Political correctness severely blights groves of academe

MIKE LITTWIN

May 12, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

The latest bulletin from the political-correctness front involves, yes, water buffaloes.

This could happen only on a college campus, the not-quite-real world that serves as a battleground for many of your PC wars.

You probably saw the recent entry from College Park. A group of women from the University of Maryland posted fliers containing lists of men described as "potential rapists." To the casual observer, the phrasing might suggest "alleged rapist" or "convicted rapist" or at the very least "guys who got obnoxious on a date." As it turns out, the list included none of the above.

The names, we would learn, were picked at random out of a phone book.

The message, I guess, is that all men are potential rapists. In the physical sense, that's generally true. But that's where the truth, as defined here, ends and wrongheadedness begins.

Rape, including date rape, is obviously a serious issue. So is smearing innocent people. What if your father/brother/son had been on the list? Let's just say Joe McCarthy would have loved this strategy.

Pretty weird, huh? It gets weirder. As Dr. Hunter said, when the going gets tough, the weird turn pro.

And so we visit the University of Pennsylvania, one of our great institutions of higher learning and the site of the water buffalo controversy.

We'll start at the beginning. It is approximately midnight on a Wednesday in January when about a dozen members of a black sorority are out partying. It is Founders Day, a big deal on campus. The kids are singing and generally being loud and acting much like college students everywhere.

The merrymaking takes place outside one of Penn's high-rise dorms. On the sixth floor sits 18-year-old freshman Eden Jacobowitz, who is working on a paper. That's the other thing college students do -- they study, often late at night.

Upset by the noise, Jacobowitz yells out his window: "Shut up, you water buffalo. If you're looking for a party, there's a zoo a mile from here."

Now the women get angry. They get angry because others in the dorm were yelling, too. Some were apparently yelling "nigger" and "bitch." That's where the issue gets complicated. It always does.

We've all read stories of the troubling racial divide as it's being played out on campus. In fact, a black fraternity at Penn recently seized copies of the school newspaper in which a columnist had slammed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In the '80s, many colleges and universities adopted rules to restrict some of the name-calling. Of course, free-speech advocates rushed to object, particularly as these rules applied to the classroom.

Penn's present policy is that one person can't direct a racial insult at another, leading to the water buffalo charge.

When the investigation began, no one in the dorm stepped forward to admit he had yelled anything. Except Jacobowitz. He admitted everything. He admitted he called the women water buffalo. He admitted it, he said, because he never thought not to.

"I volunteered to talk because I didn't do anything wrong," Jacobowitz told the Los Angeles Times. "This had nothing to do with their skin. It had to do with the noise they were making."

He said they were making a "woo-woo" noise that somehow struck him as water buffalo-like.

The investigators didn't buy his story, arguing that water buffaloes are black and that the zoo reference could imply that African-Americans are animals.

Finally, it was determined that if Jacobowitz wrote a letter of apology and agreed to have the letter put in his file, the matter would be dropped.

Jacobowitz refused. That's something you'd like to see in a college student -- a young person who would stand up for something he or she believes in. Jacobowitz demanded a hearing, now scheduled for this Friday, and his story became a cause celebre.

The free-speech issue is a tough one. Should someone be allowed to make racial insults with impunity on a college campus? Whether and how speech can be limited is an old and worthwhile argument.

On the other hand, what's water buffalo got to do with it? Water buffalo is not typically a racial epithet. To suggest that Jacobowitz intended a racial insult is to suggest that we can interpret his thoughts. Yes, thoughts.

This isn't a free-speech issue. It's a free-thought issue. If the thought police have taken over, we're in worse trouble than anyone could have guessed.

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