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.