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With Meme Decision, Harvard Offers A Lesson On The Importance Of Good Judgment

In this March 13, 2016 photo, people walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/ AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this March 13, 2016 photo, people walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/ AP)

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What is the price that should be paid when high school seniors cross the line of decency in their social media posts?

Harvard University recently answered that question when it told 10 students previously admitted to the class of 2021 that they were no longer welcome to attend. As a result of that decision, a national controversy has erupted.

As is now commonplace at most colleges, newly accepted students have access to Facebook groups that allow relationships to form and questions to be answered as they prepare for campus life. For Harvard’s new admittees, a sub-group of the Class of 2021 Facebook page formed, ostensibly to share memes.

Let’s pause a moment to note that a meme is a way to virally transmit through social media images that reflect culturally relevant ideas about society and human nature, generally through humor. Based on the underlying facts, the frequent reporting of Harvard’s decision to withdraw its offers of admission as based on “offensive memes” is unfair.

Turning Harvard’s decision into an argument about free speech is nonsensical.

According to reporting in the Harvard Crimson, some of those in the Class of 2021 sub-group proposed yet a second sub-group that called themselves, at some point in their messaging, “Harvard memes for horny Bourgeois teens.” So far, this sounds merely obnoxious, but not something that should cost the rescinding of a Harvard education.

But there are two aspects to what happened next that makes Harvard’s harsh decision a reasonable life lesson in a coarsening culture. The messages that members of this group chose to share include visual images that depict the beating of children as sexually arousing, suggest that the response to a Mexican child’s suicide by hanging should be to treat the body as a piñata, and otherwise target various minority groups. The images did not convey clever or cultural insights often conveyed in a meme. They were disturbing and hateful.

The second part of this story is the fact that the students involved behaved as though they were preparing for their fraternity or sorority hazing rituals. They did not simply form a separate sub-group. Rather, they required as a price of entry the publication of an offensive meme in the larger Facebook group. Although this aspect of the story has not been as widely discussed, it should be seen as an equally worrisome indicator of flawed judgment. These students created a group to share offensive postings in which the price of admission was a wider distribution of other offensive postings.

Admission to Harvard University offers a life-altering opportunity. Graduates of that elite university have greater access to influential networks and Ivy League graduates in general out-earn their colleagues from other schools. The Harvard brand opens doors and drives careers, and is even rated first among colleges most likely to make you a billionaire.

There should be some comfort in an elite university taking a stand against depictions of hate and violence.

With nearly 40,000 applicants, Harvard can be highly discerning as it chooses the 5.2 percent that will comprise its freshman class of approximately 2,000. In choosing those fortunate few, the university also has a right to seek students of good judgment who demonstrate civility, maturity and respect.

Turning Harvard’s decision into an argument about free speech is nonsensical. These images were not clever commentary on topical issues, nor even inflammatory language in defense of a political position. They were crude and hurtful. It is reasonable for Harvard to worry that these bad choices were a harbinger of more to come.

There is a personal toll resulting from Harvard’s decision for the families involved, and that is heartbreaking. But the national conversation the incident has sparked offers a ray of hope.

Social media provides the sad opportunity for cruelty to emerge behind the cloak of anonymity. There should be some comfort in an elite university taking a stand against depictions of hate and violence. With its decision, Harvard offered a free education to the country about the importance of values.

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Lauren Stiller Rikleen Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Lauren Stiller Rikleen is president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

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