Harvard University, in its latest effort to create the ultimate safe space, rescinded its offer to at least 10 prospective students due to “offensive” memes that the students were sharing in a private Facebook group chat entitled “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” Now the students must scramble to find community colleges to attend, where they will either have to give up their group chat or explain to the other students what “bourgeois” means.
While FIRE and other free speech advocates have admonished Hahhhvard, many people have been quick to jump to dear Harvard’s defense, citing the extremely offensive nature of the memes portrayed:
Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”
The memes certainly were offensive, but part of the issue is that the media cannot print the actual memes. While the New York Times can write and not retract an “almost entirely false” story about Trump and Russia with no repercussions, re-printing a holocaust joke would cause them to lose credibility. So because journalists have to dance around the actual content of the memes, they take on an almost mythical quality – like the shark in the first half of Jaws.
But upon actually viewing the leaked memes, it becomes apparent that the “hate” behind them is as fake as the shark at the end of Jaws. There is no malice or intent behind the jokes. The images were not posted by child pornographers or hate groups, they were just the result of high school boys trying to one-up each by taking the most abhorrent subject matter and combining it with the sort of puns you might find on a Popsicle stick.
The memes are the modern equivalent of black humor similar to the Aristocats or dead baby jokes. And in attempting to come up with the most shocking and offensive jokes, the end result is that the students’ memes were actually kind of banal. As law professor Erica Goldberg put it, the motives behind the memes were similar to the extremely popular game Cards Against Humanities:
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.
This is an astute observation. Harvard was not rescinding the offer of 10 psychopathic hate-mongers, it was ruining the lives of 10 kids who were basically playing a slightly raunchier version of a card game sorority girls play at brunch – making them about as edgy as putting bananas on french toast.
Harvard only admits 2000 students, and only a small subset of those admitted post on the related Facebook groups. The fact that a full 10 of those students were found to have engaged in such speech should be evidence enough that their humor was not so far outside the norm to warrant such reactionary measures.
And while many people are quick to point out that the right to free speech does not give you the right to say whatever you want without consequences (only to avoid government persecution from it), these people are absolute idiots. You cannot ignore the fact that free speech is not just a right but also a moral value – one that America was built on.
These kids are being punished for private utterances in a private conversation. The constitution also gives people the right to vote, but says nothing about citizens exerting influence on each other’s vote. Even though it would be constitutional, would we not shudder if Harvard rescinded offers because students voted?
Because when institutions of higher learning punish young people for their private conversations, it has a chilling effect on free speech and the exchange of ideas in general. Universities should not be in the business of hindering communication, even if the average person would find it offensive. If throughout history people were afraid to say controversial things, the world would still think that the sun revolved around the Earth and that Bill Cosby was a moral authority. Only when people feel secure to say things that are outside the norm can we challenge our perceptions of reality.
And before you pounce on these students, because perhaps because you would never be dumb enough to say something offensive in a Facebook chat, just remember — Apple, Google, Facebook, and your ISP are now a tech-savvy version of a Sting wedding song — every step you take, every word you type, and every link you almost click on, they’ll be watching you. Today they are punishing you for your private Facebook messages, tomorrow they are punishing you for your thoughts.