A Critique of “Academic Sanitization”

offended2Illustrated by Nelson Hua

Consider: the scene is JG 101, and your classmate – that guy – has just raised his hand during a controversial Con Law class. He opens his mouth and out comes a generalized statement about [marginalized group]. You hear shuffling as a hand flies into the air, and the response – “Actually, I think it’s pretty offensive to say….” As if on cue, half of your classmates let out a collective sigh as their eyes roll in unison. After class, you hear disparaging remarks made about the offended student in question. This second type of students, supposedly, are the downfall of academia; their puerility is an impediment to the free exchange of ideas, even if poorly articulated. But equally disconcerting is the idea that if these students were silenced, unable to challenge the articulation of the original comment, the exchange of ideas would be incomplete.

The scene is probably familiar, no matter which part you played. We frequently deal with sensitive topics in the course of law school. But, in the pursuit of freely exchanged ideas, there is and should be room for pushback to hone the way we talk about issues without begrudging those who take offense out of hand.

The first time someone apologized to me to say, “I’m sorry for offending you,” it seemed like he had just branded me with this term – “OFFENDED.” It was then plastered across my face while the world pitied me for my thin skin and sensitivity. There’s a troubling look of pride people wear when they describe themselves as “not easily offended.” What people ignore is that there is a bubble of anger that comes rising up when someone says something tactless. There’s a moment when time stands still and you’re burning up.

Recently, I’ve been forced to think about whether there is room to take offense in the law school community. I was left with an unsettling feeling in my stomach after some students attempted to make a humorous reference to the caste system and the untouchables, which is an incendiary point of contention in the Indian community. Treating a particular group as ‘untouchable’ has been outlawed in India, but prejudice still remains. The Dalits in India still face numerous injustices, and the atrocities committed against them are, frankly, no laughing matter.

I tried to rationalize and let it go. It’s just a joke, so why are you offended? It’s funny! It was like a joke that everyone understood except me, but I was trying to laugh anyway.

Feeling gutted from the apparent loss of my sense of humor, I spoke with others. What followed was a really valuable dialogue about how the exchange of ideas works in an academic setting. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s an appropriate way to respond to something that offends you, and it’s not shooting your hand up in class to shoot someone else down with an icy glare and a biting remark. But I’m also pushing back on the idea that in order to seem open to new ideas, we choose to not respond (which often means we sit in silence, and fume) to those ideas and the expression thereof that deeply trouble us, and that this is the preferred behavior for law students.

What is it that makes a society value people who are not sensitive to insensitivity (knowing, or unknowing), especially in this profession? Perhaps in the real world, that mysterious place we all go after law school, no one caters to your emotional needs. According to some, the future in store for us is one where CLS degrees are worthless because deeply distressed students could postpone their exams in the aftermath of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury cases. But I’m not yet convinced that an academic setting necessarily needs to replicate the future. More importantly, I’m not convinced that we are destined for a future of insults, racial slurs, or tasteless jokes being thrown around while we point fingers at those who are “offended,” asking them to respect our free speech while we suppress theirs. In fact, it’s far more realistic to think of a future where you’re expected to have developed the skill of figuring out why your comment offended someone, and then show the requisite amount of empathy – especially in this profession.

I think the notion that the offended are “sanitizing” academia is unfounded – the academia that we are striving for surely is not a place where people are free to express their opinions, but no one is free to critically respond, even if it comes from a place of emotion. And as for those of you whom I’ve offended… I’d love to hear from you.

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