By Paul Mulshine at NJ.com
I guess getting bored to tears beats getting tear-gassed. But the way in which Princeton University handles student protests still leaves a lot to be desired.
That would be an intelligent discussion of the issue at hand with both sides making their best cases for their propositions.
That’s what I hoped to see when I visited the Princeton campus Sunday afternoon for an event called by University President Christopher Eisgruber to discuss a couple of campus controversies.
One of the controversies involved a perceived offense to black people and the other involved a perceived offense by a black person.
Controversy A began when a group of students on the swimming and diving teams calling themselves “Urban Congo” did a dance performance during which they dressed up in loincloths and banged on garbage cans and bottles.
When I watched it on YouTube, I couldn’t make any sense of it whatsoever. College kids have a long tradition of making fools of themselves. This looked to me like a successor to the streaking fad that once gripped the campus.
But some minority students took great offense at a perceived insult. That led the leader of the Urban Congo (read a peroration on the group’s sins here.) to announce it had been disbanded – though to my eyes it didn’t look like it was banded very tightly in the first place.
Controversy B involved a rapper named Big Sean whom the student government invited to appear at the annual campus-wide lawn party in May. Like many rappers, Big Sean employs slang terms to describe women. That didn’t sit well with the p.c. crowd. Before long a petition was circulating calling for the student government to rescind the invitation on the grounds that Big Sean’s lyrics are misogynistic.
So I was looking forward to a high-toned and illuminating discussion as I entered the church, which is an immense and impressive Gothic cathedral. I soon found a seat in the front row amid some African-American students. I had a nice chat with one about artistic expression and how it related to Big Sean’s oeuvre.
I was expecting to hear more of that when Eisgruber began to speak. Alas, it was not to be. Perhaps it was because he was speaking from a pulpit, but Eisgruber began preaching to the choir. Instead of defending the American tradition of free expression, Eisgruber termed the week’s events “a challenge those of us in the majority culture need to embrace.” He went on to denounce “the eruptions of hostile and thoughtless comments” about the issue on the internet.
That wasn’t enough for the black students. They stood up and turned their backs on him during the speech. They turned back around for the rest of the speakers but they needn’t have bothered. As one said when I interviewed him afterward, “Nobody said anything.”
He got that right. The speakers went on and on about the need for students to talk with each other about tough issues – while avoiding talking about the tough issues before them.
The event concluded as such events have concluded since time immemorial, by which I mean the 1960s. That’s when student protestors perfected the walkout. The Princetonians executed it to perfection, all the while carrying signs with such slogans as “Hate speech is not free speech.”
Sure it is, said Alan Kors when I called him Monday.
“Everyone’s free speech for someone else is going to be hate speech,” said Kors, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which takes action against colleges that create speech codes and other hindrances to free expression.
“What’s arisen on campuses is the notion that one has a right never to be offended,” he said. “That would be an absurdity. We all deal with things that offend us deeply.”
Kors noted that the movement for free speech began with left-wing students at Berkeley in 1964, but it’s now the left-wingers who are calling for speech codes and howling in outrage at perceived offenses, he said.
“Somehow we have gone from the Free Speech Movement to the you-can’t-offend-anyone movement,” he said. “That to me is the infantilization of students.”
Me, too. It’s a sad commentary on Princeton today that you have to go to internet sites to read a frank discussion of issues that should be openly discussed as part of a well-rounded education.
My favorite insight into the Urban Congo controversy came from a commenter who was apparently an Aussie: ” Yeah, the Yanks aren’t renowned for their sense of humour,” he wrote.
Well, not on campus anyway.
ALSO: A commenter points out that the Urban Congo performance is a pretty obvious steal from the “Stomp” percussion group, which is from England, not Africa. See below:
BELOW: I’m no fan of rap music, but I did notice that a lot of Big Sean’s defenders pointed out that such mainstream rockers as the Rolling Stones had some interesting lyrics of their own. When it comes to the treatment of women in song, “Under My Thumb” and “Brown Sugar” would cause outrage in this p.c. era.
And when it comes to country music, watch the video below as Wyclef Jean of the Fugees points out that Johnny Cash had some songs in which women were treated really, really badly.
Schools: Princeton University