We are all, to some degree, products of our generation. Those generational differences have been much in the news of late, often regarding speech or behavior that might once have been deemed acceptable — if not exactly favorable — but that is now considered inappropriate. Think of terms belittling women or LGBTQ groups and individuals, or the wearing of blackface in amateur shows.
These words and actions are now viewed as harmful, and truth be told, even decades ago, thinking adults also recognized this, though that harm was, years ago, often either dismissed or went without any thought at all.
Young adults now have grown up in a different culture. They more easily recognize hate speech — homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny. But at the same time they, too, are products of their time. And the time in which they’ve matured seems to include giving a pass to references within memes — those gags and images that catch fire on social media.
That dynamic was evident recently when a student at Keene State College posted a photo to the app Snapchat of a fellow student wearing a sweatshirt that advocated for people who don’t speak English to leave the country.
At many institutions, including schools at every level, such a shirt would be cause for immediate discipline. Public displays of racism and xenophobia ought not to be tolerated. The obvious knee-jerk, bureaucratic response would too often be to punish the student and send a message to the rest of the student body.
To the credit of Keene State administrators, that didn’t happen in this case. Residential life staff talked with the student involved and came away believing the student didn’t intend the kind of harm such statements can cause.
“In talking to the young person who wore the shirt, it was ‘a joke,’ and it’s one of those things that I think having patience and discussions are more productive than public shaming,” said Dottie Morris, associate vice president for institutional equity and diversity.
At a later meeting of staff and students unrelated to the incident, the Snapchat posting came up, with several students saying it was upsetting. That prompted a discussion on educating students about the harm they can do to others even when they feel they’re just joking.
“KSC is a predominantly white school, with students coming from different places. They don’t know the meaning of the terms they are using or what the impact is,” one student at the meeting told the student newspaper, The Equinox.
Morris said the college wouldn’t normally treat such situations as disciplinary, as they involve free speech. But the incident provided a jumping-off point for more discussion of the effects speech can have on vulnerable populations, such as minorities or those who don’t feel accepted.
President Melinda Treadwell attended the meeting, and defended the college’s stance on potentially intimidating speech, while adding: “I am a fierce proponent for free speech, but I don’t tolerate ignorance. Students and faculty need to be educated. Ignorance isn’t an excuse.”
It is all too common, however. And in a culture in which “it was just a joke” has become a relied-upon defense, there’s a delicate balance to be struck. Keene State administrators are right not to jump to the conclusion that harm was intended. But they also need to be prepared to vet future claims of “I didn’t mean it like that.”
There comes a point where how it’s meant is irrelevant in the face of the harm caused. In this case, at least Keene State used the incident to make that point to its students.