Hate Speech Hysteria at the University of Oklahoma
In March of 2015, people across the U.S. were shocked to see a video showing two members of the University of Oklahoma SAE fraternity chanting racial epithets. The reaction of the OU administration was swift and draconian. The offending students were expelled without due process and the entire SAE house was immediately shuttered. Legal scholars, writing in the Washington Post and USA Today, described the university's actions as a violation of the student's First Amendment rights. As Eugene Volokh noted, "racist speech is constitutionally protected." Solely as a result of this incident, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) named OU as one of the ten worst colleges in the U.S. for free speech. Greg Lukianoff, President of FIRE, singled out OU as the most intolerant of all institutions because its actions were taken as a signal by other universities that they could "toss freedom of speech and basic fairness out of the window."
Racial tensions on the OU campus have not subsided. They remain high, and if anything, are now more pronounced than before the 2015 SAE incident. The campus is in the grip of a collective hysteria. The largest single factor driving campus tensions is the student newspaper, the OU Daily. The Daily is perhaps the worst newspaper in the country, college or otherwise. In recent years it has degenerated into a publication entirely devoted to promoting radical left-wing ideology. The newspaper staff sees racism, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia, inequity, and social injustice everywhere. In 2014, the OU Daily became the laughingstock of the nation for an article claiming that nude-colored women's underwear was racist.
Last October, OU students woke up one morning to find that overnight someone had glued posters around campus promoting an obscure group named Identity Evropa. The posters featured photos of European art such as the head of Michelangelo's David captioned with slogans that included "Let's Become Great Again" and "Our Future Belongs to Us." The claim was immediately made that Identity Evropa was a white nationalist group. Outraged students scoured campus, ripping down the offending posters. The university press secretary was quoted in the press as stating that any poster "determined to contain hate speech" would be removed.
I doubt if Parisians were as upset when they woke up on the morning of June 14, 1940, and found the City of Light occupied by Nazis. One student tweeted in outrage "we still question why students feel unsafe on this campus!" No one seemed cognizant of the fact that the reaction to the posters had only succeeded in publicizing Identity Evropa's message. Without the fuss, it's likely most people would have barely given the posters a second glance. Also lost on the university community was the fact that the university itself promotes Western Civilization through required coursework. Indeed, American universities and most of the curriculum they teach are products of Western Civilization.
Last November 14, a professor from the History of Science Department found two racist posters in university buildings. The posters were titled "Why White Women Shouldn't Date Black Men" and "Race and Intelligence: the Facts." The professor photographed these flyers, posted the images on Twitter, and then took them down. Ironically, by publicly posting images of the posters the good professor succeeded in publicizing their message. What might have been viewed by only a handful of people was instead seen by thousands.
Removing the posters set a terrible example for students. The implied lesson was that you don't have to defeat ideas you disagree with by reasoned argument -- you are entitled to suppress them by force. Subsequently the Faculty Senate declared that toleration of hate speech was antithetical to "the pursuit of learning [and] the creation of art and knowledge." Members of the OU community were advised to report incidents of hate speech to the OU Police Department. Collectively, the OU Faculty Senate has the intelligence of a flock of turkeys. But to assert that intolerance is essential to teaching and research plumbs a new low.
Attempts to suppress hate speech are extremely troublesome. For starters, there is no objective or legal definition of hate speech. In practice, hate speech can be anything people find offensive. On the OU campus, if you say something as innocuous as 'I support Trump," a number of people would consider this to be hate speech. Hate speech is also protected by the First Amendment. People do not have a right to make specific and credible threats or incite violence, but they do have a right to express personal opinions that are both wrong and offensive. Pity the poor police officer who receives a report of alleged hate speech. How is he or she to respond? Not only is there no statute outlawing hate speech, it's a crime to deprive individuals of their First Amendment rights under color of authority.
The entire concept of racism itself has also become questionable. Fifty years ago, the term was commonly understood to refer to discrimination against individuals on the basis of race. I'm old enough to remember classified ads in newspapers stating "colored need not apply." In 1960, African-Americans faced legal and societal impediments that barred their entry into schools, occupations, and sundry other institutions and establishments. All of these discriminatory barriers, both public and private, have been removed. We live in a white-majority country that twice elected a black president. This is the same white majority that enacted affirmative-action programs wherein African-Americans are given preference over their own sons and daughters. Yet complaints about racism are now more frequent and intense than they were fifty or sixty years ago.
The term "racist" has become so degraded that it is now commonly invoked as a criticism of anything someone does not like. According to the concept of white privilege, all white people are racist as a condition of birth. Oklahoma is one of the most conservative states in the nation. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump received 65 percent of the vote. Yet last October, a high school teacher in Norman, Oklahoma, instructed his students "to be white is to be racist, period." With this sort of rhetoric circulating, is it any wonder that most rational people now discount the charge of racism as meaningless political drivel?
Not only is the University of Oklahoma campus a hotbed of racial hysteria, it's also home to the dreaded scourge of Islamophobia. According to a report in the OU Daily, on November 15, an unidentified person handed a Chick Tract titled "Camel's In the Tent" to a female professor from Lebanon. A Chick Tract is a short evangelical Christian pamphlet. Distributing Chick Tracts is a common form of Christian proselytizing. Over the last fifty years, approximately 800 million Chick Tracts have been printed and distributed. They are very common.
Evidently the professor who received a copy of "Camel's In the Tent" had never seen a Chick Tract before. Because the content of the pamphlet made her feel "uncomfortable," she reported the incident to the OU Police. Irony coated the professor's account like two inches of freezing rain in an Oklahoma winter storm. She professed that she "came to this country because I believe in American values," and then preached "we need to reach out [to people] and listen to their fears." But she didn't reach out and listen to fears about Islam or Islamic terrorism. She called the police! The professor also failed to grasp that freedom of religion and speech are core American values. In the United States of America we don't call the police on people who are engaged in Christian proselytizing. That's what they do in Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It gets worse. In October of 2015 a monument recognizing the Ten Commandments was removed from the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol because Section II-5 of the Oklahoma Constitution states that "no public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion." But this has not stopped the University of Oklahoma from setting aside a room in their Bizzell Library dedicated to Muslim prayer. Although the room is described as a "reflection room" open to everyone, it's sectarian nature is indicated unambiguously by the fact that it's stocked with copies of the Koran and pamphlets on Islam.
How did we come this far? The University of Oklahoma, like other American institutions of higher education, has become hopelessly politicized. The fact that Oklahoma is a conservative state doesn't help, rather it exacerbates the aggravation of the faculty. Most faculty at OU are not native Oklahomans, they are transplants from other states and foreign countries. They view themselves as a besieged island of sanity in a sea of bigotry. Eternal vigilance and zero tolerance are necessary, because the Ku Klux Klan lurks around every corner, carrying ropes and burning crosses. While conservatives view leftists as people with bad ideas, leftists don't look upon conservatives as people who even have ideas -- they're just bad people who must be rooted out, suppressed, and excluded. This quest has now superseded any pretense to education. The OU Campus is in the grip of a moral frenzy, the very definition of a witch hunt. The faculty and administration of the university have failed to heed Nietzsche's warning: "whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."
Dr. Deming is professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma, and the author of Science and Technology in World History (McFarland, 2010, 2012, 2016).