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Can Millennials [And Academia] Take a Joke? by Clark Conner

Millennials can be a hypersensitive bunch, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the academy. American institutions of higher learning have become veritable minefields of trigger warnings, safe zones, and speech codes.

It appears we can add another line item to the growing list of things too radical for college students: humor. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently joined an expanding group of high-profile figures in denouncing higher education’s culture of hyper-sensitivity.

In an interview with ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd, Seinfeld discussed why comics are reluctant to take their act on campus:

COWHERD: Does the climate worry you now? I’ve talked to Chris Rock and Larry the Cable Guy; they don’t even want to do college campuses anymore.

SEINFELD: I hear that all the time. I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, “Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.” I’ll give you an example: My daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, “Well, you know, in the next couple years, I think maybe you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys.” You know what my daughter says? She says, “That’s sexist.”

COWHERD: That’s amazing.

SEINFELD: They just want to use these words: “That’s racist”; “That’s sexist”; “That’s prejudice.” They don’t know what they’re talking about.

It took roughly 24 hours for Seinfeld’s point to prove itself. The day after the Huffington Post ran an article on Seinfeld’s comments, an open letter appeared on the site addressed to Mr. Seinfeld from a “College Student.”

The letter touches on a myriad of topics, including racism, sexism, offending the “right” people, and (for reasons unknown) “the underlying culture of violence and male domination that inhabits high school football,” but its overarching spirit is summed up in the author’s ironic introduction:

Recently, I’ve heard about your reluctance to perform on college campuses because of how “politically correct” college students are… As a college student that loves and appreciates offensive, provocative comedy, I’m disheartened by these comments.

So, a college student was “disheartened” by Jerry Seinfeld’s observation that college students are too sensitive. Let that sink in.

Seinfeld isn’t the only comedian to denounce the current sensitivity epidemic on campus. In a discussion with Frank Rich, Chris Rock espoused the same views as Seinfeld:

RICH: What do you make of the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims?

ROCK: Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

RICH: In their political views?

ROCK: Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, too, shared his experience with a college intern who conflated his dislike of Mexican food with racism.

The experiences of Seinfeld, Rock, and Leno obviously can’t be projected on the whole of entertainment media, but their willingness to criticize the don’t-offend-me culture indicates a growing sense that American campuses are becoming hostile to humor. 

And their criticisms aren’t unfounded: the uptrend in campus outrage over even mildly provocative humor is inescapable. Ask Robert Klein Engler, formerly of Roosevelt University, who received his walking papers after telling his class a joke he overheard as a way of stimulating conversation about an Arizona immigration bill.

“There was a sociological study done in Arizona,” Engler said to the students, “and they discovered that 60 percent of the people in Arizona approved of the immigration law and 40 percent said, ‘no habla ingles.’”

That caused a student, Cristina Solis, to file a written complaint with the university, which in turn opened a harassment investigation against the professor.

According to reporting from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Engler was summoned by university officials to discuss the harassment charges, but they wouldn’t disclose the nature of accusation, nor the identity of the accuser. Engler agreed to cooperate with the university’s investigation, but only if the accusations were put in writing.

Roosevelt wouldn’t do so, and also refused Engler the right to be accompanied by his attorney at investigation meetings. Stripped of due process, Engler chose not to participate in the sham investigation, which resulted in Roosevelt University terminating his employment.

What’s worse, Ms. Solis voiced her approval with the university’s decision to terminate Engler. In a quote to the student newspaper preserved on Minding the Campus she proclaimed:

If that [Mr. Engler’s firing] is what it took to give him a reality check, and to make sure that no other student has to go through that, maybe it’s for the best. It’s just something you don’t say in a classroom, not coming from a professor, and especially not at a school like Roosevelt University, which is based on social justice.

What a dangerous precedent this is, that a lone student infatuated with the idea of social justice can spearhead a movement to fire a professor over a throw-away joke.

Teresa Buchanan, formerly an associate professor at Louisiana State University, also knows what it means to offend the wrong people.

Buchanan was known by her students as a “gunslinger” who sometimes incorporated profanity or sexually charged jokes in class. For example, Reason reports that one of her zingers came in the form of advice to female students that their boyfriends would stop helping them with coursework “after the sex gets stale.”

After the Fall 2013 semester, Buchanan was informed by the university that she was being placed under suspension pending an investigation for “sexual harassment” and promoting a “hostile learning environment.”

The investigation dragged on, and 15 months later a faculty committee upheld the university’s accusation of sexual harassment. The committee, however, decided that termination was not the solution, but rather that LSU should ask that Buchanan tone down her language.

This suggestion was ignored by university president F. King Alexander. Buchanan was fired on June 19, 2015.

Not only are American academics under fire for using semi-edgy humor, British academics, too, are learning the hard way to leave the one-liners at home.

The saga of Sir Tim Hunt illustrates how even the most prestigious careers can be derailed by pitchfork-wielding mobs feigning outrage over innocuous comments.

Hunt, a Nobel laureate, found himself to be the object of scorn, stemming from a joke he made while presenting to the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea:

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists.

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?

Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

This comment was first reported by Connie St. Louis, a journalism professor at University College London (UCL) who was present for Hunt’s speech. She claimed his comments induced a “stony silence” on the crowd.

In reaction, an armada of social media warriors descended on Hunt, resulting in his resignation from multiple honorary positions, including at UCL. Although Hunt incessantly apologized for his “transgression,” his opponents continued to besmirch his character and career.

In making the comments public, however, St. Louis only mentioned some of Hunt’s remarks. She omitted the part where Hunt clearly stated he was joking and praised the role of women scientists.

A few weeks later, a report from a European Commission official recalled a different version of events. Unlike St. Louis, the report included Hunt’s entire statement and claimed that Hunt’s joke was received by laughter, not the agitation asserted by St. Louis.

Despite the EC report vindicating Hunt and dispelling the charges of sexism, the damage is done. Hunt’s top-shelf academic career is now in shambles after being sullied by a throng of raging speech oppressors.

A joke was all it took.

Anything Peaceful

Anything Peaceful is FEE’s new online ideas marketplace, hosting original and aggregate content from across the Web.

EDITORS NOTE: A version of this post first appeared at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. The featured image is courtesy of FEE and Shutterstock.

Does Freedom Ruin Love? by JASON KUZNICKI

Over at the WeekDamon Linker sees the “paradox of choice” at work in an unlikely place: love and romance. Our young people, he says, have too many romantic choices.

The paradox of choice works like this: Let someone pick between two kinds of jam, and they’ll pick the one they like the best, and they’ll know it. The result is a happy consumer.

But let someone pick among a hundred kinds of jam, and they’ll get… frustrated. They’ll vacillate. They’ll second-guess. And there goes all their happiness. A bigger menu has only made things worse.

Now, preferences aren’t supposed to work that way. Not if we’re being rational (at least by some accounts of rationality). But we’re not fully rational, says this theory, and so… too much choice can bother us.

The paradox of choice seems custom-tailored for memetic success: It’s contrarian. It’s fashionably anti-consumer, without demanding too much in the way of personal asceticism. It’s anti-rational, in that special, cowardly way that lets adherents sneak back to a slightly greater rationality than the rest of us schmucks. In fine, it’s reassuringly snobby.

Unfortunately, the economic research on the paradox of choice just doesn’t hold up all that well — not even in consumer goods, where the idea was first hatched. As to lab results, a meta-analysis of the paradox has found virtually zero effect. Perhaps more work needs to be done, but for now, the preponderance of the evidence says no.

Out in the field, IHOP seems to have used the paradox to inform a new menu design, but it’s only modestly boosted sales, even without controlling for all the other menu changes that IHOP made at the same time. (Does ordering more pancakes make you happier? I’d guess that more people would regret buying, rather than not buying, those extra pancakes, so you tell me.)

Which brings us, I suppose, to romance. Linker writes:

In their personal lives, Americans have never been freer — from obligations, expectations, restrictions, constraints. Most of us consider this a hard-won achievement, a sign of progress beyond the limitations with which our parents, and their parents, and their parents’ parents, had to contend. But is it really progress? Are we happier in our boundless autonomy — or more miserable?

As evidence of our collective misery, Linker cites this essay by Columbia University sophomore Jordana Narin. It’s about a relationship of hers that lived, and died, without so much as a label. Whenever the question of labels came up, she simply talked around it, and so did he. Was their relationship sexual? Yes. Was it romantic? Who knows.

Heartbreakingly, Narin never even knew when to move on. Having never been a couple, she and her Jeremy could hardly break up. And that’s a problem, as I think all parties would agree.

Narin’s essay is certainly an angsty piece of work. That’s not a dig; if you’re a college sophomore who isn’t visibly angsty, you’re probably hiding something.

Along the way, Narin raises some superlative questions about the wisdom of the unlabeled relationship, and about whether one can cross from a casual affair to something more enduring, and about how the casual can be the enemy of the sincere. Her work fully deserved the award that it won.

Her essay is a lot of things, including wise and moving. But evidence for the paradox of choice it is not: If Narin had any other romantic choices at the time, she declines to say. Her choices seem to have been few, or easily made, or both.

So what went wrong? Narin writes: “I told myself a lot of things I never told him.” Now, I’m not an advice columnist, but if I had to guess, I’d say she’s found the problem.

To repeat: she’s a college sophomore, writing about some mistakes she started making in high school. She’s not a woman of fifty looking back at a wasted youth, a lifetime of regret born of too many options. She’s hardly a lost cause.

And, with the benefit of hindsight, she even has a familiar name for her predicament: the One Who Got Away. Back in my day, when things weren’t really all that different, there was hardly a college sophomore who didn’t have One Who Got Away.

So where was Linker headed with all of this? Here:

Marriage was once close to ubiquitous, and couplings were often arranged by families. When they weren’t arranged, they nearly always took place within rigidly defined cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries. By the age of 25, and usually long before, you were bound to another person, in most cases for life. . . .  Individuals might fight against received constraints, but in the end the constraints always won.

Or at least, they did for a long time. In more recent centuries and decades, we’ve seen a slow but dramatic shift in the direction of individual autonomy, accelerating to the present day. It began with the rise of the ideal of romantic love, which led to marriages based more and more often on free choice. Eventually the old cultural, religious, and ethnic boundaries broke down, making way for all sorts of once-unthinkable intermarriages.

And all sorts of once-unthinkable reasons to end a marriage. First there was an escape clause for abuse and abandonment, then a list of lifestyle considerations (including a couple “growing apart”). Eventually divorce could dissolve a supposedly indissoluble, ostensibly life-long bond for any reason at all, without attributing “fault” to either party. . . .

And yet, for all of these changes, the institution of marriage, plus at least some of those norms and practices, persisted as a cultural ideal.

Until now, that is. With the rise of the millennial generation, marriage itself — along with formal dating, exclusive dating (“going steady”), and engagement — has come to seem for many like an unwanted obstacle to personal autonomy. And it’s easy to understand why.

Now, if I wanted to play hardball, right here is where I would wonder aloud whether Damon Linker really meant to condemn inter-ethnic marriage. After all, he describes it as a choice, in an essay about how we have too many romantic choices. Presumably we would gain something by giving it up. Presumably we would also gain if we crossed off all those other choices, too. We might even be happiest if we just left the choice to our parents.

Of course, I don’t believe that Linker thinks any of these things. But he did bring them up, and I guess the most charitable thing I can do is to stroke my chin, and wonder why, and move on.

Linker’s real target here — the one he means us to talk about — is “hookup culture.”

The problem with worrying about hookup culture is that it’s not a new choice. It’s not even a choice that more millennials are making.

As we talk about it today, hookup culture is simply a moral panic.

As journalist Amanda Hess has ably demonstrated, the data paints a very different picture from the one we oldsters seem inclined to imagine. Teen pregnancy is downMost STIs are downHooking up isn’t common, isn’t well-regarded among college students, and isn’t on the rise.

Controlling for age, 40 years of survey data says that millennials are having less casual sex than either of the two generation s that went before them. Who had the most? The boomers. Go figure: Hookup culture is something your grandparents did — which… Ew.

Moreover, marriages rates might be going down, but not because divorce is going up. Marriages in the 2000s are less likely to end in divorce than any time since the ‘60s, and divorce rates have been in decline for decades.

None of this has stopped most journalists from writing as if something dreadful were going on, and Linker is certainly no exception.

The paradox of choice is empirically dubious even on its home turf; it’s preposterous to deploy as an explanation for a nonexistent social trend, and surely cannot illuminate the angst of our heartbroken college sophomores.

More freedom in their relationships hasn’t made younger generations more miserable, more promiscuous, or less committed — it’s just made them more free.

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Unbound.

Pop Goes the Culture

America and the West as well as parts of Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, have a real problem on their hands.  It’s a problem that is growing.  But nowhere is it more glaring and out of control than in the United States.  Even Canada has sensed this growing problem and actually exports their problem to the United States.

I’m talking about Pop Culture.  You know what I am talking about.  We have a culture that is almost totally centered on entertainment.  Not just the product such as music or movies or art and such.  But centered on those that produce that music, movie, art or such.

We glamourize the “stars” and put them on a pedestal and no matter what these people say or do, they are hardly ever demonized in any way.  In some cases, the “star” can even get away with murder.  At least in the public’s eye, they can even if the law finds them guilty.

This is dangerous at best and a complete societal breakdown in the making at worst.  We have started to make our political and legal leaders “pop stars”.  We determine who will lead us locally and nationally based on how well they look on TV and how well they speak.

Substance comes second.  Especially if its Liberal ideology that they are spewing.  In that case, substance my actually come last.

We have an entire generation that is actually less educated than their parents’ generation.  Even though the younger set has a greater percentage of college degrees.  They actually know less and are heavily influenced by sound bites and pop culture.

That pop culture mentality bleeds into politics at all levels of government.  The younger set demand more government intervention and higher taxes but do not fully understand the ramifications of their wants and desires.  So when something hits them in their wallet, they blame others instead of realizing they got exactly what they asked for.

Yet they will take to the streets or hit the Internet and spew their limited knowledge and decry how unjust the current system is.  Not understanding that they are the main reason for their own discontent.

Politicians pay attention to this nonsense as well.  If you stop and think about it, you will notice all the laws that we have enacted that were influenced by pop culture.

The whole Religious Freedom Law fiasco in Indiana and Arkansas is proof of this.  This shows how shallow the knowledge of many in the younger generation is.  They don’t know or understand that many states have similar laws already on the books and the world is not falling apart.

The younger set doesn’t know or realize that then President Bill Clinton signed a similar law into existence back in 1993 with huge fanfare from the left, as I recall.  Yet sound bite pop culture has decided this “new” law in these two states is directed totally at the gay community and has nothing to do with religious freedom.

However, when you ask these same pop culture gurus point blank, if you had a t-shirt shop and you were gay would you want to be forced to print a bunch of shirts that were anti-gay?  Their immediate and total reaction is a flat no.  But they are too brain dead to relate that same scenario to the other side.

It’s a total selfish, self-absorbed mind set.  Its all about them.  Nobody else counts in their eyes.  Its all about being popular and doing the popular thing and thinking in the popular think.  There is no room for being thoughtful towards your fellow citizen.  There is no room for doing what is best for your community.  There is only room for what is best for each of them and what makes them feel good about themselves.

You may think that we cannot change that mindset and mentality.  But we can.  Its called real and complete education.  And that kind of education begins at home.  It takes parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to counter the over simplification of pop culture.

It takes true patriots and true historians to set the record straight and to force the younger generation to think beyond the sound bites.  To delve deeper than the surface interaction they are used to.  It takes a few wise people to shout out the truth and do it often.

We can pop this pop culture so it goes back to the position and place it belongs.  Pop Culture belongs at the back of the bus and should be viewed only as entertainment, a temporary distraction and should not be construed as the main stream thought that rules our politics and our lives.

In the end, if we do not pop this pop culture, we will end up being popped and imprisoned by it.