When a university destroys a professor’s career because some students are insulted, we expect them to do so only in the most extreme cases. We would expect a university to look at how reasonable it is for the students to be insulted, and the social harm caused by the insult. We also must weigh the significance of not insulting people versus the benefit of challenging them to think more broadly and differently. We certainly should make sure the “punishment fits the crime.”
What about a professor who uses a Mandarin Chinese word that sounds like an English slur—a word that is not acceptable? Should the Chinese speaker be fired? As the Atlantic article
shows, USC chose to fire a professor who repeatedly spoke a Chinese word that sounded like a slur in English.
Alas, over the course of my career, universities have arrogated to bureaucrats and lawyers
a version of social control that empowers the offended and those who complain. The result is to suppress speech and make faculty afraid of what they say. Nothing could be more detrimental to learning or thinking freely.
Judgment means knowing the difference between acts that are intentional; acts that are reckless; acts that are negligent; and acts that are reasonable but controversial and that bother some people. Bureaucrats and lawyers are ill-equipped to make such judgments about the speech of professors.
When universities lose the ability to determine whether a person or group of people’s subjective unhappiness is reasonably worth an investigation into misconduct, then they open the door to anyone being investigated at the instigation of anyone who subjectively claims offense.
In the end, ironically and sadly, I predict that lowering the burden to accuse and destroy careers will inevitably be used as weapons against those with less social power: members of the very groups these inquisitions are designed to protect. No one can exist in a “safe space” if there is no speech safe from attack. Freedom of speech protects most those with the least social power. And as freedom diminishes, and a humorless emotional negativity becomes the norm, we start to resemble the very societies we used to think of as the antithesis of the US.