This week a retiring trustee at Miami University informed me, at their July meeting, the board of trustees adopted a version of the University of Chicago principles of academic free speech. The email included a list of some of the other colleges and universities which had recently adopted similar guidelines which on the surface make a lot of sense. In a nutshell, the gist of the statement is affirmation of openness to opposing views as long as all parties respect the rights of the other side. Proponents argue it is a balanced approach, making room for both unpopular views and the right to hold protests against the advocates of those perspectives. My question? Why now?
The debate is not new. In a 1989 case Doe v. University of Michigan, the presiding judge Avern Cohn explained why the issue of free speech on campuses is so complex.
It is an unfortunate fact of our constitutional system that the ideals of freedom and equality are often in conflict. The difficult and sometimes painful task of our political and legal institutions is to mediate the appropriate balance between these two competing values.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the position of most academic institutions was to prohibit speech perceived to harass or intimidate ethnic minorities. But, to paraphrase country singer Roger Miller, “Campuses swing like a pendulum do.” Students protesting unpopular speakers are now thought of as “snowflakes,” afraid to face opposing viewpoints. Advocates from the alt-right are charged with promoting hate. The University of Chicago principles were a counter-measure to what some viewed as obsessive political correctness. For a topic which has been smoldering for decades, my question remains, “Why now?”
Political incorrectness used to be fun. Ethnic jokes were not hate speech, especially when the targets of such humor were in the audience and would laugh at the cleverness and creativity behind the content. Don Rickles and Richard Pryor made a damn good living making fun of an array of ethnic populations, including their own. And no one thought twice Rickles really hated Jews with the possible exception of our then eight-year-old daughter who first saw “Mr. Nice Guy” during her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration at Kutcher’s Resort in the Catskills in 1991. For those unfamiliar with Kutcher’s, just think “Dirty Dancing.”
Or that Pryor’s successors Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock hate black people. Even when the target was outside their own race, gender or religion-based politically incorrect humor, although potentially offensive, could be enlightening. For example, in a 1984 Saturday Night Life skit “White Like Me,” Murphy goes undercover in white face to expose white privilege. The New York Daily News observed the exaggeration was exactly what one would expect from SNL, yet it somehow had a ring of truth.
On a more personal level, political incorrectness was a bond that solidified our close circle of diverse friends when we twice lived in the Washington, DC area. For my second deployment to DC in 1990, I reported to my new job while my family stayed in Austin until the end of the school year. A close friend (actually the best man at our marriage ceremony) offered to let me stay at his house in Annapolis rent-free for two months. In return, I would do chores which included mowing the lawn. To this date, my friend reminds me having a Jewish gardener was the epitome of success for an Italian-American Catholic. And the thought still makes me laugh. No harm, no foul.
One more time, why now? I have a theory. Post-passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, there was a collective sense of white guilt associated with 250 years of slavery and 100 more years of Jim Crow. Anything that reminded the victims of economic and social injustice was off-bounds. Then, as more and more victims of both de jure and de facto prejudice rose to visible positions in government, business, entertainment and society in general, most Americans thought maybe, just maybe, the United States had turned the corner. Gags about ethnic stereotypes and bigots were now more acceptable. They were commentaries on the past, not an argument to return to a darker era in our nation’s annals. They were just jokes.
Yet, the pendulum, as all pendulums tend to do, swung back to its other extreme. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it seems to have coincided approximately with the election President Barack Obama. Or maybe it was when a professor at my university posted a picture of Obama as “The Joker” on his office door in plain site of African-American students or a celebrity real estate developer told his audience the president was born in Kenya or alt-right social media traded pictures of the first lady as a primate. Most Americans may have turned the corner but too many were stuck in a traffic jam of past fear, paranoia and hate.
Which brings us to 2014 and drafting of the Chicago principles, one more swing of the pendulum’s arm. I find it hard to disagree with either the intent or the language. And unlike Charlottesville, there are actually cases of overreach on both the left and the right. A conservative website FIRE.COM keeps a database of speakers who had invitations to speak on college campuses rescinded. From 1998 to the present, they have identified 429 instances where a guest has been dis-invited or attempts were made to block their presentations. Recent examples include actor Amy Irving being barred from giving a speech on abortion and contraception at Loyola University and an incident at Beloit College at which a lecture by Blackwater founder Erik Prince was cancelled when students piled chairs on the platform from which he was scheduled to speak.
Why do I think these are overreach? Because a university’s primary mission is not to protect students or the communities in which they are located from hearing diverse and sometimes offensive points of view. Its prime directive is to train students how, if they disagree, to find their own answers or present an opposing case based on fact, analysis and scientific method. Such an approach holds water regardless of where the pendulum falls on the arc of time. Educators, more than anyone else, should embrace the words engraved on the Upham Hall arch at Miami University. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Free of group think, free of the next temporal trend du jour and free of thinking America will be a totally different place if only comedians and others stop making politically incorrect jokes.
For what it’s worth.