Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, broke the story that Harvard rescinded the acceptances of at least ten students for participating in an offensive Facebook chat group. I then wrote a blog post criticizing the decision. Harvard should not be policing the speech of students who voluntarily sign up for a chat forum. Although the students found each other through an official Harvard group, the private dark memes chat group was, as Harvard notes, unconnected to Harvard. I believe both the tactics Harvard used (requiring students to turn over all communications within this chat group) and the severity of the punishment set dangerous and scary precedents. Even if a private (non-state) university is legally permitted to act as arbiter of what off-campus speech is acceptable for its students, that does not mean Harvard should do so.
After my piece was quoted in the Washington Post, I received a great deal of feedback from both supporters and opponents of my view. The supporters were glad I was advancing a position that many keep to themselves. The opponents expressed a range of views, many of which included thoughtful, important points. Below, I reply to some of the most compelling objections. Although I think Harvard is making a terrible mistake, this is a difficult issue. I am glad to see so many engaging on a topic at the intersection of speech issues, privacy issues, and bigotry concerns at our nation’s premier university.
- These students are immoral/don’t deserve to attend Harvard:
The Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang wrote a measured piece for CNN arguing that Harvard made the right decision. He noted that exchanging memes of such an offensive nature is a good proxy for the type of student who is incapable of enjoying the true benefits of a Harvard education. He and I may have different views about the proper role of a university (I believe a university should primarily instill academic values in students, like the value of free and open dialog), but we agree that universities should teach students not to make biased judgments based on the identity characteristics of individuals. I think we should also not make assumptions about the students whose acceptances were revoked, whose identities are unknown.
I do not dispute that the memes exchanged were offensive and that some were even wretched. I also believe that using dark, twisted, upsetting humor doesn’t mean someone is immoral, or even believes the sentiment underlying the humor. One commenter mentioned to me that these students were inciting racial violence, but that is implausible. The sheer breadth of terrible topics covered by the dark meme group – the Holocaust, child sexual abuse, the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child – indicates to me that these students were being offensive for its own sake, not because any of them intends to cause harm to children or members of any particular racial group. Although First Amendment doctrine does not apply to this situation, because Harvard is a private university, the incitement standard is instructive here. Speech is incitement only if it is reasonably intended to and likely to cause imminent lawless action. The purpose of this standard is to preserve a realm of speech that is separate from regulable conduct, so that people have leeway to say provocative things without their expression being considered akin to action.
WBUR’s Cognoscenti wrote a great piece, which cites to my analogy between the dark memes and the popular Cards Against Humanity, on the function humor serves. Everyone who participated in the dark memes chat group opted in for a particular kind of humor, and signed up for being offended (or has sensibilities that are not easily offended by outrageous speech). Because this speech is well attenuated from any action, Cognoscenti is correct that the severity of Harvard’s punishment veers awfully close to “thought policing.”
- This type of speech has harmful effects on the brain:
Jeff Yang also cited the deleterious effects that racist memes may have on the brain. These memes, according to numerous studies, short circuit our conscious processes, affecting our judgments on a subconscious level, infusing society with unconscious bias and prejudice.
I do not dispute this neuroscience/social science. However, neuroscience also shows that the brains of high school seniors are not fully developed, impairing their judgment. More importantly, studies about how the brain functions are descriptive, indicating how the world works. What sort of action Harvard takes should be a normative judgment, partially based on how the world works, but also based on how the world should work.
Citing the harmful effects of speech at a subconscious level is a device used in attempts to censor speech in a wide variety of contexts, from song lyrics to pornography to violent video games. In the First Amendment context (not applicable here, but surely relevant to the discussion), courts reject these challenges. The very point of speech is to affect our brains, to change the way we think. The reason that sort of speech shouldn’t be censored or punished is because no one group, with one set of values, should determine wholesale which speech is allowed to reach our brains.
[A note, here. I actually dislike memes a great deal and think they both simplify and polarize political discourse.]
- This is just a bunch of privileged kids acting privileged:
This statement may be true for many of the people participating in the dark meme chat group, but not everyone who attends a prestigious university comes from a wealthy background. Many people have spent hours and hours a night doing homework since they were young children, either to maximize their college prospects or (like me) for the sheer joy of learning and doing well in school. Many come from middle or lower middle-class backgrounds. The composition of this dark meme chat group is unknown, and the assumptions about the demographics of the group – made in order to minimize the severity of the punishment – may be incorrect. Exercising poor judgment is not the exclusive province of the privileged.
Further, the privilege lens should not be used to dismiss the severity of the punishment. Invoking privilege undervalues the importance of allowing students outside of Harvard’s control to engage in speech with willing audiences. Discussions about privilege can create an important construct for our collective introspection about why we hold certain positions. However, the privilege lens can also be an anti-intellectual way to deny certain viewpoints or approaches based on what is essentially character assassination for belonging to particular groups, many of which are out of one’s control. I think the latter form of the invocation of privilege is being deployed here.
- There are consequences to actions/bigotry is unacceptable
One commenter asked how I would feel if I had a daughter who was Mexican, like the hypothetical child in the horrifying “piñata” meme? I would probably feel pretty disturbed, I imagine. I would also recognize that in a country that is supposed to value pluralism and freedom of expression, we cannot stamp out with severe punishments speech that we dislike, even if we are correct to dislike it. I should add that these students also mocked the Holocaust, a topic personal to me and my family, which involves actual deaths of millions of people. There is an alarmingly high number of people, in countries throughout the world, who wish to kill Jews or think they are a plague on the world. That disturbs me often but does not alter my view of this.
Again, Harvard is permitted, as a private university, to teach its students that actions have consequences. Although the prospective students’ speech was created in a forum unaffiliated with Harvard, and was thus private, it was not private in the sense of occurring during an intimate conversation in someone’s home. My only response here is that Harvard does not need to teach these students that their speech may come back to haunt them. The role of a university is not to punish speech, but to harness people’s minds so they can effectively communicate insightful, sophisticated ideas. These students, who deserved to attend Harvard, can learn that not everyone will appreciate their methods of communication or their ideas in class, when their professors (hopefully open to a variety of views expressed respectfully) moderate discussions. But students should also learn that there are venues for associating with like-minded people for the purpose of being irreverent and expressing objectionable opinions.
I hope we keep engaging on these topics. They are important, complex, and interesting, and speak to who we are and where we are going.