We were wrong about that. But we were wrong about other things, too.
News this week that slightly shy of 700 students at my alma mater had signed a petition excoriating the student newspaper for contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a story about a rally for the agency’s abolition didn’t exactly come as a surprise. There’s a trend on the left against both-sidesism; the problem for journalists is that telling both sides is in their job description. There’s also a trend on college campuses against offensive speech.
Every trend has a countertrend, so the reaction from onlookers furious about kids these days destroying society with their attacks on journalism and on reasoned discourse isn’t a surprise, either.
It’s easy to agree with these countertrenders because, in this case, they’re basically right. The Harvard Crimson did what it was supposed to do. Papers could stop giving the subjects of their stories an opportunity to dispute or correct the record, but then the Sarah Sanderses of this country might have a point when they fume about “fake news.” This precept seems awfully simple, and those threatening to boycott their peers’ outlet for reporting responsibly seem awful.
That is, until someone else’s pesky perspective gets mixed in.
The word “we” covered up ample controversy years ago when I was writing editorials and running the meetings that led to them. The tendencies that commentators like to carp about from afar were smack dab in front of me and my colleagues: ungenerous hostility toward views that deviate from the progressive orthodoxy or, put more gently, intolerance for the intolerant.
So we wrote about all that, and we were pretty sure of ourselves as we defended speech against the encroachments of political correctness. Sometimes we hit the mark: for example, sticking up for the professor at Yale who wrote an email saying that students could act like grown-ups and figure out for themselves what Halloween costumes were too offensive to wear. Some students thought she should step down from her post. We disagreed.
Other times, though, we could have stood to do a little more listening and a little less blind opining — such as with the removal of the title “house master” from the faculty who presided over and resided in the school’s upperclassman dormitories. The change came in response to black students rejecting a term tied to slavery. We believed the moniker’s academic provenance meant calls to retire it were misguided, and we, in a piece filled with plenty of we’s, expressed that view with too-confident scorn. “Words,” we wrote in dismissal, “are words.”
Words are words, and very few people have tried to stop me from using them. My editorials righteously (or self-righteously) defended reasoned discourse, because reasoned discourse has always been a door for me rather than a barrier. It has, however, been a barrier for many of the students on today’s increasingly less white, increasingly less rich, increasingly less documented campuses.
Some students at the rally may have heard that the Crimson had called ICE and thought, at first, that it meant the paper had told the authorities where some of the less-documented would be and when they would be there, or even handed over their names. Our reporters’ code may look exactly like that: a code, not plain English, difficult for outsiders to parse in the calmest of circumstances and almost impossible to unscramble if you’re terrified.
Others may have understood perfectly well what it meant that the Crimson had called ICE for comment. They may have had another frustration — about all the conversations they have been left out of, even as ICE gets the invitation to chime in, and about the words that are just words to me yet are more than that to someone whose great-great-grandparents had to say “master” every day.
Tomorrow won’t look so bright if reporters can’t report, and speakers can’t speak. Some demands from students on today’s campuses are more compelling than others. Some of them may fly in the face of free expression, or of common journalistic practice. But to treat them as hyperbolic or hysterical, and to act as if they don’t deserve a hearing? That turns reasoned discourse into a reason to kick people out of the discourse. It keeps the conversation closed in an attempt to keep it open.
The Crimson’s defenders have it correct this time. Maybe, though, they should still go for comment.