspecting diners is sure to upset someone… instead how about a nice open space where those who dislike streaking are assured to be safe from an unwanted encounter?

Is public nudity intrinsically wrong? I don’t think so. But the enjoyment of many from the occasional display of nakedness does not justify the disregard of those who might be offended. A little consideration can go a long way. Please, think before you streak.

–Karen Campbell is a third- year student.

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