The culprit? A flyer supposedly advertising The Pigeon, a new “final club” at Harvard. (Final clubs are Harvard’s unrecognized but influential substitutes for fraternities.) Applicants were told to show up at a frozen yogurt shop inCambridge two minutes after closing time, wearing the required “semi-bro” attire. But what really raised hackles were the asterisked qualifiers at the end: “Jews need not apply”; “Seriously, no fucking Jews. Coloreds OK”; and “Rophynol” (the last a misspelling of the “date-rape drug”, Rohypnol). These asterisks were linked to the “values” of Inclusion, Diversity, and Love, respectively.Harvard University should be no stranger to satire. Home of the famous Harvard Lampoon, (“lampoon” means satire), the school is indirectly responsible for modern exercises in satire and parody like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Saturday Night Live, and the career of Conan O’Brien (all of which have substantial Lampoonconnections). Thus, it should surprise nobody when a parody piece shows up on campus.
But the latest bit of Harvard lampoonery has monocles popping out of eyes all across Harvard Yard.
Harvard students and administrators wasted no time going into the now de rigeur outrage mode over such insensitive speech, despite the fact that a normal person would understand that the insensitivity of the language was probably an intentional caricature of the perceived elitism and exclusivity of Harvard final clubs. (It might also have been alluding to the fact that Harvard, along with other Ivy League schools, instituted de facto caps on Jewish enrollment in the 1920s and 30s.)
Of course, satire, like any other creative work, doesn’t always mean the same thing to everyone. It has been suggested that the flyer was an attempt to make fun of the Harvard administration’s widely lambasted efforts to provide “social spaces” for those who do not participate in final clubs. Or perhaps it was intended as a vehicle to mock a campus culture that many find politically correct in the extreme when it comes to race and sexual issues. The least likely explanation is that it was a sincere attempt to deride Jews and non-white students, although that’s probably the exact opposite of what was intended. And, of course, it could be some combination of any of the above.
Without question, this flyer touched upon issues that many find upsetting, but to place restrictions on the topics that satire can address is to render this form of social commentary pointless. Satire has been used for centuries (OK,millennia) as a vehicle for societal comment through mockery. Not everyone will find it humorous, and some will find it downright offensive, to the point of outrage. That’s what makes satire so effective; the controversy that it generates draws widespread attention to the behavior being ridiculed, thereby igniting a public dialogue about it.
No idea or belief should be immune from questioning or criticism. Somewhere along the way, however, colleges and universities seem to have decided that they must shield their students—the vast majority of whom are adults—from being made uncomfortable. But there’s no “right to not be offended” in America. Using personal offense as a standard for censoring speech is a surefire way to destroy the very freedom of speech that allows us to proclaim that sense of offense.
The Supreme Court recognizes this, and has repeatedly found highly objectionable satire to be protected by the First Amendment. For instance, in Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell (1988), the Court upheld Hustler’s right to run a parody advertisement in which the late Rev. Jerry Falwell reminisced about getting drunk and losing his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. Tasteful? Not even close. Hurtful? Surely. But even though this advertisement touched upon potentially disturbing social taboos and targeted a specific person’s sexuality and religious beliefs, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled for its protection.
In reaching its ruling, the Court stressed that “[t]he freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty—and thus a good unto itself—but also is essential to the common quest for truth and vitality of society as a whole.” This concept can easily be applied to the uproar surrounding The Pigeon. If the lurid depiction of incest at the heart of the Hustler case has the potential to represent valuable societal commentary, how can we not grasp the value of a critique of racism and sexual abuse on our nation’s most famous campus?
Satire isn’t always funny, and it doesn’t always succeed in creating positive change. But the best way to ensure the death of social criticism is to declare that some beliefs are too sacred to be mocked. Let’s hope that Harvard remembers this as it addresses the latest in its extremely long line of satirical offerings.