Last week, a video emerged that shocked the US. Members of a University of Oklahoma (OU) fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), were caught singing a horribly racist song while on a bus:
‘There will never be a nigger at SAE.
There will never be a nigger at SAE.
You can hang him from a tree,
But he’ll never sign with me.
There will never be a nigger at SAE.’
The video caused uproar on the OU campus, and across the US, after the national media picked up on it. In response, OU president David Boren quickly expelled two of the young men identified in the video, claiming their chanting created a ‘hostile educational environment’, and shut down the SAE fraternity on campus. Boren was widely praised for taking ‘decisive action’. The Huffington Post summed up the views of many in a tweet: ‘Take note, @President_Boren shows you how to respond to a frat-racism controversy.’
Given the chant’s derogatory language and reference to lynching, it is obvious why nearly everyone (myself included) found it repugnant. Many supported the punishments handed down by Boren because they saw in those actions a way to express their own revulsion at the frat members’ chant, and to show solidarity with black students.
It is admirable that people wish to make moral judgements. However, today’s moral imagination is very limited, and there is a widespread belief that the only way to take a stand is to call for silence and expulsion – from school, job or social life generally. It is as if we have forgotten that there are many ways to oppose racist views without crossing the line into authoritarianism. Rather than argue against such views, show why they are wrongheaded, express disgust with them and organise against them, the reflex is always to call for censorship.
This recourse to censorship not only undermines the values of a free society — it also avoids the real issue at hand. Indeed, the move to censor does not confront racist views, it runs away from them. It is an immature response, one that says: ‘l don’t want to hear it, make it go away.’ It assumes that students are too young and fragile to handle unpleasant views, and calls on mommy and daddy — in the form of the university president — to deal with the scary stuff. In particular, this stance adopts a patronising view of black students, as if they are in need of special protection. All in all, these actions seek to turn the campus into a childlike fairytale world, sealed off from the rest of society.
Attempts to ban racist speech, or other forms of so-called hate speech, are ineffective as well. France has had laws forbidding Holocaust denial in place for decades, and yet anti-Semitism in the country has increased. Censoring racist views endows them with more significance than they ought to have, and turns losers into martyrs. It is far better for a society to know that such views exist, in order to confront and defeat them. It is only through open debate that we can challenge bigoted views.
Many admit that Boren’s response was exceptionally harsh, but they say it is justified because the SAE video is especially abhorrent. But the hullabaloo over the SAE chant is far from unique, and is only further evidence of a social trend that dismisses the value of free speech. Boren’s actions were in fact entirely consistent with the intolerant sentiment on US campuses, where the impulse is to squash any speech that is deemed to be offensive. In a university environment where students and administrators ‘disinvite’ speakers, demand ‘trigger warnings’ on everything (including on works of literature like The Great Gatsby), faint at the sight of a sleepwalking man statue, and ban t-shirts with Game of Thrones slogans, Boren’s actions fit right in.