McMaster student threatened after engineering student group banned

McMaster University’s January decision to suspend a student group over a songbook of “repugnant” cheers has resulted in a flurry of online harassment directed at the woman who posted the document to her blog months earlier.

Anger over university's discovery of 'repugnant' songbook spurs online harassment

Members of the McMaster Redsuits march in the Hamilton Santa Claus Parade on Nov. 16, 2013. (Facebook)

Udoka Okafor has a message for angry online critics who blame her for McMaster University’s decision to suspend a student group over a songbook of “repugnant” chants.

“This isn’t about me,” said the third-year humanities student.

She posted the cheers to her blog in September, denouncing them as “Draconian” and as a sign of a culture of sexism that she says is still endemic on campus.

“People cannot hold me responsible for the actions of the university.”

In late January, McMaster announced it had suspended the Redsuits, an engineering student group that organizes Welcome Week events and other social activities, pending an external investigation into the chants.

University officials have refused to comment on how they found the Redsuits' songbook — which mentions murder, violent rape and bestiality and makes numerous sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic references — but said the discovery came in the days leading up to the suspension.

Violent threats

In the wake university’s decision, Okafor has received dozens of scathing online messages from people who accuse her of being responsible for the ban. Some of the vitriol contained violent threats, prompting her to notify police as well as McMaster security.

Though she believes McMaster personnel found the songbook via her website, Okafor said it’s irrational for anyone to blame her for the university’s actions.

“People can send me all the messages they want, but this isn’t about me and this isn’t about them either.”

Okafor said she’s received around 30 heated emails, most of them anonymous, in her personal inbox. Detractors have also attempted to write negative comments on her blog, posts that she has refused to approve.

A commenter who posted under the nickname “Wnggurl” wrote the following message: “You f----d up, and caused a lot of problems. How can you sleep at night?”

“They’re cowards,” Okafor said of her anonymous critics. 

However, she grew more alarmed after receiving threats against her safety and seeing online harassment directed at her brother. An anonymous Twitter user created the account @udokaisstupid and used it to pester Okafor and members of her family.

One of its tweet read: “if I see u in school u better pray, also pray for ur family.”

An anonymous Twitter user created an account mocking Okafor's name and used it to make threats against the McMaster student and her family. (Twitter)

The account has since been taken down.

Hamilton police spokesperson Claus Wagner told CBC Hamilton on Friday that investigators are looking into the threats, but said he couldn’t give further details on the investigation.

'Blame the messenger'

The harassment raises questions about why people who are angry about the suspension would direct their rage at Okafor and not the university, which issued the ban, or the authors of the songbook. 

McMaster communication prof Alex Sévigny says Okafor has become a victim in a “classic case of blame the messenger.”

He likened the realm of social media to old-fashioned oral cultures, which prioritize interpersonal communication.

“In an oral culture, the messenger has to be really careful because people tend to personalize things” and often want to blame their woes on an identifiable individual or group, Sévigny said.

“If there’s a group of people who feel galvanized over what they feel is an unfair decision on the part of the university and it comes to their attention that someone has blogged about this… then this unlucky woman becomes the object of the crowd’s irrational, emotional desire for vindication.

“It’s like a hit-and-run.”

Controversial suspension

McMaster announced on Jan. 23 it was suspending the Redsuits after university officials were made aware of the songbook, which contains about 25 chants.

It is not clear when the chants were last sung, but it appears the collection was compiled by a group of engineering students in 2010.

One of the songbook’s most lurid entries is preceded by the following disclaimer: "There is no good place to sing this. People will be offended [...] The content of the next page includes: bloody rape, murderous incest, child mutilation, and fetal ingestion at the very least."

“The material is highly repugnant,” David Wilkinson, the university’s provost and vice-president (academic), said in January. “We are very strong advocates of creating an inclusive community at the university, so when we discovered this book and saw its contents, we took immediate and swift action to indicate a book with this kind of content in it is unacceptable.”

While groups such as the McMaster Student Union (MSU) lauded the university’s move, others have slammed the suspension, charging that it punishes a broad swath of engineering students for the actions of a small minority.

“The thing is that the engineering songbook in question was not in popular use. Few seem to have even known of its existence,” wrote McMaster student Alexandra Sproule in an op-ed published in a recent issue of the The Silhouette, the MSU newspaper. 

“I find it hard to believe that many engineers would support violent songs like S&M Man, which are receiving so much attention, or wish it to be perceived as part of their culture.”

When all of this calms down, everyone will realize that I didn’t do anything wrong.—Udoka Okafor, McMaster humanities student

Okafor said she’s supportive of the university’s decision and said the bullying she’s encountered stems from the same mean-spiritedness that she believes motivated the cheers in the first place.

“They were trying to make people feel unsafe by writing all those chants, and that’s what people are trying to do to me,” she said.

But despite the threats and insults she's received, Okafor doesn’t regret bringing attention to songbook.  

“I have people who support me, who tell me that I did the right thing,” she said.

“When all of this calms down, everyone will realize that I didn’t do anything wrong.”