Note: This op-ed was first published online by The Dallas Morning News Dec. 8, 2015.
Like many university professors, I’ve been thinking about the potential for microaggression in my lectures. For the uninitiated, microaggression is part of the current university jargon for subtle but offensive comments or actions, deliberate or not, that reinforce a racial stereotype.
I teach media ethics, and I am thinking about my regular lecture on media violence. Even as a near-absolutist supporter of the First Amendment, I have concerns about the violence that we see in media. In the lecture I show a violent, profane 20-minute segment from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction that includes frequent use of the N-word.
Why do I show this? Tarantino, in my opinion, is one of the most important film directors of the post-World War II era, and the context of language and violence in his films is important for university students to understand.
Coverage of news events from a number of our universities has created heartfelt soul searching among students, professors and administrators. But the situation at Princeton is troubling: Students there seek to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from a distinguished school of public affairs because his legacy includes segregating the federal work force. Yet he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner and appointed the first Jewish justice to the Supreme Court.
Where would a decision like this lead? Do we take slave-owner Thomas Jefferson’s name off every school, street, bridge and building in the country? Do we scrub the image of George Washington, also a slave owner, from the currency that is a world standard in commerce? What about Franklin D. Roosevelt, who interned more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II?
Many of our historical figures had very real flaws, and democracy is a messy, imperfect, continuing process.
As previously reported, two SMU fraternities that planned a party with a racially insensitive theme cancelled it in October after strong criticism from the SMU community. Even though the Wesleyan tradition at SMU has embraced a long and distinguished history of free speech and academic freedom, SMU President R. Gerald Turner was correct to condemn the party as abhorrent. As we have seen too often, fraternity members, especially when fueled by alcohol, can do idiotic things.
Many students of color, especially African-Americans on predominately white campuses, can feel an isolation that hinders academic performance as well as full inclusion into campus life. Despite years of progress on civil rights, this remains a delicate issue, including on the SMU campus.
Yet somehow “comfort” has crept into the national discussion. University students, according to some of the protesters, need to feel comfortable. All students of color need to feel that they belong and have a sense of security in their place as a part of university life. But the discussion vis-à-vis the microaggressions seems to include a freedom from ideas that might offend.
Since when did a university education guarantee such comfort? When did challenging a student’s ideas and assumptions vanish from our mission as professors? Have we lost the concept of a truly “liberal” education, in the sense that liberal has nothing to do with politics? I hope not.
Another of my regular lectures includes a discussion of the 2006 Duke lacrosse case – one of the most racially charged incidents on a university campus in my memory. Three white members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of rape by an African-American dancer hired to perform at a team party.
The party should never have happened, but the players were charged on virtually no credible evidence. The performance of much of the media was reprehensible, with too many reporters buying into the “guilty, of course” narrative put forward by a local district attorney and some professors on the Duke campus. The charges were eventually dismissed and the district attorney disbarred. It took a sensitive and thorough 60 Minutes investigative report by the late Ed Bradley, an African-American, to question assumptions made in the case.
A national narrative that fits a politically correct scenario can be wrong. In the current national narrative on race, let’s address the problems with candor and sincerity. But let’s also safeguard free speech and open intellectual inquiry that are the lifeblood of universities and democracy. The Tarantino and Duke lectures will be on my syllabus next semester.