Some memes make me chuckle. Most remind me that I’m not twelve anymore. The “dicks out for Harambe” meme is squarely in the second category. I fail to find it funny. Not even a little bit. It’s not that I find it offensive, but just, well, stupid. Clearly, whatever it is that turned the phrase into a meme flew over my head. That happens when you’re not twelve.
But then, so too did the outrage that struck University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Poor Harambe. The gorilla murdered at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child wandered into its enclosure has now essentially suffered a second, equally odious death: this time at the hands of humorless University of Massachusetts residential advisors who told students to stop making Harambe jokes.
These jokes “are not only derogatory but also micro-aggressions,” two RAs wrote in a letter to the UMass-Amherst students who live on their floor. Failure to desist could even be a violation of Title IX, they suggested.
At least there appeared to be a distant, if disconnected, reason for this.
As it turns out, “Harambe” is also the name of the university’s residential community for students of African heritage. The RAs—who identify themselves as “Ryan and Colleen” in their letter—are concerned that these students could take offense.
There was no connection between the meme and the residential community, but connections are no longer needed as a reason to take offense. Think “housemaster” and “slavemaster,” where the former had no relation to the latter, yet the words, being almost the same, was close enough to inspire near universal agreement that the word “master” should be eliminated from campus.
Clemson University has now taken up the Harambe cause, banning jokes from its midst.
Harambe has been killed again. This time the perpetrator is Clemson University, which informed residential advisers on Friday that all public displays involving Harambe are strictly prohibited.
RAs were instructed to inform students that visual representations of Harambe—the gorilla who was killed by Cincinnati Zoo officials after a kid wandered into its enclosure—”are no longer allowed within our community.”
The reason for this fails even to meet the UMass-Amherst connection standard. A Clemson administrator explained to Campus Reform:
The administrator claimed Harambe’s death has been used to “add to rape culture” and can be “form of racism.” An RA further added that any student who disobeys these instructions will be “in trouble.”
As Eugene Volokh explains, this is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment, not that anyone on campus cares.
Except that’s a clear First Amendment violations; public universities can’t suppress displays that they view as conveying offensive viewpoints, whether unpatriotic, antiwar, “racis[t],” “add[ing] to rape culture,” or anything else. See, e.g., Papish v. Board of Curators (1973), Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason Univ., 993 F.2d 386, 393 (4th Cir. 1993), and many more cases. (A university could pick and choose what to include in its own speech — again, if it wants to, excluding unpatriotic speech, anti-university-administration speech, or whatever other views it dislikes — but this policy apparently applies to student speech and not just the university’s speech.)
That a stupid joke, a meme, is worthy of this attention from Clemson presents questions far beyond its obviously unconstitutional censorship. There doesn’t appear to be much of anything for which a nexus can’t be established, whether real or imagined, that invokes the cries of racism and misogyny,
This isn’t to say that the students and academics who see everything as problematic don’t believe it with every ounce of their being, but that not even a childish meme escapes their censorship of words that are hated. The suspicion is that nobody is really feeling all too threatened by the Harambe meme, but that they are in search of things to be offended by and fit it into the mad lib jargon of social justice. When chaos theory rules, offense can be manufactured out of pretty much anything.
Is it real that someone at Clemson was traumatized by “dicks out for Harambe”? Did they lose sleep? Were they unable to eat? Did it preclude their ability to enjoy the benefits of education? Did it make them feel “unsafe”? Was it “exhausting”? It would come as no surprise if some, perhaps even many students make these claims. But if so, they are either liars or too fragile to exist.
This, too, is a meme, and not entirely fair to students today. But it also highlights the absurdity of claims that these students are harmed by words, by ideas, by anything they find offensive. And what they find offensive is everything, as if a million young people stay up late at night trying to find a connection, any connection, no matter how tenuous, to conclude that something offends them.
Having raised the “sticks and stones” point in the past, and been met with the reaction that us old folks don’t get it, that words can hurt just as much (more!!!) as physical harm, that anything can be violence.
The official riposte is that every student is entitled to feel safe and comfortable, a meme of their own promulgated by college administrators and governmental bureaucrats determined to create their private Idaho. Academics went along for the ride. Some because they didn’t want to be tarred as “racists” and “misogynists.” Some because they saw no harm in appeasing the special snowflakes. Some because they were true believers.
A few years ago, when there was still opportunity for adults on campus to tell the unduly sensitive to grow up, they kept silent. Today, they are the targets of grievances for mispronouncing a name or failing to give adequate trigger warnings. While some might enjoy the Schadenfreude of seeing them suffer the consequences of their cowardice, that’s myopic. They cared only when it affected them.
Groups like The FIRE, deemed conservative because it’s not toeing the social justice line, can’t fight this alone on the basis of First Amendment law. The problem is cultural and anyone trying to hide from being castigated as racist and misogynist is out of luck.
There is a new Harambe joke, and it’s no more funny than the silly meme that’s been banned at Clemson. Either this quest to find offense in everything, to crush words, ideas, jokes, because someone somewhere claims that it makes him cry, comes to an end or you’re all going down when the inquisition comes for you. And it will. That’s the joke. None of you, none of us, no one will survive this any better than Harambe.
So here’s another joke: A college administrator, a well-regarded law professor and a student walk into a bar. The student starts screaming that the administrator and law professor are racists and misogynists. The administrator buys the student a beer, selected by the prawf. The beer is connected by marketing to captive horses and heavily promoted on sports broadcasts.
The student stops screaming until he’s close to finishing the beer, then starts screaming the same thing until the administrator buys him another beer and tells the prawf to leave the bar because it’s his fault the student is screaming. The prawf, hurt and confused, walks away. Funny, right?
Update: Eugene Volokh posts that Clemson is disavowing this position:
UPDATE: The Clemson Media Relations department e-mailed me to say that the message “was sent by one person and does not reflect university policy”; here is Clemson’s broader statement:
Clemson University’s housing office sent this message Monday evening to students in one residence area who had been told incorrectly that they are not allowed to display references to Harambe:
Good Evening –
This email is meant to clarify some earlier communication you may have received as a member of the Shoeboxes community.
We are committed to creating an inclusive, safe living community where all residents feel comfortable in peacefully expressing differing points of view. Last week, a door posting with a meme was brought to the attention of our staff as its content made some feel uncomfortable. We also want all residents to feel they are able express their thoughts, opinions and ideas.
To that end, we want to clarify that building residents are able to post items on their individual doors.
Should you encounter any issue of concern please reach out to your RA or other hall staff members for assistance.
What exactly this means is remarkably unclear. Whether they would have said anything had there not been noise about it is remarkably unclear. What it does not say is Harambe memes are allows. What it also does not say is how someone in their administration could “incorrectly” censored students.