The celebration marked the end of semester. A number of students arrived at Wagga Wagga’s Black Swan Hotel wearing Ku Klux Klan gowns and hoods. They duly posted a photograph of themselves in that deeply offensive attire, together with a man in blackface holding a bowl of cotton – symbolic of the inhumane slave labour which black prisoners were forced to undertake after being abducted from Africa.
Then there was a photograph, also posted online, of students wearing striped uniforms – reminiscent of the garb Jewish prisoners wore in the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust and emblazoned with the German word for Jew (Jude), while an individual posed behind them in Nazi uniform with a swastika visible on his arm.
In 2005 Prince Harry – third in line to the throne – caused widespread outrage when he arrived at a private fancy-dress party wearing a crude imitation of a German Army uniform, complete with swastika on his left sleeve, flashes on his collar and eagle insignia on his chest. The incident created headlines around the world, as well as appropriate criticism.
The students at the Black Swan took Prince Harry’s offensive idea to another level. While they are private citizens, by publicising their grotesque charades on social media, they turned them into a public spectacle and made them a public issue. They identified three of the darkest chapters of recorded history, each causing the persecution and death of vast numbers of innocents in the name of bigotry and vicious race hatred, and made fun of the victims, the survivors, and the current generation, whose forbears were directly harmed by those atrocities.
They crossed the line between being provocative and humorous – a readily acceptable facet of a functioning democracy – to being deliberately offensive, and in so doing diminished the enormity of the crimes of the KKK, the Nazis and the slave-owners.
The university has said it is rightly ashamed of the profoundly insensitive and hurtful conduct of its students and has committed itself to ensuring they make appropriate amends. But have the students expressed contrition or regret? Either they were remarkably unaware of the magnitude of the crimes against humanity which they were mocking, or they were aware but, again remarkably, simply didn’t care. At best their ignorance was shameful, at worst their arrogance was appalling.
University students are a demographic which should produce some of our country’s future leaders. If they believe it is acceptable to mock those who suffered at the hands of the KKK, the Nazis and the slave owners, then we have a problem. Worse, when we lose sight of fundamental principles of decency and the lessons of history and memory, we risk losing our moral centre and slipping into dangerous territory in which prejudice and bigotry are permitted to flourish.