Let's Applaud Wesleyan's Student Censors For Honesty

Earlier this week I covered a tumult at Wesleyan, where students claimed to be silenced by a student newspaper op-ed they didn't like.

The student op-ed criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in a manner that strikes me as more bootlicking than racist. This yielded a cringing and cringeworthy apology from the Wesleyan Argus' staff (bad) and a vocal commitment to free speech by Wesleyan's President (good).

Some Wesleyan students have responded with a petition and list of demands, which 171 students and alumni have signed as I write this. Here's a hard copy in case it gets disappeared. Edited to add: looks like critics are editing it to satirize it, so look at the hard copy instead for an accurate view of what it looked like.

I like the petition. I like it because the students aren't pretending to be anything but censorious: it's honest.

The students signing the petition agree to "boycott" the Argus, "recognizing that the paper has historically failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body." So far, this is a call for responsive expression, which is fine. From there it gets scary. "Most specifically, it neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future." In context, it appears that "safe space for the voices of students of color" means "a newspaper that won't print anything that this particular group of students of color finds objectionable," an aim worthy only of our open scorn.

"This boycott includes recycling the Argus," the petition continues. What does "recycling" mean? It means taking and throwing away copies of a free student newspaper so that others can't read content you don't like, and it's a nationwide problem, as the Student Press Law Center documents. People who respond to student paper content they don't like by trashing the paper to suppress it are thug trash, and it's nice of them to sign a self-identifying petition.

The petition goes on to demand that Wesleyan defund the Argus until their demands are met. Those demands include "Monthly Report on allocation of funds and leadership structure" (that is, more intensive control of a newspaper by student government), "Required-once a semester- Social Justice/Diversity training for all publications (Via Elisa Cardona/SALD office)" (meaning mandatory ideological conformity training on publications via school administration), and "Open spaces dedicated for marginalized groups/voices if no submissions: BLANK that states: 'for your voice” on the front page" (meaning, quotas for expression by particular predefined groups, somewhat like the thankfully-abandoned and Orwellian-named Fairness Doctrine).

Bear this in mind: Black Lives Matter is an explicitly political movement with explicitly political goals. Many of those goals — like questioning and monitoring disproportionate police violence against young black men — are worthy. But the notion that there is only one correct way to think about a political movement is monstrous and un-American. Wesleyan is a private school; they can abandon basic notions of free expression and turn their school into a training ground for ideological conformity if they want to. But isn't it thoughtful of these students and alumni to say exactly what they want, without equivocation? They've thoughtfully provided a list of people never to hire.

The War For Free Speech Laws, Hearts, And Minds Is Endless

I do not anticipate an end to the war for, or against, free speech in academia. Last week was a bloody one in that struggle.

In California, the Regents of the University of California had an opportunity to wave glorious banners of censorship, blow trumpets, and retreat from the field. Some committee or working group proposed a Statement of Principles Against Intolerance, a dog's breakfast of poorly-defined wrongthink that would be patently unconstitutional if made mandatory. The Statement had what amounted to a censorship-abjuring loophole: it said that it could not "be used as the basis to discipline students, faculty,
or staff," making it more a proclamation of feels than a rule.

But it does not appear that bargain will hold. At a contentious Regents' meeting, several Regents demanded that the policy be be reworked to inflict punishment for violations of the vaguely-worded and generally unprincipled intolerance code. Regent Richard C. Blum threatened that his wife, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, would interfere and make trouble if the Regents didn't commit to punish people for prohibited speech. Meanwhile, students and faculty battled over whether the intolerance statement should adopt the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism and therefore cave to some factions that believe that Jews have a special right to be protected from certain arguments about Israel.

I predict that the University of California will take the wrong path and wind up buying a beach house for some lawyer.

Free speech still has principled support in academia, articulated by leaders who insist that students act like adults. In Nebraska, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman rebuked calls to censor preachers in Nebraska Union Plaza with a forthright call for free expression:

The university does not condone these comments. One would hope that the campus could enjoy intellectual disagreements without this type of rhetoric. Nonetheless, as far as we can determine the speakers were within their First Amendment rights of free speech. We have designated the plaza outside the Nebraska Union as a place where provocative speech can be conducted without disruption of the ongoing activities of the university.

. . . .

We all have the option to avoid the plaza if we neither want to hear nor be subjected to this type of language. In the end, we are fortunate to live in a free society where speech is protected, regardless of how offensive or provocative it might be.

At Wesleyan, when the student paper printed a controversial op-ed questioning the Black Lives Matter movement, University President Michael Roth defended the paper's right to print it and rejected demands that it be punished:

Some students not only have expressed their disagreement with the op-ed but have demanded apologies, a retraction and have even harassed the author and the newspaper’s editors. Some are claiming that the op-ed was less speech than action: it caused harm and made people of color feel unsafe.

Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended. We certainly have no right to harass people because we don’t like their views. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

The existence of a few principled allies in the war for free speech is heartening. The existence of foes like Regent Blum (and his wife, a U.S. Senator) is not. But most disheartening of all is the recognition that in fighting for free speech we struggle against an army of child soldiers. At Wesleyan, students responded to their Presidents' example with arguments that free speech should be suppressed because it "silences" other speech and that permitting expression of viewpoints they don't like is a "coward's approach." At the student paper, editors wrote a cringing apology for having offered an offensive viewpoint. Will that paper allow a substantially non-conforming viewpoint in an op-ed again? I fear it will not.

The child soldiers — young people devoted to using official power to punish ideas they don't like — are terrifying because they seem so divorced from core American values like liberty, freedom of conscience and expression, and individual responsibility. Let's not forget that's our own damned fault.

A Market Solution To Academic Snowflakes

For years I've been grumbling about the rise of the imagined right not to be offended.

It's not going away. If anything, feelings of entitlement not to be offended are growing, especially in academia. The University of California is considering enshrining a right to be free of "expressions of intolerance," defined as meretriciously as you'd expect. Chancellors of great universities announce that free speech requires feeling safe. Too many students seek not just to disagree with ideas but to prevent ideas they don't like from being uttered in their safe spaces at all.

Plenty of folks and institutions — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example — are devoted to pushing back against this attitude.

But what if they're taking the wrong approach? What if the market is the right way to deal with the imagined right not to be offended?

Snowflake U.

Imagine a world in which the market lets people decide whether to be special snowflakes — people wtih an actual protected right not to be upset or offended.

As the University of California's proposal shows, the legions of school administrators are perfectly capable of creating Snowflake Schools, where the administration vigorously defends students' rights to be free of offense. What if we let them?

Take, let's say, Brown University. They're already on FIRE's red light policy list, and frankly I enjoy making fun of them. Brown could decide to take on the mantle of a Snowflake School. It could openly declare that its students have a right not to be offended. It could enact policies accordingly, and discipline students and faculty who cause any offense through their speech and actions. Brown could display the snowflake symbol on their letterhead and web page. They could even vigorously rebrand themselves to attract students who don't want to be offended — I don't know, they could rename their teams The Blizzards or something.

Students, staff, and academics could then vote with their feet. Do I want to go to an acknowledged Snowflake School? Maybe I do, and will wear the snowflake badge proudly. Maybe I don't — either because I don't want to get expelled for offending someone, or because I'm embarrassed to go someplace that marks me as a snowflake.

Other people could vote, too. Do I want to hire someone who chose to go to a Snowflake School? You might, but I wouldn't. Do I want to date a Snowflake? Do I want a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant who wears a Snowflake U. sweatshirt?

The Department of Snowflake Studies

But wait! Isn't the snowflake/non-snowflake decision too binary, you ask? Won't schools that make a choice always be riven by snowflake vs. non-snowflake conflict, with some schools lurching back and forth?

Perhaps. That's why we can implement market forces within schools as well.

Imagine: "Snowflake Choice" schools have a Snowflake Registry. Students, staff, and academics can choose to sign up for that registry, or refuse to. Only folks on the registry can assert a right not to be offended, and pursue offense-related grievances. If you're on the Snowflake Registry, you are subject to full punishment for causing offense. If you're not on the Snowflake Registry, you're subject to punishment only with respect to self-selected Snowflake Classes and Snowflake Activities and Snowflake Departments. You might get kicked out of Professor Feels' classes but not Professor Grownup's classes.

Once again, this lets market forces take hold. Do I want to take history from a professor on the Snowflake Registry, knowing I can get kicked out of her class if I offend someone? Or do I want to sign up for a class taught by a professor not on the registry? Do I want to major in a Snowflake Subject, or a non-Snowflake subject?

Transcripts, naturally, would reflect status. I'd be able to see if a job applicant only took classes from Snowflakes, and act accordingly. I'd be able to see if an applicant's major was in a Snowflake Department. I'd be able to notice if a student got all As from non-Snowflake teachers but Cs from Snowflake-teachers, and draw appropriate conclusions.

Every Snowflake Is Unique

A few caveats are important. First of all, non-Snowflake status would not be a defense to accusations of genuine misconduct. A physical assault is not mere offense, nor is a true threat.

Second, Reverse-Snowflakes would find no solace. A Reverse-Snowflake is someone who thinks they have a protected right not to be told they're offensive, someone who thinks that they have a right not to be called an ass when they act like an ass. That's whingy and unprincipled nonsense. Such people should sign up for a Snowflake School, since that's what they fundamentally are.

Let A Thousand Snowflakes Melt

The virtue of this approach is choice. The struggle between Snowflakes and Non-Snowflakes would remain, but rather than a struggle to control institutions to impose their viewpoints, it becomes an individual struggle.

Non-Snowflakes may worry that the market would operate in a way they don't like — that the market would favor Snowflake Schools and Snowflake Majors and huge drifts of graduating Snowflakes. Maybe. But if that's the case, do we deserve any better?

When Lightning Strikes An Utter Tool

Harry Vincent is a 19-year-old college student and kind of a dick. That's banal. Lots of 19-year-olds are dicks, and many of them are college students. Harry Vincent is notable because he has been struck by proverbial lightning — he offended someone online, and that person had the inclination and free time to complain about him to his university, and his university had the shitty values and utter lack of proportion or good sense to punish him for it. That's an unlikely chain of events. But do we really want it to be more likely?

Harry Vincent goes to Texas Christian University. In his spare time, he likes to say "beaners" and imagine people he doesn't like being "exiled" to the Sahara Desert, which he may or may not think is a country.




That's Harry — indifferently literate, choadish, kinda racist, and not particularly creative or good at any of it. The average 13-year-old on Reddit would school his sorry ass on being notably offensive in a hot second. Harry — who goes by @classypatriot, and probably not ironically — is just plain dull.

The internet is oozing with Harrys. But this one caught the attention of a some no-rocket-scientist-either woman in Maryland who encouraged her readers to complain to TCU about him. Harry wasn't speaking on behalf of TCU, or using their Twitter account, or talking to or about TCU students, and wasn't a TCU public relations official or anything. This person "Kelsey" apparently just felt that assholes shouldn't go to college. Ridiculous. Who would run our hedge funds?

Normally this wouldn't be a problem. If sensible people had received Kelsey's complaints of private-time toolbaggery by Harry, they would have shaken their heads and gone back to whatever it is that the hideously swollen academic-administrative class does all day. But apparently TCU lacks sensible people, because TCU suspended Harry Vincent and restricted him from dorms and campus activities. The FIRE has the story, and wrote TCU a stern letter. TCU is a private entity and not bound by the First Amendment — but, as FIRE points out, they claim to celebrate free speech, and ought not if they're going to act like this.

Does TCU, a private entity, have the right to suspend Harry without anything resembling due process for engaging in patently protected speech? Yep. Is its decision to do so worthy of our respect? No. It's ridiculous. First of all, it's arbitrary. I guaranfreakingtee you that a sizable percentage of TCU's student body routinely acts like assholes on the internet. Harry's being singled out because a petty and disturbed person ran across him — he's been struck by lightning. Second, it's unsustainable. Even the army of administrators that colleges support these days can't possibly keep up with policing and regulating the private online speech of students. It's a waste of money to try. Third, this runs contrary to what a college ought to be. TCU isn't some American madrassa openly advocating for uniform thought, like a Bob Jones or a Liberty. If you go to one of those places, you know what you're getting into. No, TCU is nominally a respected academic institution devoted to free inquiry. Suspending people for political expression, however uncreatively dickish, is thoroughly un-academic.

The appropriate American remedy for Harry Vincent being a bigoted twerp is (1) absent fatal alcohol poisoning, him growing up, and (2) more speech imposing social consequences. I suppose being suspended from a private institution is a form of social consequence, but it's a thoroughly disproportionate and disreputable one. Imposing official school punishments on the Harry Vincents of this world suggests that the TCUs of this world can't counter his oafish speech — that all the professors and administrators and earnest students cannot make a convincing counter-argument to some slackjawed dipshit saying "beaner." Doesn't inspire much confidence in the educational system, does it?

TCU deserves scorn for this. They deserve an object lesson as well. If TCU thinks that it ought to regulate its students' private speech when the fragile pussywillows of the internet object to it, why not take TCU at its word and help it along? I'm sure it will be easy to identify TCU students on social media and comment sections and blogs. Why not examine what they say, and write to the administration of TCU if it irks anyone? I'm not just talking about Harry Vincent's sophomoric twaddle. For every TCU student who says #blacklivesmatter, someone ought to write TCU protesting that #alllivesmatter, FOR FEELS. For every student who says something unflattering about Israel there ought to be an angry email. For every off-color joke, there should be a statement about the over-sexualization of society. For every student who makes a hurtful remark about political groups, TCU's administrators ought to get a missive from a Concerned Person. Maybe it's ridiculous to take personal offense at those things, you might say. Well, you might think so. But TCU is clearly interested in how random internet citizens feel about their students and their words. How can we not help them along? You can find email addresses here. Be polite.

Postscript: if you are inclined to write a comment complaining that I ought to be defending free speech without criticizing the speech or the speaker, kindly snort my taint, fool.

Leaked Northwestern University Email States Rules For Title IX Investigations

A Northwestern University insider, who wishes to remain anonymous, leaked to Popehat the following email on Title IX investigations, which was circulated to the Northwestern faculty and staff last Friday.

FROM: Joan Slavin [Director, University Sexual Harassment Prevention Office; Title IX Coordinator; Special Assistant to the Provost]
TO: FACULTY GROUP [3,344 email addresses], ADMIN GROUP [3,635 email addresses]
DATE: Friday, May 30, 2015 at 3:15 p.m.

Dear Northwestern administrators and faculty:

Many of you have expressed concern and upset at Professor Laura Kipnis' latest article, this one attacking Northwestern's Title IX investigation of her based on a past article. (Those of you who have not read the article can find it here: http://chronicle.com/article/My-Title-IX-Inquisition/230489/?key=Gm52dwRqaXtKZyxmNjlDZTpTYXE8NEx2MnREYn8hblFREg==. Trigger warnings for victim-blaming, sexual assault issues, cultural prejudice.)

As you know, we have a strict policy against commenting on pending Title IX investigations except to Northwestern administrators, victims, witnesses, victim advocates, student-administration liasons, and victims' emotional support companions. Therefore, I cannot state whether or not several more students have filed complaints against Professor Kipnis based on her writing an article discussing her experience with students filing complaints against her based on her writing an article. I also cannot state whether we have commenced a new proceeding, a more comprehensive one this time, against Professor Kipnis.

But I must emphasize that Northwestern University will not tolerate any retaliation or aggression, macro- or micro-, against students who have made complaints against faculty or each other. Such retaliation is both unlawful under Title IX and against University policy. Professor Kipnis' latest article, like her previous one, represents a deeply problematical challenge to these community values.

This situation requires a review of our basic anti-retaliation rules. I hope that this will both remind you of your obligations and demonstrate without cavil that our policies are completely consistent with freedom of speech, properly understood.

Public Attacks On Victims: When a student accuses a faculty member or another student of sexual misconduct, the only University response consistent with Title IX is contrition, acceptance, and support. That's an obligation of all University employees. Whether or not the complaint has yielded public litigation or press coverage, it is inappropriate for University employees to engage in victim-blaming and victim-challenging behaviors that might deter complaints. Prohibited behaviors include weighing, evaluating, questioning, critiquing, deconstructing, or otherwise assaulting the victim's complaint. This proscription applies to all departments: it is inappropriate to challenge a victim's factual account or legal assertion through the disciplines of law, philosophy, rhetoric, logic, or physics. Statements of support and belief in the victim's account remain acceptable — and strongly encouraged — under any discipline.

Professor Kipnis forces me to clarify a point that ought already be plain in an environment like this one: "neutrality" is no shield for attacks on victim integrity. Professor Kipnes' columns suggest that it is appropriate in the course of discussing an accusation to report what the target says in response to it. Unless the response is a full acknowledgement of wrongdoing and apology, it is not appropriate. Repeating what the wrongdoer says in response to an allegation re-victimizes the victim. The pretense of "neutrality" or "even-handedness" or "telling both sides" has its roots in privilege. Neutrality is not neutral in any academically meaningful sense.

We recognize that these concepts can be difficult to understand for some, particularly those in the physical sciences. Therefore, we have retained a professional adviser to help employees comply with their obligations. Justin Weinberg is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and has published a forceful rebuttal to Professor Kipnis' most recent article, and has reaffirming this University's values: http://dailynous.com/2015/05/30/northwestern-and-title-ix-whats-going-on/. As a respected Professor of Philosophy, he is eminently qualified to explain what areas of inquiry and discussion are inappropriate in a University environment.

Title IX Procedure: Professor Kipnis' latest article is a brutal and biased attack on the University's procedure for evaluating Title IX complaints. I must remind the faculty that discussions of procedure and "fairness" are not excuses to attack victims. Employees should avoid discussions that imply that any particular victim, or victims in general, may not be telling the truth, or may be seeking unwarranted remedies. We do not speak in a vacuum; our words can hurt and retaliate. Discussions of notice to the accused, assistance of counsel, burdens of proof, and opportunity to confront accusers all arise from a presumption that the victim might be untruthful or mistaken. That is not a presumption that we may lawfully or ethically entertain.

Curriculum: It is our collective responsibility to avoid unlawful retaliation not only directly, but implicitly. During this period of reassurance, and whenever Title IX investigations are pending, the College of Arts & Sciences faculty should avoid undue emphasis on problem authors whose texts undermine free reporting of sexual misconduct, such as Arthur Miller, Franz Kafka, or Harper Lee. This is an excellent opportunity to redouble our efforts to expose students to writers who embrace welcoming approaches to victim truths, including Rigoberta Menchu or Wahneema Lubiano. Classes on the American court system, civil rights and civil liberties, and criminal justice may continue so long as professors emphasize to their students that they are participating an an anthropological study of a profoundly sexist and cisgender-biased system and that no positive normative judgment is intended.

With these guidelines, I hope that faculty conduct will better reflect our University's shared values. Further Title IX investigations will help professors recognize how their expression, whether in the classroom or out of it, can help us achieve our goal: a welcoming environment for everyone.

Tumult At Oberlin In Wake Of Emotional Support Animal Companion Initiative

Oberlin, Ohio (AP): A new initiative calculated to promote healing and inclusiveness has instead led to controversy, legal threats, violence, and reported feelings of unsafeness on the campus of Oberlin College.

Oberlin administrators announced the Emotional Support Companion Animals Program for Everyone, affectionately known as "ESCAPE," last week to an eager student body. "This is a safe space," said Walter Green, the college's Executive Vice-President for Redress of Grievances. "And we choose to make it safer with the help of the nonhuman companions with whom we share Mother Earth."

"The nonhuman companions' choices will also be part of our community dialogue," he added.

With that, Oberlin launched an ambitious plan to supply each student and faculty member with an animal companion to support their emotional, spiritual, and socioeconomic needs, drawing from a large population PETA recently liberated from various forms of servitude across the midwest. Excited undergraduates lined up outside the Nifong Student Empowerment Cooperative, waiting their turn to choose and bond with a companion. "We needed this. We needed this to get through this year from hell," remarked Sophomore False Consciousness Studies major Lauren Haller, as her friends jazzhanded in an affirming manner.

Haller referred to a series of crises that have intruded upon the lifespaces of Oberlin students. In February a senior delayed three days before accepting public responsibility for using the term "girls." College administrators, citing federal privacy rules, declined to specify his punishment. In March, the campus roiled when a computer error resulted in several issues of GQ being stocked at the student convenience store, and the administration failed timely to respond to a Campus Justice Petition demanding changes to certain culturally normative elements of the engineering curriculum. More recently, a speech by extremist Christina Hoff Sommers caused widespread distress. Plans to pelt Ms. Sommers with rotten fruit was derailed when organizers learned that their organic produce supplier had once spoken in opposition to a $25 minimum wage, news that led to widespread tearful recriminations.

Unfortunately, ESCAPE has not provided the solace for which it was designed. Problems began the first day when Little Mister Derrida, a wolf hybrid companioned with popular Classism Professor Forrest Moore, savagely attacked senior Pietro Salvador's emotional support rabbit Che. "It's unreasonable, and in fact very offensive, to expect Little Mister Derrida to deny his nature in order to confirm to social expectations that make the majority comfortable," protested Professor Moore, who declines to classify his companion as either wolf or not-wolf. Salvador, who could not be reached for comment, reportedly informed his RA that he had not found the experience emotionally supportive.

There were other violent confrontations between companions of different backgrounds and life experiences throughout the week. Moreover, many students reported that their classmates had not offered the welcoming and accepting community that is the hallmark of Oberlin. Sophomore Henry Trask's attempt to bring his emotional support pig to a Comparative Religion class led to a largely unproductive and mostly screamed debate about the inherent tension between Trask's right to emotional support and his classmates' protected right against offense. Freshperson Darlene Oswalt filed a federal civil rights complaint when a professor asked her to take her raptor outside, saying that the college had attempted to "silence [the eagle's] own story." Moreover, students with sensory differences have reported hygiene anxieties. "The residence halls reek from feces and urine," said one student who asked to remain anonymous. "And this time not just that one graduate dorm."

Administrators rushed to address student concerns, but unsuccessfully. Room-to-room trigger warnings listing the types of companions therein proved impractical with an active and mobile student body and were condemned as "othering and stigmatizing" by some students. The school hired emergency crisis counselors, but discovered that the students' anxieties and conflicts merely relocated to the waiting areas of the counselors' offices. "I can't reach serenity without Dostoyevsky," said one student, referring to her emotional support chinchilla. "And Dostoyevsky can't be serene if there are, like, four coral snakes waiting there with those pretentious assholes from the theater department."

At press time, administrators were privately expressing grave concern. "I don't know what to do," said Green. "There's going to be a surge in calls for emotional support next week when those free speech fanatics from FIRE show up to talk. And this is Peak Triggering season in the economics and history departments. These students need to have someone unquestioning and uncritical reaffirm their feelings, and we thought animals fit that bill."

"They are being exposed to upsetting ideas every day," said Green. "What are we supposed to do, just tell them to deal?"

"Safe Spaces" And The Mote In America's Eye

My three kids are sarcastic and irreverent. This isn't a shock to anyone who knows me. Their mouthiness can be irritating, but usually I manage to remember that I don't set much of an example of rhetorical decorum.

Maybe I should start giving the same consideration to other people's kids.

For some time I've been mean to university students who feel entitled to a "safe space" — by which they seem to mean a space where they are insulated from ideas they don't like.

I call these young people out for valuing illusory and subjective safety over liberty. I accuse them of accepting that speech is "harmful" without logic or proof. I mock them for not grasping that universities are supposed to be places of open inquiry. I condemn them for not being critical about the difference between nasty speech and nasty actions, and for thinking they have a right not to be offended. I belittle them for abandoning fundamental American values.

But recently a question occurred to me: where, exactly, do I think these young people should have learned the values that I expect them to uphold?

[Read more…]

U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks Gets Free Speech Very Wrong

This is U.C. Berkeley's Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.

Oh hai let us talk "free speech" lol.

Oh hai let us talk "free speech" lol.

Yesterday Chancellor Dirks sent an email about free speech to Berkeley students, faculty, and staff. In today's competitive publishing environment it is astonishingly difficult to distinguish yourself as an academic by being wrong about free speech, but Chancellor Dirks is equal to the challenge. His email is so very bad on every level — legally, logically, rhetorically, and philosophically — that it deserves scrutiny.

[Read more…]

Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords: Bergen Community College Freaks Out Over "Game of Thrones" T-Shirt

Tragedy is inevitable. Our reaction to tragedy is not. We cannot govern every risk, but we must govern our reactions to risks. Here's the question we must ask ourselves: when awful things happen in the world, will we abandon reason and accept any measure urged by officials — petty and great — who invoke those awful things as justifications for action? Or will we think critically and demand that our leaders do so as well? Will we subject cries of "crime" and "drugs" and "terrorism" and "school shootings" to scrutiny? Will we be convinced to turn on each other in an irrational frenzy of suspicion, "for the children?"

If we don't maintain our critical thinking, we wind up with a nation run more and more like Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where we may be questioned and sent for reeducation for posting a picture of our daughter in a popular t-shirt on Google+.

Naturally the FIRE has the story, sourced from Inside Higher Education.

Francis Schmidt is a popular professor of design and animation at Bergen. Schmidt posted to Google+ a cute picture of his young daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt in a yoga pose next to a cat. The t-shirt was this one, bearing the phrase "I will take what is mine with fire and blood," a quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels (which has sold tens of millions of copies) turned into a hot TV series on HBO (with close to 15 million viewers per episode.) Googling the phrase will instantly provide a context to anyone unfamiliar with the series.

So: a professor posts a cute picture of his kid in a t-shirt with a saying from a much-talked-about tv show. In the America we'd like to believe in, nothing happens. But in the America we've allowed to creep up on us, this happens:

But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an email, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening email.”

Although it was winter break, Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”

Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”

Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via email later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.

So. That happened.

Pressed for an explanation of this lunacy, Bergen Community College Kaye Walter retreated into the first refuge of a modern authoritarianism, "think of the children":

Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).

This — this — is the core demand of the modern Fear State. Tell us what to fear, leaders, for the night is dark and full of terrors. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what to think, and how to assess risks. Tell us "if you see something, say something" so we may feel duty-bound to vent our fears and insecurities about our fellow citizens rather than exercising judgment or compassion or proportion. Assure us that you must exercise your growing powers for our own safety, to ward off the terrible things we worry about.

Is Bergen some sort of unlikely citadel of irrationality? At first glance it may seem so. After all no well person would interpret the t-shirt as a threat and report it. That takes irrationality or dysfunction. No minimally competent or intelligent or honest school administrator would pursue such a report upon receiving it; rather, anyone exercising anything like rational discretion would Google the thing and immediately identify it as a mundane artifact of popular culture. No honest or near-normal intellect would say, as Jim Miller did, that the "fire" in the slogan might refer to an AK-47, a profoundly idiotic statement that resembles arguing that "May the Force Be With You" is a threat of force. Nobody with self-respect or minimal ability would claim that this professor's treatment was somehow justified by school shootings.

But Bergen isn't an anomaly. It's not a collection of dullards and subnormals — though Jim Miller and Kaye Walker could lead to think that it is. Bergen is the emerging norm. Bergen represents what we, the people, have been convinced to accept. Bergen is unremarkable in a world where we've accepted "if you see something, say something" as an excuse to emote like toddlers, and where we're lectured that we should be thankful that our neighbors are so eager to inform on us. Bergen is mundane in a world where we put kids in jail to be brutalized over obvious bad jokes on social media. Bergen exists in a world where officials use concepts like "cyberbullying" to police and retaliate against satire and criticism. Bergen exists in a world where we have allowed fears — fear of terrorism, fear of drugs, fear of crime, fear for our children — to become so powerful that merely invoking them is a key that unlocks any right. Bergen exists in a country where our leaders realize how powerful those fears are, and therefore relentlessly stretch them further and further, so we get things like the already-Orwellian Department of Homeland Security policing DVD piracy.

Certainly the Miller-Walter mindset is not unique in American academia. We've seen a professor's historical allusion cynically repackaged as a threat. We've seen a community college invoke 9/11 and Virginia Tech and Columbine to ban protest signs. In pop-culture debacle much like this one, we've seen a college tear down a "Firefly" poster as a threat. We've seen satire and criticism punished as "actionable harassment" or ""intimidation."

As a nation, we all need to decide whether we will surrender our critical thinking in response to buzzwords like "terrorism" and "drugs" and "crime" and "school shootings." On a local level, we must decide whether we will put up with such idiocy from our educational institutions. So tell me, students and teachers and alumni of Bergen Community College. Are you going to put up with that? Because institutions that act like this are not helping young people to be productive and independent adults. They are teaching fear, ignorance, and subservience.

If you feel strongly about it, you could tell Bergen Community College on its Twitter Account or Facebook page.

Update: Bergen made a statement doubling down:

"The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern."

There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just "investigate" — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, "complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN." Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?