Wendy Kaminer Tackles Harvard’s Laugh-Free Culture

December 4, 2012

A controversy over an anonymously distributed flyer that was distributed in several of Harvard’s residence halls is roiling the Harvard community this week. The satirical flyer advertised a fake “final club” called “The Pigeon.”

In context, the flyer—with statements such as “Jews need not apply” and “Coloreds OK”—is a biting satire of the exclusivity and old-world roots of final clubs, which are fully independent from Harvard and do not allow female members. As lawyer, author, and FIRE Board of Advisors member Wendy Kaminer notes at WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog, however, the humor seems to have been lost on students. Kaminer notes that students seem to be ready to prohibit jokes that cause “any type of pain”:

“I don’t think that jokes should trigger on any type of pain,” 20-year-old Dakota Rot explained to the Boston Globe. … “If you’re a person that’s part Jewish or a person of color or a woman who’s has been in any dangerous situation, you shouldn’t have to read this.”

Kaminer responds:

It should go without saying that, “you don’t have to read this.” But if you’re confronted with offensive speech and fail to avert your eyes or plug your ears, you will probably survive the encounter.

I am “a person that’s part Jewish” as well as a “woman who’s been in a dangerous situation,” and I feel fine reading and writing about “offensive” language in the Harvard fliers. (I have read and viewed much worse over the years, and, even then, felt fine.)

Unfortunately, it’s the “you shouldn’t have to read this” school of thought that more and more prevails on college campuses these days, to the detriment of unrestrained discourse. Satire is one of the biggest casualties. Indeed, subversive humor seems so unwelcome at Harvard that Kaminer wryly suggests that “[p]erhaps Harvard should change its motto to ‘No Laughing Allowed.’”

The downfall of humor is among the many deplorable campus trends FIRE President Greg Lukianoff chronicles in his new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, and Kaminer cites multiple instances where FIRE has challenged universities retaliating against humor and satire. Kaminer soberly notes:

These incidents are not anomalous. They’re typical. Censorship on campus is routine and perversely equated with tolerance. Harvard officials condemned the satirical social club fliers as acts of intolerance, but the only intolerant actors in this familiar controversy are students and administrators who refuse to tolerate offensive speech.

Indeed, the reaction here may be going beyond mere outrage; The Boston Globe reports:

Harvard College is actively investigating anti-Semitic flyers that were allegedly distributed in numerous student housing buildings this morning, according to Evelynn M. Hammonds, dean of Harvard College.

More alarmingly, a Time column, penned by Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis—the former a Harvard administrator, the latter a Harvard professor—noted that “Residential staff were enlisted to ferret out the identity of the satirists.” I’d like to know precisely the grounds Harvard thinks it has to conduct this witch hunt, if reports are indeed accurate. Does Harvard have anything more than a foundation of hurt feelings to go on? Does Harvard think anything more is required?

FIRE is looking into this case, and we will keep you updated. In the meantime we’re glad to have writers like Wendy Kaminer shining a light on the humorless atmosphere Harvard seems so bent on creating.

Schools:  Harvard University