Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

How Do We Decide What’s ‘Offensive’?

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Image: 1984 (1956), directed by Michael Anderson

In light of several high-profile cases in which academics have been punished (or not) for comments deemed “offensive,” I was glad that David Perry raised the question, in a recent blog post, of what constitutes offensiveness and who decides.

In that post, he implied, and stated explicitly in a follow-up comment, that “we” (the professoriate) are the ones who should decide what is “repellent,” “uncivil,” or “offensive.” In other words, Perry argued, we should police ourselves, and not leave it up to outsiders to decide what speech we will and won’t tolerate. At first glance, that seemed like a reasonable approach, and I was inclined to agree. But after giving the matter more thought, I saw a few problems with putting the onus entirely on the professoriate. Or, to put it another way, I saw problems with giving professors that much power over each other.

For one thing, professors, like most human beings, tend to be biased. We each have our own way of looking at the world and are, understandably, rather partial to that worldview. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that as bias; to our way of thinking, we are simply right and those who view the world differently are wrong. Objectively speaking, however, that is practically the definition of bias.

Not only are individual professors biased, but the profession as a whole seems to share many of the same biases. It might be a stretch to say that academia, collectively, represents a political and philosophical monolith, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. At the very least, anyone who has worked in higher education knows that our profession has its own fairly strict dogmas (like tenure and academic freedom), and those who do not adhere are considered heretics and often treated as such.

In addition, perhaps because of those biases, professors are prone to apply labels like “repellent,” “uncivil,” and “offensive” somewhat unevenly. Express hatred or disdain for one group (say, anti-abortion activists) and your colleagues will be quick to come to your defense; do the same for another group (for example, gun-control advocates), and they will line up to attack you. Again, speaking objectively, that seems inconsistent. Is it hatred itself that we find morally repugnant, or do we discriminate based on the target? If the latter—as often seems to be the case—then we can hardly be considered impartial judges.

Finally, besides being unevenly applied, “offensiveness” is a moving target: What is politically correct today might not be correct enough tomorrow.

Imagine the confusion and chagrin of a 50-something college president who finds himself in hot water after advising female students to be careful about where they go, what they do, and whom they’re with. To a person of my generation, that simply sounds like common sense—what any of us would tell our college-age daughters. But in today’s politically charged environment, amid fears of a campus rape culture, such well-meant advice might be interpreted as “blaming the victim.” Thus the stunned president finds himself having to backtrack, explain, and apologize—and might very well find himself out of a job.

Of course, David is right—to an extent. Professors should police themselves and the profession, lest others do it for us in ways that might be even more problematic. At the same time, we shouldn’t leave words like “uncivil” and “offensive” entirely for the faculty to define without taking several other factors into account.

For one thing, we need to be sensitive to the views of others, even those with whom we vehemently disagree, especially when those views reflect long-held and widespread community values. We may reject those values, as we have every right to do. We may engage our philosophical opponents in civil debate, using evidence-based arguments to advance our case. But that is very different from vilifying people just because we disagree with them. There is nothing inherently offensive about expressing support for the Second Amendment or opposition to abortion—or vice-versa. Roughly half the country shares those views, including many of our friends, neighbors, and students, and not a few of our colleagues. We must take that into account when determining what is “offensive.”

We must also, I believe, start placing less emphasis on what people say and more on what they actually do. So a professor tweets his strong aversion to what he terms the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Fine. Is there any evidence that he has actually discriminated against Jewish students in his classes? Another professor uses a gay slur in a Facebook post. But has there been any discernable pattern of anti-gay bias in her teaching? When we start punishing people for what they say, even if they haven’t actually violated any law or policy, we begin to enter Orwellian thought-police territory—and that, it seems to me, is not somewhere we want to be.

In the end, as we make judgments about whether or not someone is being “offensive”—judgments that might ultimately affect that person’s career, reputation, and livelihood—I would hope that we might err on the side of caution and tolerance.

By all means, let’s engage with those we believe to be wrongheaded. But let’s save calling for people’s termination for the most egregious cases, such as speech that is literally defamatory (in the legal sense) or incites violence. That’s the threshold the courts have set for limitations on free speech, and it seems like a reasonable standard for professors, as well.

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