Wednesday, June 19, 2019

When Speech is Unacceptable

At what point is speech unacceptable in any form?

That is one of the underlying questions in the Kyle Kashuv-Harvard controversy.

For those of you who have not kept up with the events surrounding the controversy, Kyle Kashuv is a recent graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a survivor of the 2018 shooting at the school.  Like several of his classmates, he became famous in the days following the shooting for his activism.  His activism, though, ran in stark contrast to many of his classmates, as he became known for opposing gun control measures after the attack.  

Kashuv became the high school outreach director for the conservative group Turning Point USA and lobbied in favor of a federal “school safety” bill that attempts to address the school shooting problem without gun control.  In particular, he has become a conservative Twitter darling, with more than 300,000 followers.  

As a graduate, Kashuv had hoped to get into his first choice for college - Harvard University.  And his extracurriculars, together with excellent grades and a high SAT score, earned him admission to the prestigious university.  In late May though, a series of offensive comments he made roughly two years ago came to light, prompting Harvard to initiate a formal review of his admission.  

According to the comments reported to Huffington Post, reportedly acquired by other Marjory Stoneman Douglas students, Kashuv made racist comments in a collaborative Google Doc and in text messages.  In the Google Doc, Kashuv typed a racial slur over and over again, even commenting that “im really good at typing ni**er ok like practice uhhhhhh makes perfect.”  In the text messages, he seemed to demean a female classmate by saying she only “goes for ni**erjocks,”  suggesting that she would prefer such black men sexually to a “pasty jew.”

After the comments were reported by the Huffington Post in May, Kashuv distanced himself from the comments, arguing that the comments did not reflect any specific animus towards black people on his part, instead reflecting merely “using callous and inflammatory language to be as extreme and shocking as possible.”  Further, he stated that the comments happened before the Parkland shooting, which transformed the way he sees the world and made him “embarrassed by the petty, flippant kid represented in those screenshots.”  In this initial statement, he omitted an unequivocal apology.  

He would later include a more forthright apology in his email to Harvard’s diversity office.  “I am deeply sorry for my comments,” he wrote in that letter.  “There is always more I can do to understand and learn about the struggle and pain of minority communities in America and worldwide."

After the publication of the story in Huffington Post, Harvard began an inquiry into Kashuv’s comments.  Following the investigation, William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, sent Kashuv a letter on June 3, saying that Harvard “takes seriously the quality of maturity and moral character,” and that “after careful consideration the [Admissions] Committee voted to rescind your admission to Harvard College.”  Kashuv tried to appeal to no avail.  On Monday morning, June 17, 2019, Kashuv tweeted out the letter from the university, igniting a firestorm in conservative circles.

By Monday afternoon, his name was trending nationally on Twitter.  Conservative media went all out with allegations of liberal bias in academia and the dangerous power of social media.  Ben Shapiro, prominent right-wing pundit, accused Harvard of setting up “an insane, cruel standard no one can possibly meet,” citing the incident as evidence that “our universities may be irrevocably broken."

I'm not sure about the "insane, cruel standard no one can possibly meet."  I think you could find a lot of students who do not have any racists comments documented in their past.  But maybe that's just me.  But, the controversy does raise a few questions.  Among those raised online and in the news are ones regarding free speech, liberal bias in academia, racism, and forgiveness.  

First, we can dispose of any free speech concerns.  There is no action by the government; the First Amendment is not implicated.  Harvard is a private institution and can do as it pleases in admissions (so long as it does not implicate prohibited classes - race, sex, religion, etc.).  As for liberal bias in admissions, conservative ideology is not a protected class, and even if Harvard is choosing only liberal leaning students and completely blocking conservative leaning students, it would be perfectly legal.  Though it would be damaging for  society as a whole, it would still be permissible.  We do not need to go this far, though, as Kashuv was admitted to Harvard, and was only denied admission when his racist comments were brought to light.

The issue of racism becomes very complicated.  The Vox article on the controversy contains a good summary of the problem, pointing out how the right and the left have different views on racism and how to address it.  Conservatives view racism as a personal failing, seen as a set of explicitly held ideas and beliefs that reflect outright animus toward a group of people.  It is corrected by repudiating it and striving to not let race affect the way you speak and act.  In this worldview, the real threat isn’t the comments, but the impulse to punish people for them, preventing them from having room to grow and change.

Liberals and leftists see racism as a structural problem, reflected in institutions and deeply ingrained biases that lead even people who firmly believe in the ideals of equal treatment to act or speak in prejudiced ways.  This makes addressing the problem a work of great societal work, effort, and vigilance.  It also puts the emphasis on stopping the statements themselves, in whatever form they take, as a symptom of the greater problem.  After all, even “ironic” racism, like the kind used to shock and outrage, is still racism.

The tragedy of the divide between the viewpoints, is that racism is both.  It is both a personal failing and a societal ill, that needs to be addressed on a personal level by repudiation and on a societal level by changing the ingrained biases and making certain speech and actions unacceptable.

Harvard has arguably tried to address the societal issue by having a zero tolerance policy.  Kashuv is not the first student to have been denied previously granted admission based on offensive statements in their past.  In 2017, Harvard rescinded 10 other students’ admissions after it found out they were participating in a Facebook group that involved swapping racist and anti-semitic memes.  These 10 kids weren’t celebrities, they weren’t Twitter darlings, they didn’t have national visibility.  This makes Kashuv’s denial appear to be merely a continuation of the policy already in affect.  Not a targeted denial in any form.

The bigger question surrounds the personal failing and any repudiation Kashuv may have undertaken, and this is where it gets sticky.  Kashuv’s initial response to the story regarding his past comments included a statement that he did not have a specific animus, that he was just trying to be outrageous, and that the Parkland shooting transformed him in a way to be embarrassed by those statements, but stopped short of making an apology for the statements.  Such an initial statement can be seen as someone dodging responsibility for the statements while refusing to address or apologize for it except when threatened with losing something he wants (as he did when Harvard communicated the denial).   This kind of viewpoint would raise questions about the sincerity of any repudiation.  

Further, there have been a lot of commentary regarding holding two year old statements against him, as if they had no bearing.  This is not a “when I was young and foolish, I did young and foolish things” scenario.  These statements would have been made during his application process, evidence of contemporaneous thoughts reflecting his beliefs at the time.  There may have been an intervening event leading to a change of heart, but as discussed above, his statements following the reveal can be seen as more of an issue with being caught than a change of mind and heart.

So whether Kashuv deserves any sympathy or whether his lack of admission to Harvard is a great injustice, it’s hard to say.  But it does point to a problem that has the potential to be a great issue going forward.  As we continue to put more and more digital content out there into the world, there is more and more opportunity for it to be used against us.  And with the racial makeup of the United States and the tensions that still exist, this is just a small snapshot of what can happen in the future.   Joel Anderson of Slate put it, “So many more people can relate to calling someone a ’ni**er’ than being called ’ni**er.’  

From here, there are several important lessons that can be learned, with two specific lessons that I would like to discuss.  

First, it is important to have control over what is put out for public consumption.  Ultimately, while there are many things about your digital life that you cannot control (thank you Cambridge Analytica), what you put in email, what you put on Facebook, what you put on Twitter, what photos you take and share, those are all choices fully in your control.  The privacy settings that you can adjust on your social media accounts are all in your hands.  Who you choose to friend or follow on social media, or more importantly to allow to follow you, is in your control.  Remember to take control of these things.  Be cognizant and conscientious regarding what you share and with whom.  Only friend and follow people you know and trust and interact with on social media, particularly those you could discuss in person or over the phone to confirm.  

Once information is out there, it is being used in ways you cannot imagine.  Interviewers look over the Facebook pages of interviewees and evaluate their fit for the company based on what they see in addition to the interview.  Colleges look at the pages of their applicants.  Any number of places can comb over your profiles to present background information on you.  A little Big Brother that we have all agreed to.  And accordingly, there is a benefit to being a little paranoid regarding what you have as your digital footprint.  

Particularly due to point number two.

Second, for something intangible, digital traces are surprisingly permanent.   Whatever you tweet, whatever you post, it is still very easy to find it online.  Screenshots, images, backups all still exist.  It does not matter what social media platform you discuss, the result is still the same whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or even Snapchat where the message was supposed to exist for only six seconds.  All it takes is one person to screen capture the message before it deletes and it can exist forever.  

This is the problem with sending nude pictures, particularly among underage students.  The kids do not realize that the pictures can be shared, can exist forever, can come back to haunt them for years regardless of how they were shared in the first place.  This does not even get into the potential child pornography issues that arise through the sharing of such photographs.  Again, all it takes is one person to save and share and you have a scandal.

The files on your computer are likewise very, very difficult to destroy.  Even if you "delete" them, even if you run a purge program, even if you wipe the hard drive, they still likely exist in some form.  To clean a hard drive, you really need to soak it in bleach, run it over with a powerful magnet, burn it, beat it repeatedly with a sledgehammer, and submerge it in a lake for a few weeks.  Even then, forensics might still be able to recover parts of it.

So, BE CAREFUL what you put on your computer.  BE CAREFUL what you put in email.  BE CAREFUL what you post on social media.  BE CAREFUL what you put out there into the world.  And be EXTRA careful who you give access to it.

That joke you think is funny to post now could end your career down the road.  That attempt to be shocking and provocative may be decried as offensive.  The strongly held belief you have now may be something that you cringe at in the future and could likewise mean the end of a career or relationship.  That act you thought would be funny to video and share today may be something that is actionable in the future.

While these services help us keep a record of our lives, memories that popup in our feed, we forget they are also keeping an evidentiary record of our statements, actions, and beliefs.  And we are seeing more and more that it can and will be used against us.

Be safe out there.

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