Monday, June 8, 2015
I’m glad I heard about the Chicago Principle. What a relief that part of the world is trying to act civilly and rationally at the same time! What is the Chicago Principle? I’ll get to that in a bit.
Baseball used to be called the national pastime. Sportswriters can debate whether it is still as popular as it was in the past or has been surpassed by basketball or football, but there is no doubt that the new national pastime is not a sport at all. It’s being offended!
You can hardly pick up a newspaper or magazine without seeing at least one story about someone being offended or someone having to apologize for “misspoken remarks” or a blog or tweet that rubbed someone the wrong way.
Of course the reaction to being offended is rarely to calmly and rationally point out to the other person the error of his ways, to develop a counter argument or even to assume the other person was innocent, meant no harm, was hurried and didn’t carefully pick out his words or was misinformed. No, the typical reaction to being offended is to lash out angrily, demand an apology, or post the offending action to social media in hopes of it going viral and publicly shaming the offender, possibly ruining his career or life. (Some comedians now avoid college campuses for fear that an edgy joke tested on an audience and bombing will be videoed and posted before the performer has a chance to polish or even drop it from the act.) Often this outrage relates to a topic or action that in the past most would have let pass, not noticed or considered quite innocuous.
To gather a few examples I went to Google and searched on “news” and “offended.” I struck gold! Some high school seniors in Pennsylvania were offended by a letter sent reminding them to dress appropriately for graduation. It was blunt and the administration apologized, but explained that it had been written by someone who had retired a couple of years ago. They probably just had been sending out the same letter annually without reviewing it to account for the new level of sensitivity. Next was a story about a rent-a-bike company in Washington that introduced bicycles painted glittery in honor of Gay Pride Month. The story questioned whether this was a tribute or rather played into an offensive stereotype. To reinforce how careful we must be these days that same story referred to another incident: “Dani Marrero in USA Today went as far as to say referring to guacamole as "guac" should be avoided. She wrote, in part, “...the word itself also has significance as it comes from indigenous Nahuatl language, so please make the effort to pronounce it in its entirety.” (Well, everyone knows you can’t shorten, abbreviate, misspell or otherwise play fast-and-loose with a word unless it is in your native language! If somebody from Pakistan, for example, referred to a hotdog as a “dog” wouldn’t we demand an apology?)
Then there was a man who was offended by a message on a lottery ticket, forcing the New York Lottery to apologize for the “unfortunate arrangement of [random] words on this individual ticket.” He didn’t even win anything after such a traumatic experience. (Imagine being insulted by a ticket!) Finally Drake Bell was chastised for a tweet about Caitlyn Jenner that could have been interpreted as unfavorable. (Do you not wonder why anyone would care at all about a tweet from a “former Nickelodeon star”?)
This only got me half way down the first page. Apparently a bishop in Columbia made an offensive statement, Apple was “deeply offended” by a BBC investigation, Jim Harbaugh is meeting with offended University of Michigan students, and, not to be outdone by those American infidels, ISIS issued a statement banning pigeon breeding as offensive.
Remember, this was just one page of one Google search on one day. Tomorrow there will be another long list of victims who must have gone public enough with their offended feelings for it to be picked up by the media.
This brings me to the Chicago Principle. “The University of Chicago is an institution fully committed to the creation of knowledge across the spectrum of disciplines and professions, firm in its belief that a culture of intense inquiry and informed argument generates lasting ideas, and that the members of its community have a responsibility both to challenge and to listen.” This means that if the speech or written statement is legal and not threatening, harassing, defamatory, or a substantial invasion of privacy, it must be considered, discussed and debated regardless of whether it may be thought by some to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.
This could be a wonderful victory for critical thinking. Instead of playing the offended victim and spreading animosity, students are required to come up with persuasive arguments or counterexamples for any offensive statements. It allows for open debate on even sensitive subjects or those where public pressure makes the defender of some ideas seem uncool, uncaring or a pariah.
Fortunately, other universities including Princeton and Purdue are adopting this principle to ensure that free speech and free expression are not suppressed by the overly sensitive or self-appointed censors, and to ensure that the ideas of any group or individual, including invited guests, reach the campus and are not withheld as opponents of those ideas organize to bully the administration into submission. When all ideas are discussed, not some swept under the carpet or withheld for fear of retaliation, learning replaces indoctrination. Maybe the rest of American can learn something from that.