Aboutorabi: An offense to free speech

Writers from Thucydides to George Orwell have observed that, in political disputes, the meaning of words is often the first casualty.

Perhaps I was wrong to be surprised, then, by Yale College Dean Mary Miller’s and the Freshman Class Council’s hasty abandonment and replacement of the design it had chosen for its Yale-Harvard game T-shirts. The reason for the about-face was that the original design’s centerpiece — the F. Scott Fitzgerald bon mot, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies” — was deemed “offensive” by members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual Cooperative. Is there any word in our political vocabulary more abused, more misconstrued, and more destitute of objective significance than “offensive”?

By way of preface, I should explain that I was in the minority of freshmen who voted against the Fitzgerald design. I did not buy a shirt. And while the FCC’s replacement design is more than a little insipid, I couldn’t care less about what my fellow freshmen are wearing when we trounce Harvard this weekend, as long as it’s blue.

The real concern here has nothing to do with shirts. The real concern is what this decision says about the health of our societal discourse — the kind of conversations the doctrine of political correctness has left us with.

We in the West are heirs to a tradition of discourse that values free speech, the open exchange of thoughts and fair battle between them. It works like this: You have the right to say whatever you think of me, my ideas and my actions. You have the right to tell me that my opinions — whether religious, political or other — are wrong. You even have the right to tell me that they are pernicious. In return, I have the right to say all the same things of you.

In the course of our disagreements, we may offend each other, if “offense” means the voicing of ideas that at least one of us will abhor. How could it be otherwise? Free speech exposes all our ideas, even our most cherished and sacred pieties, to the cold wind of criticism. For this very reason, a culture that respects the great enterprise of free discourse cannot exist if its people are not willing to offend and be offended, Offense is the price of liberty. The candle of free speech gives us heat as well as light.

Of course, the FCC and the administration had the right to change the T-shirts. There is no free speech issue as far as the law is concerned. But the tacit political agreement undergirding the FCC’s capitulation, the notion that, with the words ”I am offended!,” any member of a community should decide what is or is not acceptable to say, is inimical to our ideals of free expression. Political correctness imposes the most tyrannical form of censorship, the censorship of hurt feelings.

If the word in question was something truly malicious, it would be a different matter. But sissies? Far more than a half-baked conception of gender roles, this tame, humorous trochee conjures a figure of mere cowardice and ineffectuality. It suggests, indeed, a figure not unlike Fitzgerald himself.

What culture of discourse are the LGBT Co-op, the FCC and Miller encouraging by this act of soft censorship? Is it one befitting robust and mature minds, willing to challenge and to be challenged, to give and to take offense? Or is it one that coddles its participants, rushing to mollify the most quickly offended sensibility? Is it one that rewards argument or one that incentivizes umbrage? Is it a culture for adults — or sissies? I’m offended.

Bijan Aboutorabi is a freshman in Trumbull College.

Comments

  • yale2011

    I am all for free speech. However, I think there is an important difference between speech in the context of an academic debate over ideas and speech that is put forth by the institution itself, implying the university’s support for the ideas expressed therein. In the former case, I think the university has the obligation to protect speech. In the later case, members of the university community have the right to scrutinize the ideas advanced by the university and call attention to grievances with it. The university should then evaluate and respond to these grievances. This is exactly what occurred here. To change the designs on the shirt represents not an infringement on free speech but a willingness to allow free questioning of official university speech – and isn’t free speech what we’re all about?

  • Thank You

    It is pieces like this that give me hope Yale will not succumb entirely to the misguided fallacy that is political correctness. Thank you for writing this column, and articulating the collective disdain towards this decision of those students here who don’t feel the need to cater subserviently to every minority group who interprets everything not perfectly aligned with their narrow perspective an egregious act of discrimination and malicious intent against them.

  • Stop PC nutiness

    No one would have thought of the members of the LGBT Cooperative as sissies until they protested calling Harvard a bunch of sissies (as if it’s news that Harvard is a bunch of sissies…). Alas, the LGBT Cooperative members, by their protest, have become a bunch of sissies.

  • Ugh

    This is the kind of column that only a straight, white male could write. The idea that my classmates would wear a shirt that celebrates the implicit norms that marginalize me everyday is very disheartening.

  • @Ugh

    A shirt calling Harvard men sissies does not marginalize you. Sorry bud.

    By the way, whatever shirt you have on right now marginalizes me. Go put on a white undershirt. Wait actually don’t, I could make an argument about how that marginalizes people too – we should all wear black undershirts… or maybe white and black undershirts, but that would marginalize people too. Let’s all wear rainbow undershirts (with white, black and any other excluded colors added in), so that no one feels marginalized!

  • @5

    Maybe this wasn’t the case for you, but the last time many of us GAY YALIES heard the word sisses used is when we were being shoved into the locker of a small-town middle school for being viewed as effiminate men.

    You are not going to put sissy on a shirt at Yale sponsored event. To be a bit more informative, “sissy, faggot, homo, dyke, fag, queer (in some contexts) and fairy” will not be put on such a shirt either.

    I would hijack the distribution truck before we make Yale look so insensitive at such a public event.

  • anonymous

    @#6

    do you seriously think there is no distinction between “sissy” and the other words you listed that actually are anti-gay slurs (e.g. “faggot,” “homo,” “dyke,” “fag,” and “queer”)?

    Do you seriously think calling someone a “sissy” and calling someone a “faggot” are in any way equivalent?

    I love, by the way, that so many rational and not hyper-sensitive/attention-starved members of the gay community are capable of understanding that the use of the word “sissies” on the shirts was not at all an attack on homosexuals, and I’m satisfied that they have announced their disapproval of the FCC’s decision on these online comments. It’s great that the minority of the LGBT community that actually was “deeply offended” feels that they have the right to speak for every other homosexual on campus and override the popular consensus of the entire Freshman class.

  • Recent Alum

    #1, you make an interesting point here. If Yale is paying for the shirts, it’s not primarily about free speech. Got it.

    Rather, it’s about the extent to which Yale should go out of its way to endorse the homosexual agenda. My own view is that different people can (and indeed do) have different views on whether homosexuality is an acceptable alternative lifestyle, and Yale should stay neutral (i.e., not take any action to show disapproval of homosexuality, but also not take any action to show approval of homosexuality). By choosing to ban shirts that have been approved by more than 50% of the freshman class, Yale is saying that the views of a small minority of homosexuals should have a greater priority than the views of the freshman class as a whole. That’s what I find extremely troublesome here.

    Meanwhile, what about all the Yale sponsored events that encourage premarital sex? Wouldn’t conservative, religious Yalies be offended by those? Or maybe they just don’t complain because they aren’t sissies?

  • Recent Alum

    The perennial H-Y t-shirt that says “Harvard: Less Fun than Abstinence” is far, far more derogatory toward conservative Christians who support abstinence that the “sissy” shirt is toward any group. That would be the equivalent of a shirt saying “Harvard: Less Well-Adjusted than Homosexuals.” It would be completely unthinkable to imagine such a shirt, but that’s not really worst than claiming that abstinent Christians can’t have fun. The double standard, as always, is incredible.

  • FailBoat

    I am not a straight white male and I agree with everything written in this column. Suck it (or is that offensive?)

  • @Ugh (#4)

    “This is the kind of column that only a straight, white male could write.”

    Well obviously that completely invalidates any argument by the author.

  • Amen

    Thank you so much for writing this article. It’s nice knowing that I am not the only member of this student body who believes the PC culture of this university is excessive.

  • d’oh

    Yale is done in by shirt karma.

    If there were decent + funny shirt designs things could have been different, I tells ya!

  • grad student

    Thanks for writing this article, nice to know there are still some students not corrupted by the multiculturalists.

  • Y11

    I agree with the point made about the double standard for Christian Yalies (or any Yalie, even non-religious who doesn’t choose to have sex before marriage or serious relationship) in relation to the Harvard is less fun than abstinence shirt. I find it interesting that it’s okay to demean of one group’s choices about sex but not another’s (if we assume that the sissies shirt really does marginalize gays). I just wish there was some consistency in the PC battles. I know that LGBT is chiefly interested in gay rights (as they arguably should be), but I’d find them much more credible/less whiny if they looked out for other marginalized groups too, if they are going to start these PC fights in the first place.

  • ADD

    Thank you for a very well written editorial. It is sad when the most easily offended get to decide what can and cannot be said.

  • cliche argument

    give me a break. yeah, political correctness can be annoying, and it is a little out of hand. however, this shirt was lame on several levels. a) not funny b) just because f.s.f. said it does not make it funnier.

    the shirt design being pulled was not an offense to free speech. it was an issue of convenience. no one really wanted that shirt to be made-a funny but equally offensive design that people wanted to wear would have maybe made this a legitimate argument. however, not only was this design not funny, but it also offended people, that’s like shooting two birds with one stone and then leaving those birds to rot. it’s a waste of a stone.

  • genetics’12

    Well said Aboutorabi!