By any reasonable standard it was sophomoric behavior, though the student in question was a junior, and certainly it was a weird way to commemorate one's 21st birthday. According to a witness to the occasion, one Douglas Hann stood in a dormitory courtyard at Brown University last October and, well-oiled with celebratory alcohol, sang his hosannas into the skies. He shouted offensive characterizations of blacks, homosexuals and Jews -- this last accompanied by an obscenity -- and, to a black woman watching the display, the boast that "my parents own you people."
You'd think a fellow reaching his maturity would be capable of more mature behavior, but human beings generally, and college students most particularly, often possess a silliness far beneath their years. Inasmuch as this guy had been hauled up on earlier occasions both for alcoholic excess and for racial insults, he'd seem to be a particularly hard case. But Brown, which itself is a pretty weird institution, responded to this childish tantrum with an equally childish punishment. It gave him the Pete Rose treatment: banishment for life.
It did so under a rule enacted by the university shortly after the ascension to power of its president, Vartan Gregorian, in the spring of 1989. "I issue a solemn warning," Gregorian said then, "that it is the policy of my administration to take action against those who incite hatred. It is my intention to prosecute vigorously, and to expel immediately, such individual or individuals for any attempt to inject and promote racism and thus insult the dignity of our students as citizens of Brown."
Thus charged, the university wasted little time in enacting a disciplinary code forbidding "the subjection of another person, group or class of persons, to inappropriate, abusive, threatening or demeaning actions, based on race, religion, gender, handicap, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation" -- a veritable shopping list of politically correct "minority" special interests. Violators of the code were made subject to expulsion, an important distinction from the dismissal penalty usually exacted by Brown for garden-variety academic violations: Dismissal can be reviewed and reversed after a period in purgatory, but expulsion is forever.
It was under this code that the case of Douglas Hann fell, and it was under the expulsion proviso that it was resolved. The Undergraduate Disciplinary Council, which is half student and half faculty/administration, heard the charges against Hann last fall and pronounced him guilty; its verdict of expulsion was upheld by Gregorian three weeks ago. Hann is now back at home in Pittsburgh, where he told the New York Times last week -- while not denying that the episode occurred -- that Gregorian "wanted someone" and complained, "I think it was just a political statement by the university."
The unfortunate truth -- unfortunate, that is, because there is no pleasure to be taken in siding with Hann -- is that he is almost certainly right, in essence if not in all particulars. To be sure the sense in which he is wrong is far from trivial: The revulsion against "hate speech" among university faculties and administrators is in most instances genuine and deep, and must not be taken lightly. But viewed within the context of the wave of political correctness now sweeping through the campuses, the campaign against offensive speech must be viewed in other, less flattering, lights.
Yes, "politically correct" has quickly become a buzz phrase, and it's already time to grant it a merciful death. Those of us who are critical of college faculties and administrations have employed it just about to that point where "ad nauseam" are the only suitable words; we're in danger of becoming as guilty of oversimplification and obfuscation as are the very people whose policies so richly deserve our contempt. But the crusade against "hate speech" is an integral part of the overall process by which American higher education is attempting to enforce compliance to its own political orthodoxy, and it must be viewed as such.
In some measure it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with damage control. The universities are scared of lawsuits and demonstrations initiated by minority groups, real or merely self-defined, and seem willing to go to elaborate lengths to ward them off. One effective strategy is to preempt each patch in the quilt of "diversity" by embracing its cause with a fervor to match its own. When a school proclaims itself at one with every minority group under the sun, including dozens previously unknown, how can any of them rise up against it?
But that's essentially lawyers' doing, a sly stratagem for contentious times. Far more disturbing is the astonishing assumption, which underlies all these attempts to quash offensive utterances and publications, that the university campus is no place for freedom of speech. The "hate speech" regulations not merely attempt to impose a uniformity of thought on the campuses; they also deny free expression to those who dissent from the consensus.
They do so under the guise of protecting persons and groups alleged to be vulnerable; they put a humanitarian gloss, that is, on a denial of basic liberties. Like it or not -- and clearly the academic thought police do not -- the freedom to speak one's mind no matter how disagreeable its thoughts is one of the foundations upon which this country exists; abandon it and we would abandon much of our essential corporate self. Americans really do believe, though from time to time that belief is severely tested, in the old chestnut attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
But in Brown and other places similarly enlightened, this has been revised to read: "We disapprove of what you say, and therefore forbid you to say it." The result is that the college campus, heretofore celebrated as a forum for the free exchange of ideas, is rapidly becoming as restrictive as any institution in American society; by comparison the military and the boardroom seem absolute models of untrammeled expression. Speak your mind on campus and you run the risk of ostracism, or condemnation, or expulsion; in such an environment, everyone will soon be afraid of saying everything, so no one will say anything and the exchange of ideas so crucial to scholarly inquiry will dissolve in a nice warm bath of feel-good inoffensiveness.
Is that what the colleges really want to teach their students: that there's only one proper way to think, and all other thoughts are forbidden? That no matter what you think, keep your thoughts to yourself and speak only the approved words? Whatever the case, neither has anything to do with academic freedom -- the cherished tradition to which defenders of tenure so ardently, and noisily, cling -- and everything to do with suppression of dissent.
Of course it's offensive -- repugnant, contemptible, loathsome, whatever you want to call it -- for a college student or anyone else to go into a public place and shout words such as those used by Douglas Hann in his little scene last fall. But displays such as that are among the prices we pay for being not merely a free country but one of unexampled heterogeneity. One of the lamentable but inescapable truths about human beings -- even American human beings! even college students! -- is that not all of them love everybody else and that some of them are given to saying so in public. It's a truth about which the universities would do well to instruct their students, in the hope that they learn to observe standards of civility and tolerance; but telling them to keep their mouths shut is scarcely the way to teach them anything except blind obedience, and that's strictly a lesson for fascists.