After the final issue of the Orient is published every year, the staff comes together during reading period to put together the Occident, a once-a-year joke issue that takes on a variety of groups and people across the campus. Each year, the Occident receives a range of responses—some people love it and find it hilarious, and some find it offensive and mean-spirited.

If done well, the Occident can be both funny and have a positive influence on campus. Humor is an honorable goal in its own right, but beyond that, satire can be a powerful way to highlight flaws in the College’s policies.

One example of a very good piece from the 2012 issue is the article “Phase II to be modeled on ‘Hunger Games.’” The topic was funny, the writer used satire to emphasize a real campus problem, and the jokes were creative and punchy.  

However, there has been very little consistency in quality across the Occidents published during my time at Bowdoin. There are certainly funny aspects to each, but writing satire is hard, and the Occident struggles mightily every year to fill 12 pages with good content. The task grows even harder as Orient members become less sober, since drinking is an annual tradition for Orient editors and writers during production of the Occident.  

These factors lead the Occident to fall into the same traps year in and year out.  

The first is that so much of the Occident’s content has been extremely predictable. Instead of working hard to fill the joke issue with punchy, well-thought-out humor, writers often fall back on profanity, bathroom humor, and sexual innuendo to drive their humor. Articles in the 2011 Occident include “‘Sex is Sexy’ Week is going to blow your dick” and “Ethicist cums through with big answers,” among many other sexually-driven pieces. 

To be honest, my problem is not even that the jokes are distasteful or offensive. They just get boring. The type of jokes that populate such articles might be funny the first time you read them, and perhaps even the second or third, but they get old very quickly.     

In addition, it seems that the issue repeats the same jokes every year, with articles or graphics about dance and a capella groups, the hook up culture, body image, the bro culture of the lacrosse team, and the struggles of the football team, to name a few. While any of these topics have the potential to be funny, they are tremendously stale, and the writers rarely succeed at making any of the humor original.

On top of that, the editors tend to do a poor job of finding the line between funny and offensive, and far too often, writers seem to be more focused on tearing down a person or group than producing humorous content.  

The 2011 joke issue provides a good example: “Thanks Meiklejohn for the claustrophobia.” The entire purpose of the article is to rip Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn. The writer states, “Scott Meiklejohn’s ego is literally sucking up so much air that I can’t sit through a single class without constantly whipping out my inhaler.” 

Meiklejohn was singled out for abuse as a result of a perceived slight on the part of the Orient’s editors. Earlier in the year, they had thought they had an agreement with Meiklejohn about releasing information about admissions and the athletic recruiting process, and they felt that he had reneged on his part of the deal.  

Regardless of the veracity of the perceived slight, there is no excuse for a piece like that in the Occident. It is malicious and personal, and it makes no real effort at humor.

With that piece and similar pieces, the Orient editors too often overlook the feelings of the people who are targeted when they are coming up with the articles.  It is easy for them to say that the Occident’s critics take themselves too seriously and need to lighten up, but such sentiment overlooks the fact that many of the concern brought up are thoughtful and reasonable.  

After the 2011 Occident was published, one student expressed her dissatisfaction with the issue in an email to the staff of the Orient, of which I was a part.  She stated, “I could tell you how the Occident’s jokes about women with eating disorders and about women eating in general (ranging from “The Girls Who Don’t Eat Anything” to “‘I find it really unattractive watching women shovel pounds of ice cream into their mouths…It’s just fucking disgusting.’”) made me feel small and pathetic; I could criticize (and intelligibly cite) the Occident’s insistent sexism; I could tell you how, when you make light of rape,  I feel alone and unsafe on my campus.”

She went on to say, “you are not critics, you are playground bullies,” and later added, “You cannot use school funding to fight out your personal grudge matches and attack your fellow students, and you cannot hide behind the name of the paper to escape the consequences of your cruel and thoughtless actions.”

 The student brings up valid points and highlights the depth of emotion that can be caused by the Occident, but it is not only the name change from “Orient” to “Occident” that allows writers to publish such hurtful content. More importantly, it is the lack of accountability that comes along with anonymity. Writers are not identified in the byline by their real names in the joke issue, and the articles can turn into something that resembles a comment on an Internet comment board than a newspaper article.

Ironically, the 2010-2011 Orient editorial board, made up some of the same editors who were behind the broadly criticized 2011 issue of the Occident, wrote an editorial in response to the increasing popularity of the anonymous online gossip site College ACB that strongly denounced the type of content that can come with anonymity. 

The editorial board stated, “We are not going to shake a finger at students for being insensitive. We fully support students writing anything online, as long as they are accountable for their statements. But by anonymously posting cruel gossip, individuals remain insulated from the social mores that usually check such behavior. The students responsible for hateful speech are cowards for writing slurs that, if spoken in public, would leave them facing severe social ostracism.” 

The argument for having anonymous writers in the joke issue is clear.  The writers often have close ties to the people and organizations that are being written about, and they don’t want to damage those relationships. However, the Orient’s commitment to journalistic integrity far outweighs that risk, and identifying the writers of the articles would likely increase the quality of the pieces significantly. It’s not only morally right; it’s also journalistically responsible. 

The Orient has made such successful strides over the last few years in strengthening its reputation as a credible news source, and it has far too much to lose by producing a cruel and classless joke issue. The newspaper purports to follow “professional journalistic standards in writing and reporting,” which are central to everything that the Orient does.  The editors must not allow the Occident to get in the way of that mission and undo the admirable progress that it has made.