According to the Harvard Crimson, Harvard has revoked the acceptances of at least ten students admitted to the Class of 2021. These prospective students formed a private Facebook group chat to exchange offensive memes. They mocked child abuse, made racist jokes, and endeavored to deride all of the stances that we, academics and students, promote and hold hear. These students behaved immaturely and offensively. What Harvard did in response was much worse.
Have you ever played Cards Against Humanity? It’s an unabashedly irreverent game whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible. The game uses cards to create inappropriate associations, on topics we are generally not socially permitted to mock – such as AIDS, the Holocaust, and dead babies. Even many good liberals love the game, precisely because the humor is so wrong, so contrary to our values. There is something appealing about the freedom to be irreverent and dark.
A major appeal of irreverence is its assertion of independence over strong social norms. Strong, prevailing social norms can feel oppressive at times, even if they are good norms, and the rebellion of breaking social taboos demonstrates that we can still think for ourselves. Joking also eases tension around difficult topics, issues that have become polarized, or events that our culture depicts only in black and white. I take the Holocaust extremely seriously, and feel great anger at how the world watched the Jews of Europe get exterminated. But I can enjoy a Holocaust joke in the right setting. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The idea that some topics are above humor is misguided. Humor is inherently subversive. By ferreting out the members of this private chat group, requiring that they present to Harvard every meme sent over the chat, and revoking their acceptances, Harvard has proven that there is an oppressive force to transgress.
I love Harvard. I taught Legal Research and Writing at the Law School for three wonderful years. Harvard is brimming with promise and significance. The brightest minds congregate to discuss our country’s deepest, most complex problems. How Harvard approaches education sets trends for the rest of the country. I hope Harvard realizes the error of its ways before it alters our understanding of the role of the university. Harvard should not teach its students to be afraid to joke in private, among people willing to joke back. Harvard should not teach students to turn on each other for speech. Students should not feel compelled to speak to a newspaper only under condition of anonymity, for fear of being punished for mere association. Harvard should not teach its students that it is acceptable for a university to ask students to account for every message and picture they send in a private chat group. These are not the tactics nor values of our country’s premier place of learning.
Please reconsider this decision, Harvard. You are a world class institution, but you are not infallible. Giving this situation due consideration, how can you classify this as anything other than a dreadful mistake? I formerly worked for two years at a nonpartisan organization that handles free speech and due process issues at colleges and universities. I have seen many instances of public universities clearly violating constitutional rights, and private universities disregarding important academic norms involving free and open discourse. This still strikes me as shocking and shameful.
Humor is not a threat. I highly doubt these prospective students find abuse of children sexually arousing, as they joked. This was an absurd way for incoming freshmen to prove to themselves that they can still be ridiculous and inappropriate, even if Harvard is a serious place. These memes were exchanged in a private group that was in no way affiliated with Harvard. These students may not go to Harvard, but they have unfortunately been taught a valuable lesson.