The recent firestorm over Larry Summers’ remarks regarding gender and science has caused me to recall a free speech issue from my days as a Harvard undergraduate.
One of the most controversial incidents I remember had to do, of course, with “offensive” speech—in particular, an article published by The Harvard Crimson in its weekend magazine, Fifteen Minutes, during spring of 2001. Called “The Invasian,” the article was a satirical commentary on racial self-segregation written by my classmate Juice (a.k.a. Justin Fong). The article sparked so much outrage so quickly that I actually learned about the article when friends attending other universities forwarded it to me. Within a few days, “The Invasian” had invaded campuses across the country, provoking thousands of Asian-American students.
Fortunately, unlike too many other universities, Harvard did not charge Juice (himself Asian American) with “discriminatory harassment” and try to punish him for his speech, although, unfortunately, The Crimson later apologetically stated that they should have cut the “offending phrases” from the article.
Maybe it was because I have an appreciation for satire, knew Juice, and recognized “the milligram of truth” in his article, but I didn’t find the article very offensive. If I was offended by anything, though, it was by how many Asian-American Harvard students were so deeply offended by “The Invasian” and adamantly attempted to recruit me in their protest efforts. While I doubt “The Invasian” actually oppressed any Asian-American Harvard students, it did create a collective memory for the national Asian-American community: even years later, Asian Americans who were students in 2001 clearly recall how they felt when this article made it to their inboxes.
Understanding that the best response to speech is more speech, Juice stated in Asianweek, “If you don’t agree with my article, write back and say what you think.” He rightly refused to apologize for his piece and defended it against any efforts to require the The Crimson to censor it.
Over this past weekend, not knowing what I would find, I finally got a chance to follow up on what came out of all of the hype, and here it is—clear proof that provocative (a.k.a. “offensive”) speech like that in “The Invasian” can be the catalyst to more speech from more perspectives: Asian American X (2004), a book described by Jade Magazine as “a collection of essays from young Asian Americans coming ‘to terms with who they are in an American context’” that resulted from self-reflection sparked by Juice’s expression, is now being used as part of Asian Studies curricula; at talks, conferences, and workshops at high schools and colleges; and, in general, as a positive example of Asian-American activism.
Who knew that something so “offensive” could cause such an interesting dialogue?