Do you have a right not to be offended, ever, by anything anyone else says or does? If you find someone boorish, insensitive or prejudiced, can you just say you’re offended and — poof — that person disappears?
Pretty much, yes. If you’re at college and you’re offended by someone’s remark of a sexual nature, that is now enough to get that person kicked off campus.
For this, we must thank the federal departments of Justice and Education, which earlier this month jointly issued a new “blueprint” for colleges and universities, which defines harassment down. Before, harassment was defined as something “objectively offensive” — something a reasonable person would find completely unconscionable. Now? Any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” is considered harassment, including unwelcome speech.
Unwelcome! We’re not talking about threatening speech or a hideous demand, such as, “Sleep with me, or you get an F.” Now the threshold is simply speech that someone (the person no longer has to be reasonable) finds unwelcome.
I keep flashing back on a high-strung girl I was friends with in college who was ready to murder a boy who asked her out once but not twice. If it were today and he uttered, “Sorry, but you don’t turn me on,” she could have him legally booted off campus. After all, the remark is of a sexual nature, and it certainly would be unwelcome!
“It’s impossible to prevent everyone from being offended every time,” says Greg Lukianoff, author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate” and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. That’s why, in the past, universities were instructed only to punish conduct that was “persistent, punitive and objectionably offensive.”
But now if a sociology class were discussing women in combat and one student raised his hand to say, “I don’t want ladies on the front lines, because if I’m shot, I want someone with a lot of upper body strength to drag me to safety,” would that be the jumping-off point for a lively discussion?
Or would it be the end of that student’s college career?
After all, someone in the class might find the remark both sexual — he is talking about male bodies vs. female bodies — and unwelcome. How dare anyone say women don’t belong on the front lines! Such politically incorrect sentiments can now be prosecuted.
If this sounds as if I’m an alarmist just imagining the worst-case scenarios, consider a few cases that already made their way to the courts, even before this new edict. One concerns a student in a creative writing class in which the female professor encouraged everyone to write his or her “impressions” — even sexy ones — in a journal. When one student scribbled that he found her hot, she turned him in for harassment.
The school suspended him for three semesters.
Another time, a young man who was tired of students taking the dorm elevator up or down just a single floor made a flier joking that girls could lose the “freshman 15” (that is, the 15 pounds some kids gain on dorm food) by taking the stairs. The flier added, “Not only will u feel better about yourself but you will also be saving us time and won’t be sore on the eyes.”
For that bit of sexism, he was kicked out of the dorm, put on two years’ probation and forced to undergo mandatory psychological counseling.
If you ask me, he’d need the counseling after that kind of punishment.
As a feminist through and through, I believe that sexism still exists and that it’s good to point it out and discuss it. But how can people discuss anything on campus when whatever they say about men, women, sex or even freshman flubber can and will be used against them?
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”