Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2004 /13 Tishrei 5765
Save the straight, white, Christian male
Amid occasional outbursts of political correctness, I have consistently held that straight (as in non-gay) white males (sometimes known as SWMs) deserve respect too.
After all, we may have come here on different ships but we're all in the same boat now, as Whitney Young, the late, great civil rights leader, used to say. With that in mind, I registered no small amount of alarm to hear that a young SWM at the University of North Carolina has been illegally subjected to "intentional discrimination and harassment," according to a ruling by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, because he was "a white, heterosexual Christian male" who expressed disapproval of homosexuality.
In a letter to the university's chancellor last week, the civil rights office ruled that instructor Elyse Crystall violated student Timothy R. Mertes' civil rights in February by improperly accusing him of "hate speech" in an e-mail sent to students following a discussion in her class on "Literature and Cultural Diversity."
During a discussion on whether heterosexuals feel "threatened" by homosexuals, Mertes said as a Christian he felt "disgusted, not threatened" by homosexual behavior.
"What we heard Thursday at the end of class constitutes `hate speech' and is completely unacceptable. It has created a hostile environment," the teacher wrote. She also referred to the student as "a white, heterosexual, Christian male" who "can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable."
My attempts to reach Crystall, who university spokesmen say still works for the school, were not successful. But based on official accounts, it sounds like her mistake was to wait until after class to critique Mertes' views by e-mail instead of airing the discussion in class.
As Rep. Walter B. Jones, the North Carolina Republican who requested the federal civil rights probe, said, "If you don't have that right [to express yourself] in a collegiate classroom, what rights do you have?"
Instead, according to Jones, the young man became the target of personal threats and his car was vandalized.
I don't agree with Mertes' views. I think the sex lives of consenting adults are their own business. But if Mertes can't express his sincerely held views in a class on "cultural diversity," where can he?
Would you rather have him saying it only amid the circles of those who agree with him? Or do you want the opportunity for his views to be heard and challenged openly in a free, intellectual exchange, during which ideas have a proper chance to compete on their own strengths or virtues?
Having taught college classes during which we discussed racism, sexism and homophobia mostly in the abstract, I would have welcomed the opportunity to have a genuine outspoken racist, sexist or homophobe in the room to air out what so many other people keep to themselves, as long as we can keep the discussion civil. No cursing, crying or throwing dangerous objects at one another.
As the corporate world has discovered, the workplace has become increasingly diverse. That puts a new premium on learning how to work and live with people who may be quite unlike ourselves in many ways. The campus is an excellent place for us to learn how to get past these differences so that we can focus on the many things that we have in common.
Happily, the North Carolina case has been resolved in a way that enables all parties to claim victory. Alice B. Wender, the U.S. Department of Education's Southern regional director of civil rights, said in her letter to UNC Chancellor James Moeser last week that the teacher improperly targeted the student for a charge of "hate speech" because he is "white and male," but no penalty or further action was necessary. Crystall apologized for her actions, the student received a high grade and the university convened faculty workshops to discourage discrimination against white, male, Christian undergraduates.
Little local stories like this one reveal a lot about big cultural shifts in this country. One of the more troubling trends has been the seemingly open-ended way some college lecturers and administrators define certain forms of speech or assembly as "discriminatory."
As an African-American male, I appreciate the concern that universities have to prevent unfair discrimination, but I don't want to be protected from the power of ideas. Experience has taught me that, if you're nervous about your ideas, you probably need to re-examine them and come up with better arguments.
After all, you can come up with better arguments by challenging those with whom you disagree than you can by trying to silence them.
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