While some are reveling in the news that a pair of college professors were swiftly fired for making controversial political statements off campus, this war on free speech, escalating to frightening new levels, is no cause for celebration.
It’s hard to agree with anything that Kathy Dettwyler said. In the wake of the tragic news that U.S. student Otto Warmbier had died after returning home from captivity in North Korea, the adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Delaware posted on her Facebook page that he “got exactly what he deserved.”
Beyond her stunning indifference to Warmbier’s needless death, she also made several offensive assumptions about the student — whose mortal sin was swiping a propaganda poster — as well as his grieving parents, race, class and gender stereotypes.
“His parents are ultimately to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted,” she posted. “Maybe in the U.S., where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone, let alone someone whose area of interest is the study of humans, feeling so little compassion for a grief-stricken family — and saying so publicly.
The reaction from her employer was swift and unsubtle. The University of Delaware said it would not re-hire her, called her comments “inconsistent with our values,” and said “We condemn any and all messages that endorse hatred and convey insensitivity toward a tragic event such as the one that Otto Warmbier and his family suffered.”
That sounds vindicating, if you agree with me that her post was indefensible, and certainly the university is free to hire and fire whomever it wants. Yet if you think about it, the college just set a bizarrely broad and troubling precedent for every other professor, administrator and even student affiliated with the school.
Is it now the policy of the University of Delaware that its employees and attendees cannot “convey insensitivity toward a tragic event”? Who gets to ordain which events are tragic and not? What counts as conveyed insensitivity? And where else on Earth, besides a college campus, is this kind of restriction enforced?
For too long, colleges have forgotten that their job is to prepare students for the real world, which is rife with insensitivity and offensive opinions. Firing a professor for insensitive comments she made about a current event — outside the classroom, mind you — doesn’t teach students to be sensitive. It only teaches them to be afraid.
At another college, a professor was fired for comments she made on a cable news show. Lisa Durden, an adjunct professor at Essex County College in New Jersey, was first suspended and then fired after she defended an all-black Memorial Day celebration on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” “You white people are angry because you couldn’t use your white privilege card” to attend the event, she said on the show.
There’s no getting around the fact that Durden’s comments are likely offensive to many people, presumably most white people. But the university’s decision to fire her and its statement is an unwitting rebuke of its own policy.
“I fully believe that institutions of higher learning must provide a safe space for students,” said Essex County College President Anthony Munroe. “The character of this institution mandates that we embrace diversity, inclusion and unity. Racism cannot be fought with more racism.”
But what kind of diversity and inclusion is Munroe talking about? Certainly not intellectual diversity. Certainly not inclusiveness toward Durden’s point of view, which, incidentally, she expressed outside of a classroom. Surely a discussion about her controversial views might be more instructive than banishing her altogether.
These aren’t the only examples. A dean at Yale University was recently relieved of her position for posting comments on Yelp about “white trash” restaurantgoers, which her boss said “damaged my trust and confidence in (her) accountability to me and ability to lead the students.”
One point of college is to learn how to civilly confront and negotiate different opinions. All these firings do is teach students to avoid them.
Conservatives like to complain — and rightly so — about the panic over offensiveness, which has led to modern-day absurdities like “safe spaces,” where controversial speech is forbidden, “trigger warnings” that might set a sensitive student off, and mind-numbing language guidelines restricting the use of certain pronouns and descriptors — including, in one case, the word “American.” But it’s just as troubling when political correctness is weaponized against liberals. The real problem with the collective freakout over offense isn’t merely the politics. It’s that sanitizing and censoring speech in no way prepares students for the real world.
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.