Speech Crime

Dennis Mangan calls our attention to another depressing instance of Draconian speech-policing, this time at Brandeis University.

Following the link to its source — an organization called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — we read:

Brandeis University declared a professor guilty of racial harassment and placed a monitor in his classes after he discussed the use of the word “wetbacks” in his Latin American Politics course. Professor Donald Hindley, who has been teaching at Brandeis for nearly 50 years, had never faced a student complaint until fall 2007. But a deeply flawed investigation—proceeding in violation of Brandeis’s own policies—has deeply violated Hindley’s rights, misinterpreted the definition of harassment, and misinterpreted Hindley’s own statements in class.

Despite Hindley’s repeated requests to Brandeis administrators to disclose in writing precisely what offended some students in his class, they have refused to do so. According to Hindley, he explained to his class that Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as “wetbacks.” That’s actually a statement against an ethnocentric use of the term. But according to Brandeis’s Provost, Marty Krauss, even the use of such an epithet in this context constitutes racial harassment. This unreasonable definition of harassment would ban such language as jokes and epithets even when the basic elements of harassment are not present. Furthermore, Krauss has suggested that the burden is on Hindley to prove that his statements in class were relevant to his teaching.

That a professor of 50 years’ tenure is to be taken to task for educating his students about the history of racial persecution seems an almost surreal perversion of the spirit of academic inquiry. What is happening to us?

As it happens I have a reliable source among the students at Brandeis; I will see what sort of reaction this has provoked.

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  1. As a representative of the student body at Brandeis University, I can say that this topic has not been largely mentioned on campus, to the extent that I had completely forgotten this event had even happened. Personally, I can understand the logic behind Brandeis’ decision to respond to Hindley’s remark, since Brandeis was founded on the principles of removing prejudicial thoughts from our society, but I am disappointed that Brandeis fails to understand that it is crucial to study and observe previous cultures and societies before we can change our own. If we keep running away from our enemies, we will never know how to face them.

    Posted January 24, 2008 at 11:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thank you Nick, and well said.

    I am disappointed also, as you might imagine; the distinction between examining a position and espousing it appears here to have been wilfully ignored. I had hoped that there might be a countervailing current of indignation among the students to see a faculty member subjected to such persecution, which mocks the very notion of tolerance it so histrionically champions.

    A mindset that seeks to control language in this way is more conducive to totalitarianism than liberal democracy, and we indulge it at our peril.

    Posted January 25, 2008 at 1:53 am | Permalink
  3. bighominid says


    I visited your blog. The Force runs strong in your family: I see you’ve inherited your father’s gift for wordsmithing.

    So, Mr. Psych Major: what’s your stance on moral realism? I was re-watching the Steven Pinker video here, and the term comes up re: the question of whether human psychology has evolved in a way that implies that human morality is a reflection of principles that exist “out there” in the universe. I think your dad rejects moral realism — the idea that “oughts” are in some sense “is”es — and if I’m not mistaken, he sees Pinker as, quite possibly, advocating some form, however watered down, of that position (am I reading you right, Malcolm?). Since Pinker is, among other things, a psychologist, I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on Pinker’s views.

    re: Brandeis and speech

    I agree with your disappointment and with your dad’s disgust.


    Posted January 25, 2008 at 2:20 am | Permalink
  4. bob koepp says

    What is happening to us? Well, we’re now reaping what was sowed about 20 years ago. If the truth hurts, then the truth must be suppressed. Besides, it’s a lot of fun to be a suppressor.

    Posted January 25, 2008 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  5. And what happens is that some unimaginative bureaucrat — or worse, some malicious individual — gets the job of interpreting and applying the PC rules.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted January 25, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Yes, Bob, Jeffery — what can be more gratifying than to smite the unrighteous? And once there’s a nice club available to smite with, everybody wants to have a swing.

    Kevin, I am not saying that I think Pinker cares all that much about moral realism in the strictest philosophical sense, but I do think that all of these chaps are edgy about naturalism’s vulnerability to accusations of relativism, and are trying to get some fortifications in place. Sam Harris does the best job, I think, in his chapter on morality in The End of Faith, which is, by the way, by far the best of those New Atheism books, I think (well, Hitchens wins on style, perhaps). I strongly recommend it to you all, if you haven’t read it already.

    Posted January 25, 2008 at 2:33 pm | Permalink