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Harvard Revokes Offers Over Ugly Memes, But Does The Punishment Fit The Crime?

The university has sent a disturbing message about second chances, due process and the swift and sudden nature of thought policing, writes Joanna Weiss. In this photo, rowers paddle down the Charles River near the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Charles Krupa/ AP)
The university has sent a disturbing message about second chances, due process and the swift and sudden nature of thought policing, writes Joanna Weiss. In this photo, rowers paddle down the Charles River near the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Charles Krupa/ AP)

How much would you punish your kid for a very bad joke?

And yes, the jokes that group of admitted Harvard students posted on a private Facebook page -- leading the university to rescind their admissions — were offensive and obnoxious, a sign of screamingly poor judgment. Harvard just offered a gift to parents of teens and tweens: Glaring proof that the sins you commit online will haunt you.

But at the same time, the university sent a disturbing message about second chances, due process and the swift and sudden nature of thought policing. Were the students’ actual views as horrid as their casual online cracks? Maybe. Maybe not. The quick, harsh judgment made the question almost irrelevant.

So it has gone with a number of sarcastic tweeters who have lost their jobs and reputations, almost as swiftly as they typed offending words. One could argue that grown adult with an established career should know enough to pause before hitting “post.” I’m not sure I’d say the same of a high schooler, even one who has gotten the standard warnings about online behavior.

Speech that skirts the edges of propriety sometimes has a purpose: To cleanse, to examine, to shatter expectations.

Eighteen-year-olds are almost expected to have poor judgment — plus a tendency to mimic the verbal currency of their time. They’re testing, pushing boundaries, crossing lines. And when that line-crossing amounts to a crime, it’s fine to go heavy on the punishment.

But when it comes to ideas? Even ones that these students will eventually look back on with shame? I shudder to think of what would have happened if some of the things I said in college  -- in the name of hashing out complex social issues, or using the now-outdated language of the time — had been subject to unforgiving public scrutiny.

And I wonder what the temptation is today, for high schoolers wandering around in an internet jungle that’s teeming with taboo speech, and usually rewarding it.

Much of that speech is made in the name of humor — and that’s where our culture muddles the message. Entire sports websites are built around obnoxious jokes that people make in anonymity, without consequence. Multiple sitcoms are built around shock value. One college professor aptly compared the Harvard Facebook page to “Cards Against Humanity,” a game that’s popular, even with the pious liberal set, precisely because it plays with the forbidden. Would we want anyone to lose a job over that game?

It’s more interesting, from an education standpoint, to examine why we’re drawn to taboo games and memes and culture in the first place, why we use humor to push at the confines of acceptable discourse. Speech that skirts the edges of propriety sometimes has a purpose: To cleanse, to examine, to shatter expectations.

The best comedians — Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock — are brilliant at unpacking our complex, often contradictory values. (And their work is a lot more nuanced than Kathy Griffin’s line-crossing photo of a president’s severed head.)

surely [Harvard] could have devised a punishment that was meaningful, painful, but not so permanent.

Granted, most high school students shouldn’t try to play comedian. They aren’t as clever or cunning as they think, even if they have the grades to get into Harvard. But a failed attempt, at an impressionable age, doesn’t amount to a firing offense. Especially because it’s impossible to establish what the hard-and-fast boundaries really are.

Like many universities today, Harvard is engaged in an effort to improve its experience for students and staff, making a campus filled with the trappings of elites feel more welcoming and warm to people of all backgrounds. That’s a meaningful goal, and in many cases, the university is going about it quite well -- with a systematic review of traditions and institutions, and a sensible framework for what stays and what goes.

A knee-jerk reaction to an online mistake runs counter to that thoughtful process. And surely, a university filled with brilliant psychologists and sociologists could have devised a punishment that was meaningful, painful, but not so permanent. Just spitballing here, but how about a really long, harshly-judged, publicly-presented thesis paper about the fate of Justine Sacco, Hank Williams Jr., Michael Richards, Bill Maher? The list of grown adults with questionable judgment goes on and on.

Related:

Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.

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