Randa Jarrar, Moral Grandstanding, and Forbearance

Fixating on offensive speech amplifies its harms—often, the best course is simply to ignore it.

Richard Carson / Reuters

Last week, the Fresno State creative writing professor Randa Jarrar sparked the latest round of debate about free speech on college campuses when she reacted to Barbara Bush’s death by speaking ill of the dead on Twitter. “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” she wrote. “Fuck outta here with your nice words.”

In an unintentional echo of President George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” moral logic, she declared, “PSA: either you are against these pieces of shit and their genocidal ways or you're part of the problem. That's actually how simple this is,” adding the sentiment, “I'm happy the witch is dead. Can't wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have. byyyeeeeeeee.”

If hate speech was not protected by the First Amendment, as some progressives contend, it would be necessary for us to probe whether or not it is hate speech to wish death on an entire family while cheering their matriarch’s demise. Since there is no such exception to the First Amendment, the free-speech analysis is simple: Fresno State, a public institution, may not punish this professor for her politically incorrect speech, a conclusion that consistent free-speech advocates including David French of National Review, Robby Soave of Reason, and staffers at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education all reached.

That she is being investigated by her university is the latest illustration of the fact that free speech on campus requires vigilant defenders if it is to be conserved going forward.

Predictably, this case has exposed inconsistencies on both the left and right. Some leftists who believe hate speech is not free speech have been conspicuously silent. And insofar as I’ve seen, there is no outcry from micro-aggression monitors taking Jarrar to task for holding a woman morally responsible for the actions of male members of her family, or pointing out bygone atrocities that counsel against using “witch,” of all things, as a label for a woman one holds in contempt.

Meanwhile, on the populist right, some outlets that complain endlessly when the left tries to police speech on campus have published articles calling for Jarrar’s appointment to be terminated.

Typically, this would be the part in an article about a controversy of this sort where I would grant that critics of the speech in question are understandably upset; make it clear that I myself find the speech in question to be offensive; and explain why I nevertheless oppose targeting the speaker’s job for expressing it, whether in service of First Amendment rights or a culture of free expression.

Most of that holds in this case––I’m against punishing Jarrar, and in agreement with those who say that her behavior is grotesque, immature, and embarrassing (even if I find it exceedingly easy to simply grimace and move on).

But I am increasingly convinced that ending our analysis of these recurring free-speech dustups there lets another sort of damaging behavior go unremarked upon.

As an example, consider the Fox News opinion piece, “Professor celebrating Barbara Bush’s death deserves to be fired,” by Lauren DeBellis Appell, “a freelance writer in Fairfax, Virginia” who is probably a good, often thoughtful person. Yet despite offering no information about Jarrar beyond her ill-advised tweets, Appell characterizes her as “a radical and heartless university professor” and a “sick, twisted individual.” She asked readers, “Does this English professor assign her students to write filth like this, and give them bonus points for swearing? How on Earth did she get to be an English professor, anyway?”

This is a common mistake made by participants in social-media pile-ons: They erroneously assume a person’s character and competence can—and ought to—be accurately judged by the most ill-advised words they post on social media. Rather than spend any time or effort investigating whether or not the offending remarks are actually reflective of typical behavior or indicative of work performance, they write articles in which they fixate on and amplify that worst moment while treating it as all one needs to know about a person.

That is irresponsible. Social media brings out the very worst in many people. Fixating on and amplifying their worst is a choice. Extrapolating from it is often inaccurate.

It’s not too much to expect that adults will have the maturity to recognize as much. Yet growing factions on the right and left routinely engage in this behavior. They fixate on and amplify the most polarizing words in our society, not only when doing so is unavoidable, or serves some constructive function despite its costs, but even when the words in question are uttered by an otherwise obscure person, like a Fresno State creative writing professor, and when the better course is simply ignoring the words. In this case, ignoring the tweets would’ve restricted them to a fleeting moment in the Twitter streams of a tiny number of people. No one would’ve thought about profane Barbara Bush insults ever again.

Instead, critics deliberately made this a national story.

And most of the ostensible damage caused by Jarrar’s remarks—the hurt caused to various people mourning the former First Lady, the hit to Fresno State’s reputation, the polarization that hyperbolically insulting one another’s tribal figureheads fuels—are inseparable from the people who could’ve ignored the tweets, or quietly criticized them in one Twitter thread, but instead took public umbrage and needlessly spread the words to millions of people. Their participation in call-out culture did no good and exacerbated harms.

Now consider some of the local reactions, as reported in the Fresno Bee.

Fresno State faces all sorts of enduring challenges; it’s an imperfect institution. Yet, the paper reported, “Fresno State President Joseph Castro said he’s been inundated with calls from community leaders expressing their outrage over Jarrar’s tweets.” Surely there are dozens of better uses of the time of these community leaders, and dozens of wrongs in Fresno that are more deserving of their outrage.

“As of Thursday none had threatened to close up their checkbooks if Jarrar isn’t terminated,” the newspaper reported. Two contrasting alumni viewpoints follow:

Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque, a 1975 Fresno State graduate, said the professor’s tweetstorm won’t dissuade him from donating to university projects, the student cupboard and scholarship funds. “I did read her comments, and I was rather dismayed by that,” Del Bosque said. “I’m a big fan of Mrs. Bush, and I’m just a person who doesn’t talk about things that way, but I don’t see that as a reflection of the university.”

...Ed Dunkel Jr., a second-generation engineering graduate from Fresno State… is taking a wait-and-see position. “But candidly, I have a lot of friends that I’ve been talking to, and these are people who donate now and talking about holding back, and some are even questioning whether to send their kids to Fresno State,” said Dunkel, who has been recognized for his financial contributions as a member of the university’s President’s Circle for Excellence.

Joe Del Bosque is exhibiting more circumspection here. Fresno State serves more than 24,000 students at any one time. Its faculty exceeds 2,300 people. It offers undergraduate degrees in 60 fields. The decision to support it financially, or not, might reasonably turn on any number of factors, but the most ill-advised thing tweeted out by one of its faculty members is not one of them. By any rational standard, her tweets are totally marginal to the work of the institution, and seizing on them says as much about the loss of perspective many suffer when exposed to jarring moral difference than any defensible calculation.

Progressives who see the folly in withdrawing support from a large, important institution over a morally jarring opinion published by one of its employees can perhaps use this case to better understand why many, myself included, find it irrational and frustrating when some progressives threaten to cancel New York Times or Washington Post subscriptions over an opinion expressed by one of its many employees.

Jarrar behaved badly. I’m glad free-speech champions spoke up on her behalf anyway, recognizing the superior importance of the principle they are defending. But her case, and others where the ideology of the offender and offense-takers are flipped, are cause to reflect on more than just defending free speech.

Damon Linker counsels accommodating ourselves to the reality that “norms against employees engaging in offensive speech have become stricter in recent years, with many insisting that public statements that demonize any person or group be punished swiftly and severely, better to send a stern message about the importance of treating bigotry and hatred of any kind as intolerable.”

I am not an absolutist on this subject, but I do want to fight these new norms, because excesses of call-out culture have exploded alongside social media in this country.

I reject the logic that Americans should associate the brands of employers with the very worst thing pronounced by any of their workers, as if doing so advances social justice rather than fueling mob pile-ons and reactionary backlashes. And I increasingly value those who possess the virtue of forbearance.

With them as inspiration, it is time to revive some unfashionable ideas: Often, the best course is ignoring offensive words rather than fixating on them. Those who amplify offensive words often risk doing more harm than the offender. As a cumulative matter, excessive moral grandstanding has high costs—and even in making that point, we should recognize that most of us have the impulse within us and go easy on those who fall prey to indulging it. “The point of public moral discourse isn’t to separate out the morally pure from the pretenders,” Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke note. “It’s to help us understand and address serious moral problems. Calling out individual offenders might make the accuser feel powerful, but it’s unlikely to actually do much good.”