Tidbits & Oddments, Summer-Fall 2023

November 27, 2023

3235 words

Inoffensive Disclaimer

Taking-Offense never seeks to offend, so I take this opportunity to remind readers that even though at one time or another we may all be offended—meaning angry over, alarmed at, fearful of, or depressed—by a seemingly unending series of tumultuous events, Our Topic is only a subset of things that cause upset, shock, and outrage. The major calamaties that are on everyone’s mind are not the subject of this blog. I don’t wish to minimize the sorry reality of the world in our time, but I do mean to stick to the topic. Please don’t take offense at this choice: I leave to commentators more astute—and foolhardy—than I to enlighten you, as they daily do, on what counts. What follows are recent flotsam and jetsam from the lesser events of our mad world.


Someone, We Don’t Know Who or How, Has No Doubt Been “Potentially Offensive” Right in Your Neighborhood, and Rest Assured the Matter Is Being Investigated, Though By Whom We Can’t Say

In late October, city officials in Alexandria, Virginia, reported an outbreak of a new category of offensiveness. Someone, presumably one or more city cops, discovered “potentially offensive materials” in a police cruiser. The Alexandria police chief and the city manager issued a joint statement saying they were aware of the stuff or thing found, and apologized for its nature, without further characterizing or describing it. The Washington Post provided the following short explanation:

It was not clear when the materials were discovered or by whom. It also was unclear whether they were found while the cruiser was in use by the police. No officers who may have used the cruiser were identified. No information was available on whether the materials were seen by members of the public.

You will be comforted to learn, I’m sure, that various unidentified city officials are investigating whatever it is. Something. Probably sinister. Or maybe nothing.

Why the Post bothered to run this short item is mildly perplexing, but I’m glad the editors saw fit to do so, because it has introduced me to the topic of the “potentially” offensive. What a rich and ripe field it potentially will turn out to be—at least half an infinity wider than the “merely offensive.”

Even as I was reading the story, I was webbling the term, expecting the search to register empty. I thought I was on the spoor of a new coinage. You know where this is heading. Once again I found myself bedazzled by the brilliance of my own naivete. The search turned up 800,000 hits for the concept.

In hindsight, some of it seems obvious. The Oxford English Dictionary, in a disclaimer titled “understanding sensitive and potentially offensive content,” said that words in the dictionary are descriptive, not prescriptive, so don’t blame the editors if you stumble across something you’d rather not have seen. I cannot say why the OED hedged on describing these words, though: you can be one hundred percent sure that more than one someone will find more than one word actually offensive.

Likewise, a heartfelt explanatory apology from the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association under the heading “JAMA Network Statement on Potentially Offensive Content” began this way:

This journal’s previously published content may include language, information, or terms that are offensive, insensitive, or unethical and may reflect attitudes, biases, or conventions that were deemed acceptable at the original time of publication. The JAMA Network regrets any offense or harm caused by any previous publication with potentially offensive content or language, . . .

Do you suppose the editors confessed to this unfortunate circumstance on the basis of a guess that the venerable JAMA just might possibly contain objectionable “content”? That they didn’t look? Would it not have been more honest just to concede the point: “Some articles published in different eras contain language that many readers will find offensive, insensitive, or even unethical.”

Still, think of the uses to which the term “potentially offensive” might be attached: an article touting a celebrity as heroic who will later turn out to be a common criminal; a slang term or phrase that today has no offensive connotation but that will have become opprobrious in 50 years—or perhaps the week after next; the explanation for a puzzling phenomenon that in the fullness of time will turn out to be not only mistaken but also profoundly repugnant—you know, like whatever it is, it’s all the fault of the [fill in here a potentially offensive label for a person, group, or scientific, historical, or cultural concept].

Deeper Dive Alert: In case you’re still wondering, a month later, as far as I can determine, there has been no  public report from Alexandria. Other sources, though, have identified the potentially offensive thing in the police cruiser. It was a T shirt with the words “I can’t breathe” topped by a cartoon figure of a pig face in a black mask. It came to the city’s attention when ALX Accountability, a grassroots investigative group, posted a YouTube video. The videographer questioned a testy police officer who arrived on the scene and removed it but gave no answers. Various news accounts all suggested the display was a reference to the Black Lives Matter rallying cry that spread after the police killings of  George Floyd, Eric Garner, and others.


Stay on That Eggshell, Professor

In July, the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, a part of North Dakota State University, reported in its 2023 annual survey of student opinion that nearly three-quarters of college students (74%) believe that professors “should be reported [to their university] for making comments that students find offensive.” The numbers skew when measured against political leanings—81% of “liberal” or “liberal leaning” students favor tattling on offensive professors, whereas slightly more than half (53%) of “conservative” or “conservative leaning” students, and about three-quarters (76%) of “independent” or “apolitical” students agree that their professors should be turned in to the authorities. About two-thirds of liberal students and one-third of conservatives would also turn in their offensive classmates.

If you graduated from college at least 15 years ago, the data may seem odd. Did you ever even think of turning a professor in for something mumbled in class? But so North Dakota State reports students today advocate doing. Whether students actually squeal on their offensive professors was apparently unasked. Stories about the survey by sober journalists have amplified the findings.

But should we believe the report? In a section on methodology, the Challey Institute states that the survey was sent to a panel developed by College Pulse (an independent research group), consisting of 700,000 verified undergraduates representing more than 1,500 four-year colleges and universities in the 50 states. The responses on which the report is based came from a subset of the Pulse panel: 2,250 of these students in 131 schools. Demographically, the respondent pool was 50% white, 24% Asian, 13% Hispanic/Latino, 8% Black, 5.5.% reporting two or more races, 2% Middle Eastern, 1% Native American, less than 1% Native Hawaii, and 4% “other/prefer not to say.” Sixty-four percent of the students attended public schools, 36% private. The report grouped the students politically as 58% “slightly, somewhat, or very liberal”; 20% “slightly, somewhat, or very conservative,” and 22% independent or apolitical (“not having thought much about politics”).

Was this a representative sample? The Report says that “Panel members are recruited by a number of methods to help ensure diversity in the panel population, including web advertising, permission-based email campaigns, and partnerships with university organizations. To reduce the effects of non-response bias, College Pulse applied a post-stratification adjustment based on demographic distributions from the 2017 Current Population Survey, the 2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, and the 2019-20 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Averages use the weights developed by College Pulse.” There, does that help?

Unlikely, unless, perhaps, you’re a professional statistician. Turning to College Pulse’s explanation, you will learn that the “post-stratification weight rebalances the sample based on a number of important benchmark attributes, such as race, gender, class year, voter registration status, and financial aid status. The sample weighting is accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables. Weights are trimmed to prevent individual interviews from having too much influence on the final results.”

Slapdash entwining of professional jargon and lay English is bad enough. Entangling serious claims about social behavior with the dense prose and concepts of specialists is malpractice. As far as I can tell, the Challey Institute expended little or no effort to clarify for its main audience how accurately it has measured reality through a filter of a filter with various sieves and meshes and sluiceways that divert data streams from the main path. Why the particular mix of ethnicities? Why the undefined political labels by which it asked students to self-identify? Why not consider college majors? Or student affiliations? Or the mix of home residences? Or, for heaven’s sake, party registration? Why so few students and colleges from a stew at least an order of magnitude larger? How reliable can the reported results be?

Let’s also wonder what the report actually means. The headline, likely to be the sole takeaway from the published survey, is alarming and therefore arresting. Three out of every four college students believe that offensive professors should be reported to the universities where they work. Reported to whom? Does the dean of the college wish to receive unverified reports that “my professor offended me”? Do students believe deans are seeking that information? Or have a way of collecting it? Do universities have an administrative apparatus that will do so? Will academic officials act on that information when it’s collected? Will it be verified? How? Do students believe administrators will act? Abiding by or ignoring due process? What sanctions are available to them? Do colleges have written and publicized protocols that set out procedures and sanctions?  Are students aware of them? These questions, which might have prompted respondees to rethink their answers, appear to have been unasked.

The report (page 17) does list 10 specific opinions for which many students believe professors should be reported. These concern affirmative action (e.g., “It is clear that Affirmative Action is doing more harm than good, and should be eliminated”); police racism; private gun ownership; claims about the number of sexes; and beliefs about mandatory vaccination. No doubt these are touchy subjects, but they do not come close to exhausting the deliberate or offhand comments professors are capable of uttering during any given class. I can’t say whether providing respondees with a limited list of highly suggestive topics labeled offensive undermines the validity of the undertaking, nor do I know how the numbers might change if instead of asking students whether professors “should be reported” the survey had asked whether students “should tattle to the dean.”

What I do know is this is the kind of study that gives academics a bad name. It’s offensive. I’m reporting the Challey Institute to you.


Nonsensical Nonage of the Non-Definition

One or two careers ago, I talked a lot to lawyers. Among the most peculiar terms bandied about by this ingroup notorious for an inflated and often mind-numbing jargon was its label for outsiders: non-lawyers. “He’s a non-lawyer,” members of the bar would say of a commentator expressing an opinion about the law. As far as I know, no one else uses such an expression, and even lawyers wouldn’t use this cognate to brand, say, those who are not chefs or mountain climbers. I don’t think I have ever heard a waiter refer to diners at his table as “non-chefs” or known one of my academic colleagues to call waiters who serve them as “non-professors.” Did you ever hear an author say of her readers: “oh, he’s a non-writer”? (I do, though, sometimes surmise that the most strident of my teaching compatriots erroneously imagine the rest of the world as “non-thinkers.” And I suppose I should note our ready acceptance of the term “non-fiction” to contrast with the type of writing we embrace as stories and novels.)

In June, Johns Hopkins University seemed poised to boldly go where the language has not yet gone. A glossary of LGBTQ terms, posted online by Hopkins’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, gave this definition of lesbian:

A non-man attracted to non-men.

Elaborating, the glossary noted: “While past definitions refer to ‘lesbian’ as a woman who is emotionally, romantically, and/or sexually attracted to other women, this updated definition includes non-binary people who may also identify with the label.”

Confusingly, the glossary then defined the term “gay man” without following the logic it had just proposed:

Gay Man: A man who is emotionally, romantically, sexually, affectionately, or relationally attracted to other men, or who identifies as a member of the gay community.

It’s confusing, not least, because Hopkins was suggesting that “non-binary people” can “identify with the label” lesbian but not with the label gay man. The glossary gave no clue to the reality of or the evidence for such an exclusion (or, for that matter, inclusion). It also suggested, without warrant, that the word “lesbian” is strictly a noun whereas “gay” is an adjective. Like “apple” is a phone and “orange” is a color?

A lot of people denounced the glossary, including notables whose denunciations can stir up trouble for proponents of New Speak. “Infuriating,” said presidential candidate Nikki Haley, offering the definition as a prime example of “this war on women.” Martina Navratilova, herself a lesbian, tweeted that “lesbian was literally the only word in English language that is not tied to man —as in male — feMALE, man-woMAN. And now lesbians are nonmen?!? Wtf?!?” The Free Press sent fire-eating dragons into battle: “The word man is totally cool. But the word woman is disgusting and offensive. It’s exclusionary (to men) to talk about women (without men), and so the woman must be reframed as a blank hole; she is the absence of man . . .” Followed by more vivid fulminations.

By mid-June, Hopkins backed off, removing the glossary from its website and trotting out the usual spokesperson to say the usual spokesperson’s thing. Megan Christin, director of strategic communications, downplayed the glossary, denying that it was officially endorsed by Johns Hopkins. It was, instead, she said, “a resource posted on the website of the Johns Hopkins University Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI),” the same dodge used by other universities to deflect blame from higher to lower-echelon staffers.

More astounding than this casual downgrading of provenance, Christin said the glossary was posted there without the approval of “ODI leadership,” which had neither “reviewed or approved . . . the language in question.” I don’t know how you would run a major academic office, much less a university as a whole, but if I were in charge of one of such places in our era of exquisite sensitivities, I’d be replacing someone, either the staffer at ODI who forgot to seek approval before posting a language guide, or the “ODI leadership” itself for not having controls in place. (First rule of faulty leadership in the real world: “It’s never the boss’s fault.”)

Christen said the “language in question has been removed pending review.” Five months later, I find no evidence that it has been reinstated. The patient has died, no obituary needed.


Let a Thousand Offensive Flowers Bloom

In early August, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a federal preliminary injunction against Clovis Community College, located in Fresno, California, for removing fliers that had been posted on university bulletin boards.

In 2021, Clovis administrators approved a request by a conservative student group, Young Americans for Freedom, to post flyers with an anti-abortion message and others that disparaged communism and listed total deaths perpetrated by communist regimes. The posters were said to have “made ‘several people . . . very uncomfortable.’”

After receiving complaints, an administrator pointed to a provision in the college flyer policy stating that “[p]osters with inappropriate or offense [sic] language or themes are not permitted and will not be approved” and said that he would “gladly” take them down. Clovis’s president, Lori Bennett, then ordered the flyers removed, pointing to a non-existent rule against posting flyers unrelated to club announcements. A month later administrators barred new pro-life flyers from bulletin boards in buildings with significant student traffic, banishing them to a “Free Speech Kiosk,” which the YAF plaintiffs allege is, according to the Ninth Circuit, “in a remote part of campus that gets little visibility by students.”

A year ago a federal district court made short work of Clovis’s argument, issuing a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of Clovis’s speech policies pending trial. The court held that they amounted to viewpoint discrimination and that the students were likely to succeed on the merits in showing that the rule against offensive speech is “unconstitutionally vague” and “likely creates a chilling effect on student speech.”

In rejecting Clovis’s motion to block the preliminary injunction while the trial unfolds, the Ninth Circuit avoided some uncertainties in the legal support for the viewpoint argument and held that the flyer policy barring “inappropriate or offens[ive] language or themes” is both unconstitutionally overbroad and vague—overbroad “because a substantial number of the policy’s applications prohibit constitutionally protected speech” and vague because its very subjectivity “encourages or invites ‘arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.’”

The Clovis decisions follow a lengthening line of cases that bar censorship of the merely offensive. It’s tough to run a college.


“Proud to Be a Troublemaker”: Sinéad O’Connor, RIP

Lest we forget, Sinéad O’Connor, the Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter who sparked international revulsion when she ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II in 1992 on Saturday Night Live to protest sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, died in late July at her home in London. She was 56.

Instantly recognizable from her shaved head, she stirred up controversy on many occasions over the years, but none so profoundly, or presciently, as her gutsy theatrics on SNL, a moment that, while it did not silence her, derailed her career in significant ways. The fury against her 30 years ago was immense and intense. She was banned from NBC and from SNL for life. Joe Pesci said if he’d been there he “would’ve gave her such a smack” (Will Smith, are you listening?). She was booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden two weeks later, and was attacked in headlines around the world for weeks. The full power of “cancel culture” had not yet set in, and she continued to perform over the years, though, as Rolling Stone concluded after her death, “her career never stabilized.” Nor has it been forgotten. After her refusal in 1991 to perform if the Star Spangled Banner was to be played, drawing the public ire of Frank Sinatra, she said “I’m proud to be a troublemaker.” She paved the way.


Awakening to Woke

For some observations on the reasons that the Woke Left frequently raises the “offense” flag, see my recent review of Susan Neiman’s valuable book, Left Is Not Woke, in the Washington Independent Review of Books. If you have a quiet evening, skip the ball game, forgo the political commentary, and read the short book itself.

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