On Jan. 3, Trump issued a drone strike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani. Over the next few days, news headlines, opinion pieces and most of all my social media feeds were overwhelmed with analyses of the attack, or in the case of Instagram and Twitter, memes about World War III and jokes about an impending draft in the U.S. The words “Franz Ferdinand” started trending online minutes after the news of the strike, bringing no joy to the Scottish rock band of the same name, who made clear their position: “WWIII is a bad idea.” Meanwhile, Babson College professor Asheen Phansey was dismissed for joking on Facebook that the Supreme Leader of Iran might like to retaliate by tweeting “a list of 52 sites of beloved American cultural heritage that he would bomb,” such as the Mall of America and the Kardashian residence.
What astounds me is that we accommodate the careless and dangerous rhetoric of our own president — which is actively feeding tensions with Iran — while shutting down the free speech of college professors voicing their frustration through humor. Why is an off-color joke from an American educator held to a higher standard than when our president carries out reckless foreign policy over Twitter?
The president has shown a disturbing level of childish behavior in dealing with an already heavily fraught relationship with Iran. From the get-go, Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani was not only irrational and violent, but also a rash political maneuver with deep domestic and international ramifications. Trump has intentionally brought the country towards the real possibility of conflict. But even as he states no further strikes will be taken, he rails against Iran endlessly. We must hold the president accountable for his war-mongering rather than focusing on a tasteless joke.
Unlike in Phansey’s case, Trump’s words could lead to real conflict. Although a direct confrontation has for now been avoided, Iran’s thirst for revenge could likely take the form of a proxy war — which would be extremely difficult to solve through diplomacy and would intensify anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.
There is no single way to properly respond to this situation. Perhaps, some solace and activism can be found in humor. Here is where I find fault in the Phansey’s dismissal. His Facebook quip was its own form of protest — far from inciting violence, it instead satirizes Trump’s own violence-inciting words and jokes that the U.S. lacks cultural heritage. And in this tense period, this form of protest helps to alleviate public anxiety, if only to remind ourselves that there are a variety of legitimate ways to react to Trump’s destructive policies.
In the last week, there have been protests against a war with Iran in New York, just as the House voted to limit Trump’s war powers. In the last couple of days, I passed a demonstration in Washington Square Park demanding Trump and Pence be removed from office. These are powerful tools for making a point and not unfamiliar to Yale. It is important, however, to remember that there are more ways than one to push back. In a country that purports to value free speech, we ought to allow a place for humor when it intends to call those in power to account.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Her column runs every other Monday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .