April 30, 2018

Mum’s the Word

The Mum in this case is Barbara Bush, who died April 17. The word, in case you’ve already forgotten, was “racist.” It was uttered by Randa Jarrar, a professor of English at California State University, Fresno, previously unknown outside her community. Describing herself as an Arab-American and a Muslim-American woman, Jarrar signaled her dislike of the former First Lady an hour after Mrs. Bush’s death was announced. Mrs. Bush was an “amazing racist,” Jarrar tweeted, accusing her (and her husband) of “raising a war criminal.” In a subsequent tweet, she confessed: “I’m happy the witch is dead.” The reaction was swift; thousands tweeted back angrily, many calling on the university president to fire her. Uncowed, Jarrar taunted her critics: they were out of luck because, she nonchalantly reminded them, she is tenured; “I will never be fired.” (For the record, Jarrar is on leave this semester and did not circulate her comments from campus.)

Dragged into the firestorm that evening, the president of Fresno State, Joseph I. Castro, at first said that since Jarrar was speaking as a private citizen, she was beyond the reach of university discipline, even as he deplored her disrespectful comments and insisted that her views “are contrary to the core values of our university.” Exactly what Fresno State’s core values have to do with one professor’s views of a particular woman are unclear. But the next day, struggling to keep up with the backlash, he said that “all options are on the table” and “just because you’re a tenured professor doesn’t mean you can do or say whatever you wish.” The uproar grew. A week later, an online petition at change.org demanding her termination had wracked up 40,000 signatures (as I write, signatories have grown to 75,000, and they’re still climbing).

More commentary followed, some of it conceptually unhinged. For example, the College Republicans of Fresno State issued this statement to Newsweek:

The comments from Professor Randa Jarrar are wholly inappropriate and out of line. Barbara Bush’s years of service to children and adults alike in promoting literacy are something to be celebrated. While Professor Jarrar’s comments are protected under the First Amendment, the provocative and reckless manner that she conducted herself through her tweets last night is irresponsible. We believe that Ms. Jarrar has crossed the line and should be terminated from her position at Fresno State.

You need not think deeply to spot the fallacy. These budding Republican politicos would have it that even though Jarrar’s comments are constitutionally protected, she should be punished anyway. Say what you want as long as you do not cross an undefined line, apparently bounding an area known as “here be dragons,” which in this instance are “thoughts spoken too provocatively.” You don’t have to be a Democrat to find that proposition legally unsustainable and conceptually incoherent. (And, of course, if we adopted the College Republicans’ rule, they’d be hard pressed to resist the call for right-wing provocateurs to be banned from campus and maybe even for the President to step down, since he’s so often crossed whatever the line is that the ground may be incapable of ever being reseeded. But I digress.)

Mitch Albom (yes, the guy who knew Morrie), in a rambling piece in the Detroit Free Press, blamed the university’s tolerance of Jarrar’s fulminations (these against Mrs. Bush and earlier outbursts on other topics) on a myopic misunderstanding of tenure:

Lost in this debate is the simple fact that Jarrar behaved like an obnoxious, petulant child. Her timing was insensitive, her glee at another’s death was disgusting, her lack of empathy for a grieving family was sub-human, and her chest pounding of tenure, a concept put into effect by the very government she apparently abhors, was hypocritical.

Tenure, says Albom, was designed to protect lectures and written pieces. “Behaving like an insensitive ass in public—which, let’s be blunt, is what Jarrar did—was never the intent.” Albom’s position, in essence, is that you can say whatever you want as long as you’re not intemperate when lots of people can read it or hear it: “How low must you sink before getting fired from a university?” (To dispel any confusion, I should note that the first President Bush’s government did not create the tenure system or put it into effect.)

In the event, cooler heads prevailed. A week after the tweetstorm, Castro concurred that Jarrar’s speech is constitutionally protected, even though it was “disgraceful.”

About the same time these west coast shenanigans were playing out, a somewhat different deviltry came to light in the east. As you also now are already in the midst of forgetting, the brothers at the Theta Tau fraternity at Syracuse University (unlike Fresno State, a private institution), engaged in a bizarre ceremony (within their quarters) requiring members to act out, in the words of Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud, in ways “that are extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist and hostile to people with disabilities.” The Daily Orange, the university’s student-run newspaper, unearthed two videos shot from within the fraternity house. Syverud suspended Theta Tau when he learned of the first video, and then expelled the fraternity when the second video surfaced days later. Rather limply, Theta Tau offered as apology and explanation the improbable claim that the video was a “satirical sketch.” Eighteen unnamed students were suspended from classes and hauled up on disciplinary charges; an investigation is ongoing. Just this past week, five of these students sued Syracuse for damages for failing to follow prescribed procedures.

I’m guessing almost everyone would hold that the fraternity’s vileness far exceeded Prof. Jarrar’s in intensity and scope. But that’s not likely the reason for the difference between Fresno State’s hands-off approach to Jarrar and Syracuse’s sock-it-to-them action against the students. It’s impossible to parse degrees of offensiveness sufficiently, at least in this context (and probably in all contexts), to determine whether or not to punish. The legal difference, if it comes to that, is that racists, homophobes, anti-Semites, and others professing similar stripes of hatred have no constitutional protection in private institutions. That may be enough for the courts, but I’m not sure why it should be enough for us thinking more generally. If there were a Theta Tau on the Fresno State campus, and the boys of the house staged the same “sketch,” should they be impervious to reprisal? If so, why not their cousins at Syracuse? The damage, if any, is the same.

Kathleen Parker, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist, speaking to the fraternity flap, addressed this point but seemed to do the College Republicans one better. Said she:

Courage, it seems, is needed now to do the hard thing at Syracuse and expel the boys—not for expressing racism and anti-Semitism, or for lampooning the disabled, none of which brought actual harm to anyone and is probably legally protected speech. Rather, they should be expelled because someone has to carry the fire. Expel them, Mr. Chancellor, because their behavior is beneath the dignity of your institution—and of a nation they little deserve to inherit.

As I read these comments, Parker is prepared to punish speakers for vileness even if the law protects it and it caused no harm. Though Parker is likely wrong in her legal analysis of the situation at Syracuse, her demand is breathtaking. Do what you need to do, she argues in effect, because she’s “mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Take a deep breath.

Though I have no solution—not so far!—about how to restore decency to a society sorely in need of civility, let me offer a first step. Let’s not bolt upright out of our chairs at every screaming headline and breathless broadcast. When we look at headlines we view the world backwards: the news is always about the unusual case. The expected and the normal are not newsworthy. The nightly news would tell us about a cup of coffee that spontaneously heated up while sitting on the breakfast table, but never about all the cups that automatically cool down. Did you read about the college professors who were unamused by Mrs. Bush but held their tongues on the eve of her funeral? Did you get any news about fraternal social directors who put the kibosh on offensive sketches because, like, don’t be crazy, man?

We experience the occasional lout because we have constructed our institutions to make it possible for other things to happen. If we were to rearrange the world to rid ourselves of Jarrar’s venom and the frat’s sorry pratfall, we would lose the much bigger picture that is secured by the freedom to speak stupidly. Cover the window to avoid the thing you’d rather not see and you’ll be left with a nothing to see. The cover will become a barrier that sooner or later will block our view of everything, at least everything that the powers that be (elected officials, planning commissions, mobs of concerned citizens) don’t want us to see. We can be protected from the sight of occasional ugliness only at the cost of seeing nothing at all.

In the early days of the communist hysteria in America, the eminent writer E. B. White (according to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 18th ed., p. 724) expressed his dismay and fear over an editorial in the New York Herald Tribune on Thanksgiving Day, 1947, urging a rule that employees be “required to state their beliefs in order to hold their jobs.” This idea, he said, “is inconsistent with our constitutional theory and has been stubbornly opposed by watchful men since the early days of the Republic.”

These days, in our new hysteria, it seems the cry is much the other way: To hold our jobs and keep our memberships, our alarmists cry, we must be forced to stay mum: not to state our beliefs.

But mum’s the word at our peril. For our own safety, the word can’t be mum.

What, then, can we do about the word when it’s loosed among us? I think there are answers, but this post is already too long. I’ll have to get back to you on that. Soon, I promise.