It seems like these days the worst speech offense just about anyone can commit is using an "epithet" to describe a person or group of people. Epithets are certainly unpleasant, and it's not surprising that they often offend people. But increasingly, both on campus and off, we are hearing about cases in which those who utter "offensive" words are pilloried, no matter the context, in ways that seem to defy reason. I submit that this implies something truly bizarre for an American university in 2008: people believe that these words are magic.
I've got evidence. Consider the case of Professor Donald Hindley at Brandeis University, who was found guilty of harassment and had a monitor placed in his classroom after uttering the word "wetbacks" in his Latin American politics class. The fact that he used the word in the context of criticizing it seems to have made zero difference to Brandeis Provost Marty Krauss, who for nearly a year has been standing by her decision to brand this nearly fifty-year veteran of teaching a racial harasser. When it comes to Professor Hindley's use of the word "wetbacks," facts and reality appear to hold no sway at all in the minds of Provost Krauss or Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz. Apparently, context doesn't count when you say the magic word.
How about an even stupider example, if such a thing is possible? At Gonzaga University back in 2003, the Gonzaga College Republicans were disciplined for engaging in "hate speech" on a flyer, copies of which were torn down by Director of Student Activities David Lindsay. The flyer was advertising a speech by Daniel Flynn, author of a book called "Why the Left Hates America." Here's a picture and a link to the flyer.
Question: What in the world in this flyer, you might ask, constitutes "hate speech?" Answer: It's the fact that the flyer says the words "LEFT HATES" in big, scary letters.
The most recent report of this kind of bizarre behavior comes out of San Diego City College and San Diego Mesa College, both of which ordered a student group of gay students and allies (The Fellowship of Associated Gay Students & Straight Allies) to take down posters promoting their group. Why? The group was using its acronym to promote itself, and the acronym is FAGS. Why that particular acronym? Here's what the San Diego Union Tribune reports about the group's president, Jason Frye:
Frye stands by the use of the acronym for the club, whose full name is The Fellowship of Associated Gay Students & Straight Allies.
"We wanted something with a little pop to it, and we wanted to neutralize an epithet like a lot of groups have done with the word 'queer,'" Frye said.
To me, that seems pretty obvious. When a group of gay students and allies markets itself under the acronym FAGS, you can be pretty sure that they are intending more for the name, not simply insulting themselves and others. As, indeed, this group was:
Some Mesa students – such as Brande Faris, who is now vice president of the clubs on both campuses – signed up because of the new name.
"I thought it was a fabulous name," Faris said. "I think anything that challenges people's paradigm and gets them to think outside the box, and at the same time reclaims what has been used as a hate word, is a positive thing."
Frye said it wasn't until this school year that administrators cracked down.
First, Frye said, he posted several recruiting posters on the City College campus, including one that stated in big, bold letters: "The FAGS are back." The full word for each letter was printed in smaller script.
"They said we were in violation of several regulations," he said. "We didn't have to change the name, but we couldn't put any emphasis on the acronym. We couldn't put it in bold."
Of course, students at public colleges have the legal right to use the word "fags" either to name a group or to insult someone. It would, of course, be far easier to understand if the administration had acted to stop someone from using the word as an insult, but that's irrelevant in this situation, since the administration clearly knew full well who the group was and what it was trying to do. Considering the change over time in the use of the word "queer," there was even a direct precedent for the group's efforts.
So tell me, what theory makes more sense than to suggest that Marty Krauss, Jehuda Reinharz, David Lindsay, and the San Diego community college administrators believe in magic? While I have never met any of them, there's no reason to believe that they are crazy. So how can you explain their utter rejection of context, facts, reality, and reason when it comes to uttering a single word, be it "wetbacks," "hate," or "fags?" For millennia, humans who are neither crazy nor stupid have believed that words or actions can have supernatural power. Maybe the folks at Brandeis, Gonzaga, and San Diego Mesa and City colleges have simply discovered some new incantations—syllables that cannot be pronounced under any circumstances without provoking dire results.
The unfortunate fact is that if those administrators did believe that those words were magic, they wouldn't be far from the truth. In this age of out-of-control political correctness, both on campus and in society at large, the belief that you can judge a person by the language he or she uses has gone completely off the rails. Use of certain words can have seemingly supernatural consequences, for their being uttered can lead people to act in utterly irrational and yet totally predictable ways—and that's what magic is all about. When a voodoo practitioner sticks pins in a doll, he or she is doing something irrational (sticking pins in a doll in order to hurt someone) and yet expecting a predictable response (that person will feel pain). It's the same with using "epithets" on many campuses. It doesn't matter what the context is or why the person said the word—the simple fact that it has been uttered means that people or groups will be offended, they will agitate for punishment of the person doing the uttering, and if they don't get that punishment it could mean great discomfort or even threats to the careers of those in authority. It's an exercise of power, not righteousness—and administrators live in fear of it.
And that's another way that the attitudes on campuses towards these words is analogous to magic: The successful performance of magic requires that everyone involved believe or even fear it. The reason the utterance of a single word, no matter the context or reason behind it, has the power to destroy that it does on so many campuses is because people like Krauss, Reinharz, Lindsay, and the San Diego administrators believe it does. If all college administrators decided tomorrow that they would always take reason and context into account when wading into campus speech controversies, the arbitrary power of those words would instantly be destroyed. If it scares you that on so many of our nation's campuses you can't take for granted that those who work there will consider reason and context before passing judgment, well, you're not alone.