In the wake of a controversy at Harvard University following the anonymous distribution of satirical flyers advertising a fake “final club,” the editorial staff of The Harvard Crimson published a column on the incident last week. Rather than take on Harvard’s condemnatory response to this clearly satirical flyer, and reports that Harvard is actively searching for the flyer’s author(s), the Crimson’s editors tackle the culture of final clubs. They write:
While we too find the flyers tasteless and their use of inflammatory language inappropriate and unconstructive, a response to the prank cannot be properly made without a meaningful appraisal of the role of final clubs at Harvard. In this vein, we instead choose to highlight the very real threats wrought on our campus by final clubs. The satirical letters may have failed to demonstrate “thoughtfulness and respect,” but their implication that final clubs are unsafe for women is much more noteworthy.
What is perhaps most troubling about the flyers is that they brought to light the destructive influence of final clubs on social life on campus.
It may slip past some readers that the Crimson has denounced the flyer with one hand while taking to its pulpit to address the very issues it raised with the other, vindicating the flyer’s message in the process. But it didn’t get past one commenter (identified only as “Actually”), who wrote a blistering comment in response to the editorial. The comment also takes on higher education’s knee-jerk intolerance to even the most harmless satire and parody, and its implications for society at large. I’ll let the commenter’s words speak for themselves, and I hope the commenter does not mind me quoting his or her post in full. It deserves better than to be lost in the Crimson’s comment threads.
Let me get this straight:
Some Harvard students distribute a parody of a final club recruitment flyer that attacks the club culture for intolerance and misogyny. And then the Crimson staff, in an editorial that leans on the campus-wide discussion that results from that satire, declaims on the “unconstructive” and inflammatory language of the parody, while in the same breath offering the same, precise critique as the satire.
Your hypocrisy — if not your craven wimpery — is astonishing to behold.
If the purpose of the satire was to engender discussion about the final clubs, then that satire has — by the very existence of your editorial — proven itself to be remarkably, even precisely, constructive. Was that the purpose? Well, given that the exclusionary and misogynistic remarks on the flyer were linked — specifically, by asterisk — to virtues such as “diversity” and “love,” it would certainly seem obvious enough.
Yet the Crimson topped its initial story of the prank for two days with no suggestion of satire, suggesting to the outside world — and its media outlets — that an actual club was actually barring Jews and actually advocating date rape. Not to be outdone, University administrators then rushed out worried, righteous statements — not about the critique of the club culture; on such issues on they remain tacit — but on the provocative and uncivil language that any satire of intolerance requires. This stance virtually assures that much of the media will proceed to assess this not as satire and campus dissent, but as actual intolerance. After all, if the university thinks it’s a statement of bigotry, and not anti-bigotry, then why shouldn’t we? Representatives of campus Jewish and African-Americans organizations chime in with more public hand-wringing — not about club culture and its effect on the campus culture, of course, but on the scary words within the parody. Then, resident hall officials are asked to search for snitches, so that whoever provoked this awkward discussion can be punished and silenced.
Amid all of this, comes again the Harvard Crimson, walking sideways from the satire, condemning its tone on the one hand and letting pass without comment the growing assault on campus speech freedoms, while at the same moment embracing the very critique of the parody for its own editorial position.
Based on the cumulative performance thus far — from campus administrators to the Crimson to that portion of the university community — faculty and student alike — who apparently think attendance here should guarantee the right to never be offended by anyone else’s speech, ever — I would say that the odds of Harvard University graduating an iconoclastic thinker over the next twenty or thirty years are, say, eighty-to-one.
A historical reference: The language in Jonathan Swift’s famous satire suggesting that Irish poverty could be addressed by having Irish babies sold to the English for food was truly uncivil and offensive. And yes, some people believed for long moment that the author was actually an insensate Englishman. But no one, thank goodness, held Swift and his modest proposal to any standard of decorum. They eventually got the point. That satire, too, opened a substantive discussion.
Hopefully no one who reads the Crimson editorial will miss this comment.
Peter Bonilla joined FIRE as a Program Associate in 2008 and became Assistant Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program in 2011. As Assistant Director he manages FIRE’s significant caseload, writes frequently for FIRE’s blog, The Torch, and has lectured to student groups and at student conferences around the country.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.