By Jennifer Huang
From the Vietnam War protests to the Civil Rights Movement, many political movements and counter-cultures have begun on college campuses. Arguably, though, the most widespread college counter-culture has been the emergence of meme groups in colleges across the U.S. While not necessarily political or social in nature (In fact, they normally just ridicule testing policies and poke fun at students with certain majors), memes are an extremely prevalent part of college life, a relatable way for students to connect, make humorous jabs at other schools, and laugh over relatable content.
But is it possible for memes to go too far?
According to Harvard, yes. In April 2017, a group of students admitted to Harvard were discovered messaging inappropriate memes joking about sexual assault, the Holocaust, child murders, and lynching, among other things, in a chat titled “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens.” Upon discovering the contents of the chat, Harvard rescinded the admissions of ten applicants, justifying its decision with a reminder that “Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”
This decision comes at the crux of the free speech debate on campus. With the recent demand for safe spaces, the riots at UC Berkeley against alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, UChicago’s unwavering defense of free discussion, Harvard’s decision adds another voice to the heated debate. With the radical right believing that their ways of life and points of views are being increasingly demonized by “liberal media” and “libtards”, convinced that the world is stacked against them, the free speech debate was already heated and controversial. Harvard added fuel to the flames.
As a staunch liberal, I’m always predisposed to agree with actions against racism and sexual assault. But even conservatives shouldn’t complain, and here’s why.
As a private institution, Harvard has the right to make its own admissions decisions, and choose its students. Conservatives, who believe in very little government involvement (except in cases of big business and religion), should be happy that this private college was able to make its own decisions. After all, if diversity policies in the workplace are so detrimental, and corporations should be “free to hire without regulation”, then why not colleges as well? Just as conservatives believe a corporation should judge “solely on merit,” so Harvard judges on merit as well: And they happen to value “honesty, maturity, and moral character.”
These students’ memes violated Harvard’s tenets: They lacked moral character, making fun of genocide and racial violence, child abuse and sexual assault, exploiting real victims for their own laughs. They lacked maturity, not understanding the serious implications behind death and abuse, believing that their fun trumped real-world implications. They may have even lacked honesty, lying on their applications to fit Harvard’s “diversity and acceptance” clause.
Beyond the obvious horror of the memes themselves, Harvard realized that the students wouldn’t be a good fit on campus. They might provoke fights, make it literally unsafe for other students, hinder others’ studies. This decision was has implications beyond just “free speech”–College is a community of individuals who are supposed to engage in educational discussion, but having students with twisted humor on campus would have been counterproductive to that goal.
Hopefully, Harvard will set a precedent for other students: That jokes ridiculing serious events will not be tolerated on their campus, or any campus. Whatever you may think about free speech, contextualize it to the institution and its community. Think before you start laughing about deaths from drone strikes and the Holocaust.
Real memes are supposed to be good-humored content and a way for the disenfranchised Z-Generation to relate and communicate their stresses with each other through a short, funny venue. Let’s not give memes a bad name, and let our fun be corrupted by disrespectful people. Keep our memes meme-ingful.