Ethics Quiz: Harvard’s Anti-Meme Vendetta

…or not

Harvard College rescinded admissions offers to at least ten anointed members of the Class of 2021 after it discovered that the prospective students traded sexually explicit memes and messages in a private Facebook group chat. Some of the memes apparently mocked and denigrated minority groups.

The admitted students had formed the messaging group, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens,”on Facebook in late December, 2016.

The members of the group sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, among other topis.  Screenshots captured and obtained by the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, revealed that  some messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines targeting ethnic or racial groups, like one that called hanging a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Harvard administrators were alerted  to the existence and contents of the chat and sent the students an e-mail that read,

“The Admissions Committee was disappointed to learn that several students in a private group chat for the Class of 2021 were sending messages that contained offensive messages and graphics As we understand you were among the members contributing such material to this chat, we are asking that you submit a statement by tomorrow at noon to explain your contributions and actions for discussion with the Admissions Committee. It is unfortunate that I have to reach out about this situation.”

A week later, at least ten members of the meme chat group were sent letters from Harvard announcing that their admission offers were no longer valid, and that the decision was final.

“As a reminder, 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.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Day

Was Harvard’s action fair, reasonable and proportionate?

Let me begin by admitting a bias: I think my alma mater has lost its ethics bearings under the benighted leadership of president Drew Faust. The segregated 2017 graduation ceremony was just the most recent example; Faust and her staff have also punished male students for participating in off-campus male-only residence clubs, or what other schools call “fraternities,” and a male sports team for making sexist comments in a document circulated among team members.

As for this episode, it is fair to say that if the admissions office had received these memes before deciding to admit the students, they wouldn’t have been accepted at all. So what? I doubt any Harvard admittee hasn’t engaged in conduct or said things in private that would poison his or her case for being accepted to the school. That’s why students try to make themselves look good on their applications.

This issue is old stuff on Ethics Alarms. My position here is no different than it is when high school students are punished in school for Facebook posts and social media chats they have from their bedrooms. This is Big Brotherism, and totalitarian in style and substance. Harvard has an interest in a student’s public behavior, or any embarrassing conduct that comes to light and reflects poorly on Harvard. Seeking out private conversations and punishing the participants for their content, however, is draconian and even cruel. Call the students, express concern, explain why what they are doing is wrong, warn them, make them wear a scarlet J for jerk at orientation, but kick them out of the class?  This is wildly disproportionate for the offense.  Of course the students lack maturity: they are 17 or 18 years old! As for “moral character,” that’s part of what Harvard is supposed to teach.

Based on this decisions and some other of late, I doubt the school is qualified to do that.

50 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Harvard’s Anti-Meme Vendetta

  1. I’m a bit torn and I’ll have to think bout this one for a little while.

    That said…

    I wonder how far Harvard is willing to push this kind of policy limiting its student body based on social media posts?

    • First; I’d like to address why I was initially a bit torn? I was torn because there are reasonable efforts that Harvard can make to keep their campus reasonably safe for students. These efforts can and should include reasonable efforts to exempt students from their campus that have shown tendencies toward violence. It is my opinion that these disgusting memes do not fall into this category; words are not violence.

      Harvard could and should have used this as a learning experience for these particular students and used the knowledge they gained as administrators as a teaching tool for all their incoming students; I think Harvard chose poorly. Again I ask; I wonder how far Harvard is willing to push this kind of policy limiting its student body based on social media posts?

      The students participating in these kinds of activities should have this quote driven home; “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  2. Harvard may find that the monster they create will bite them personally as well as those they target. This has been shown to be true at many a school the last few years.

    Who can stand up to scrutiny when private conversations are made public?

    Don’t do Facebook

  3. What does the DNC, Donald Sterling, and 10 Harvard students have in common?

    They all had their personal conversations published in a way that was wrong, and in some cases illegal, but once the information is out, it was impossible to ignore.

    That said…. I agree that the punishment is disproportioinate. I think people in the corridors of power, university faculty most of all, HAVE to stop ruining lives as a first course of action.

    • … and they likely will not, HT, until it becomes clear that THEIR live could be ruined as well.

      Like many progressives, who want others to toe the line but exempt themselves, these folks think they are immune. Some are learning they are not. Students are bright (especially, I’m told, those who make it into Harvard) and usually know more than academics about computer technology. Should a student decide to apply a little gander sauce to these folks, assuming they are the hypocrites such usually are, life could get a bit uncomfortable. In the environment they have fostered, they could lose their jobs and prospects of going elsewhere for one like it.

      Is it bad that I look forward a tiny bit to the humbling of the Harvard staff that make these decisions to destroy lives using unfair means?

  4. Regardless of the answer re: Harvard’s Ethics, for those of us with school-age kids this seems like a perfect example of the dangers of so-called “private” group chats.

  5. So, Jack, your contention is that this is “Big Brotherism,” draconian and cruel. I get that.

    These students, at the age of 17 or 18, are presumed to be intelligent enough to enter a prestigious university known to all, far and wide, to be excessively politically correct to the extent of mania. They could not have failed to know that the contents of their merry little cyber hidey-hole, if known to the Harvard administration, would likely get them disciplined and even de-admitted. It doesn’t matter that it was intended to be private — it wasn’t, and Harvard’s image would’ve suffered for admitting kids like this to their school, at least in the eyes of those they care about (which is manifestly not people like you and me).

    Just like the Naked Teacher Principle, when you show your naked ass to those who based their decision to admit you on the basis of not having seen it (and never wanting to), you destroy your credibility with them. Harvard expects it’s students to be good liberal drones, not closet homophobes, racists, or ethnic bigots who don’t have the good sense to make sure their private parts (or un-PC thoughts) don’t careen into public view and damage the Harvard brand.

    I can’t help but agree with you that, among rational people, Harvard’s reaction was disproportionate and cruel. But knowing what they expect and what they have done in the past, a person who wants to attend there has to play by their rules, and these young people didn’t do that.

    So from Harvard’s perspective, I’m certain I can defend what they did as reasonable. I think Harvard has become an Animal Farm parody, but some probably think that’s what they should be, and from that perspective, their reaction was pretty much what I’d expect.

    • Were they6 warned or told that once they were admitted, their private thoughts, conversations and jokes would be monitored with dire consequences if they did not “conform”? I suspect not.

      • Heh. Maybe not. But their thoughts in this case weren’t private, were they? I’m sure they intended them to be, but they were published.

        • Which is to say nothing you say is guaranteed to be “private.” The Donald Sterling case is still the worst; A guy fined, exiled and shunned because of what he said to his girlfriend in his bedroom. Yes, that quote would have gotten an admittee de-admitted too. Still wrong and unfair.

          • Unfair, yes. Wrong, maybe, but what they did was wrong as well, private intention or no. Hard for me to get real upset about it when they acted like fools and had to pay a price, even if the circumstances were less than fair.

  6. A clear overstep here, as it was suppose to be a private chat group, meaning the students had a right to expect said privacy. When someone from their group betrayed that trust and reported them. They were open to the defense that Harvard was invading their privacy. Anyone who saw the name of the group should have not wanted to report them as the name of the group, would leave you to believe the memes were not for everyone!
    We may not agree with what they say, but please let them say it! Free speech is the fastest and easiest way to find idiots, fools, and bigots. Which is good as it gives you a chance to correct or avoid them. For punish these students for something that was suppose to be private, betrays their commitment to teach.

  7. I imagine that part of the problem was the name of the “private” group had Harvard in it. If the admissions office found out, so could others, and the school would have its name attached to what sounds like pretty perverse stuff. If the group was NOT expressly for Harvard students, I think the school would have less cause to boot them.

    • …how bright were these almost Harvard students, that the private site was not secured? If it could not have been done, then Facebook was the wrong media on which to pull the stupid stunt.

      If they were ratted out by someone for whatever reason (Hurt feelings revenge? Attack of guilt?) then they DID learn a valuable life lesson on who you trust (if they marginalized someone who turned them in) how you treat those with leverage over you. Golden Rule should apply to that last, but the bottom line is he who has the ability to hurt you should be treated with care.

    • This is a great point. I originally thought the school overstepped here, but their name was attached to the chat, and I think one can make the case that that makes it their business.

  8. Speaking of using disgusting memes as a justification for people in positions of authority to think in “pre-crime” mode and punish individuals based on those disgusting meme’s…

    Many, many years ago I had a High School acquaintance that used to say things like “If they’re old enough to go to the grocery store, they’re old enough to get bread” and “If they’re old enough to pee, they’re old enough for me”; the sexual implications were disgusting and obvious. Way back then I thought his jokes (as he presented them) were disgusting humor which at that time wasn’t a whole lot different than some of the crap that some people would pay to see a stand up comic spew off the stage. As fate would have it, my life path crossed paths with this individual again many, many years later and half way across the United States; this High School acquaintance that used to spew those disgusting meme’s about sex with children spent nearly 10 years in prison for sexual assault of a child.

    Here we are in the 21st century and based on the new modern way of leaning towards punishing individuals for words prior to any physical action, it won’t be long before they throw a person like that High School acquaintance in prison simply for stating such meme’s.

    The moral of the story is that there are some terrible people in this world that choose to act on things like the contents of meme’s; the question is, do we punish all people that share disgusting meme’s based on the few that choose to act on them? My answer is no; however, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be vigilant in weeding out those that share disgusting meme’s and also have shown tendencies towards violence.

    Sorry for going off the rails a bit.

    • Now after posting that comment; I’m going to revise what I wrote above and add this.

      If as a result of this Facebook group, Harvard looked into these ten individuals and found that they also have tendencies toward violence that they didn’t previously know about, then I have no problem when then revoking their admission.

  9. What they did was public. It’s hard to claim privacy when you you are displaying the behavior in front of 20+ people. They took the time to write the comments and memes and post it on Facebook. Anybody can take a screenshot of any post, no matter what the setting.

    These kids grew up in the social media age. They are quite savvy in its use. And I would expect anyone who could get into Harvard to be especially so. They should have heard about the fate of the Harvard soccer team and seen how seriously Harvard takes the issue. Yet, despite it all, they still chose to post dumb memes and comments, just for kicks, and under the Harvard name, no less. They are too dumb to go to Harvard.

    Other people may do and say offensive things, but at least they aren’t so overtly stupid about it. If I were Harvard, I would be quite leery of letting students like that on campus. Those are the types on week one to get drunk, jump off a roof, break their leg, and then sue the school for negligence. It might be hard to get rid of such students once they’ve actually enrolled, but yes, I would be doing everything in my power to prevent that from happening in the first place.

    • Well said deery. Harvard is ‘selecting’, not ‘punishing’. Apparently Harvard sought further discussion with such students – which sounds good. The right to ‘free speech’ should not compromise the rights of those who ‘hear’.

      • The right to ‘free speech’ should not compromise the rights of those who ‘hear’.

        Spoken like a completely Constitutional tyro. There are no rights for those who listen. Even deery won’t back this nonsense, unless I misjudge him, and his education.

        • Harvard has a right to select or reject. It has an obligation to take proper care with the information and processes it uses. The students have a right to their free speech. The simple question is whether that right to free speech should compromise Harvard’s freedom to take account of its content, once that speech has been heard.

    • The topics of meme humor are probably not a reflection of the character of the people posting memes. “Savage” memes are at type of dark humor that is funny BECAUSE it is so wrong, and does not reflect the values of the people laughing (if it reflected their values, it wouldn’t be funny.) It’s the same kind of “I can’t believe he said that” response that entertained people with Michael Scott’s clueless racial insensitivity on The Office for years. Just in pictorial form.

      So this may well be a case of some old people not really getting it. Or just not caring about context. When you critique something you don’t really understand, attempts to explain context often just sound like excuses. I personally don’t care for that kind of entertainment, but I wouldn’t ban anyone from my private university for, say, laughing at shock-comedian or watching American Psycho at home.

  10. I’m torn, but only to the extent that I don’t have full details. They say 10 were rescinded but they don’t say how many were implicated, and they don’t say how many were a part of the larger group. You might have 200 people in the chat and 40 who were implicated in sending some bad content. Of those 40, maybe 30 of them responded to the letter and defended themselves and these are just the 10 who didn’t even try to defend themselves.

    Now – I’ve got no evidence supporting the above, but no one has any contradicting it either. I’d like to know more. Regardless, the article states that some of the pictures might have been sent as a “requirement” to gain admittance to a smaller chat group, a splinter group, and the beginnings of a college “secret society”. What do we make of that? If someone sent 1 meme just to gain admittance to the splinter chat, do you agree with their admittance letter being rescinded?

  11. I wonder if the comments would be the same if it had been Liberty University withdrawing acceptance after seeing something they didn’t like in a fakebook group.

    • valkygrrl wrote, “I wonder if the comments would be the same if it had been Liberty University withdrawing acceptance after seeing something they didn’t like in a fakebook group.”

      I’m one of the commenters in this thread, what exactly are you trying to implying about me?

      Stop beating around the bush and spit it out.

    • Liberty University regularly hosts guest speakers with beliefs radically different from those of the university. They seem to welcome a free and open marketplace of ideas. And so I doubt your hypothetical would ever happen (with Liberty being in the name, it would be pretty hypocritical, too.)

      • Liberty also remains off-putting to many younger and less conservative evangelicals. It asks students to adhere to an honor code that forbids pre-marital sex, attending a dance or watching R-rated movies. In order to keep focus on its ideology, tenure is not offered. Some felt the marriage of politics and religion went overboard Monday, as students were required to attend Cruz’s announcement — making some feel they were used as props. Students are always required to attend convocations. Liberty has few women in its leadership ranks and halted its recognition of a student Democratic club.

        • You mean Liberty acted like (gasp) EVERY DAMN PROGRESSIVE PRIVATE UNIVERSITY EVER?

          News flash: public funding means the public (should) have a say. Private funding means they can do what they want, barring legal violations. These students knew what they signed up for (unlike many progressive colleges, who spring the indoctrination after tuition is paid.)

          Not offering tenure allows control to be retained by the Board. Professors are not entitled to it. If they want to work somewhere else, the door swings both ways. This is not discrimination: it is free market capitalism.

          Plenty of other Universities toe the progressive line, public (illegally, in many cases) and private. Yet let a single private college reject the indoctrination and the progressives are (once again) outraged.

          • Just pushing back against the statement that, “[Liberty University] seems to welcome a free and open marketplace of ideas.” They don’t even allow a student Democratic club.

            Otherwise, I agree with your position that as a private university, they have a lot of leeway in what they promote.

          • Just pushing back against the statement that, “[Liberty University] seems to welcome a free and open marketplace of ideas.” They don’t even allow a student Democratic club.

            Otherwise, I agree with your position that as a private university, they have a lot of leeway in what they promote.

  12. Mr. Marshall:

    “Thus I come back to applying strict liability, as Ethics Alarms does in the Naked Teacher Principle Cases. Yes, there’s nothing unethical about plastering you [sic] naked booty all over the web, as long as your students don’t see then and begin thinking of you as a potential sex partner rather than a role model and authority figure. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with sharing jokes that don’t express your feelings about minorities, until they, and you are exposed. When that happens, you can’t expect sympathy.

    Think of it as ethics sky-diving, running with the bulls or race car driving—high risk conduct that you know, or should know, might backfire.”

    Does this not apply in this case, or does it apply but you don’t like that it applies because of the ick factor and bad precedent it sets? Or something else entirely? As always, your thoughts are most welcome. Thank you!

  13. My first thought is thank god that social media did not exist when I was 18. I agree that these memes reflect badly on Harvard. Specifically, Harvard sees these people as insensitive to the plight of society’s victims. However, instead of seizing this opportunity to teach, Harvard chose to abdicate their responsibility with regard to these potential students.

    What are the consequences of Harvard’s actions? As admitted Harvard students, these people are likely to be studious, hardworking, wealthy, and well connected. They will probably still have relatively successful lives and be important powerful people in the future. However, the loss of a Harvard education will have negative consequences. It is likely that this incident will breed resentment among these people. What form will this resentment take? Hopefully, these people will be less likely to inflict political correctness on others. Another likely outcome is that these people will be less sensitive to society’s victims. Thus by abdicating their teaching responsibility, Harvard has insured that we will have powerful people who are insensitive to the downtrodden. Additionally, with this action Harvard teaches other Harvard students not to be more sensitive to others, but rather to hold these opinions secretly or in small groups.

    There is another aspect to this incident which troubles me. I think it is fair to say that these people were trying to be funny. With my current sensibilities, I do not find this stuff funny. When I was 18 it was a different story. One aspect of comedy is shock. Jokes about children as sexual objects are meant to be shocking as opposed to being meant to be taken seriously. One of Jack’s ethics rationalizations is “I was only joking”. In this case, I think “I was only joking” is a legitimate defense. In my opinion, the funniest person I’ve ever been exposed to was Richard Pryor. He could not exist today. I think we are a richer society because Pryor did exist. Am I suggesting that baby rape jokes enrich society? No, Rather I am suggesting that consequences for humorous speech should be tempered. I believe in freedom of speech in general. I am aware that free or not, speech has consequences. However, humor should be given an especially wide birth.

    Finally, I am troubled by political correctness in general. Bad ideas are like fungus’s which grow best in the dark. The best response to speech which is troubling is more speech. At least then people can learn from each other. I believe that if issues were discussed openly for the last couple of decades people would not have been so surprised by Donald Trump’s ascendancy. It is possible, and even likely that Trump would not have risen in a more open society.

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