I just received an email from the Democratic National Committee urging me to protest Betsy DeVos’s (completely valid and overdue) withdrawal of the “Dear Colleague Letter” by which the Obama Department of Education pressured universities into dispensing with due process when a male student is accused of sexual assault. “Tell Trump and DeVos not to undo President Obama’s policies to combat sexual assault on campus!” it bleats. The e-mail blast (if I ever find out who put me on this list, there will be blood), quotes DeVos, as if this advances their case, as saying, “If everything is harassment, then nothing is harassment.”
The Education Secretary was exactly right, and a story today from Reason shows why.
Joshua Zale, a student at Moraine Valley Community College, was asked by his drama instructor to play a pimp asking for money from another student, playing the role of a prostitute in an improvisation exercise. Improvisation means that the actors work without a script. In the process of the improv, Zale used an “unacceptable word” according to the instructor, who was apparently improvising the role of a fool. The teacher immediately reprimanded Zale, who later insisted on a private meeting to learn why he had been attackedfor using a word he felt was consistent with the role he had been assigned. Assistant Dean Lisa Kelsay subsequently accused Zale of violating Title IX—the weapon of choice in the “Dear Colleague Letter”—and school conduct policies by sexually harassing his acting partner “as a woman.”
No one has yet divulged what this “unacceptable” word was. I have taught improvisation. I am a pretty creative guy, with a fairly extensive vocabulary. I cannot imagine any word, from Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis to supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to Bill Maher’s favorite, cunt, to “penis breath,” uttered by a child in the opening minutes of “E.T.”, that would be “inappropriate” in an improv, especially in a scene involving a sex worker and a pimp.
As you know, ethics stories often remind me of TV shows and movies. This one (see the video clip above) reminds me of a famous “MASH” episode, “The General Flipped At Dawn,” in which Harry Morgan, later to play lovable, crusty old Col. Potter, played an insane general. Reviewing the MASH squad, he asks Radar, “Where are you from, son?” Radar answers, “Iowa, sir..” only to have the General scream, “NO TALKING IN RANKS!!!!”
Maybe the improv instructor, Craig Rosen, flipped too. That would be an excuse, at least. But how do you explain the Assistant Dean?
School administrators demanded that Zale write an mea culpa essay called “What I learned from this incident” to include a demonstration of his fealty to the college’s core values, or else he would have a hold placed on his student account that would prevent him from registering for classes.
I also can’t imagine a harsh word that would be inappropriate to describe that demand.
I couldn’t fit it into the headline, but Josh Zale is an Ethics Hero. He refused to write the indoctrination essay, he refused to attend a subsequent disciplinary hearing, contending the school refused to allow him to confront his accusers, and he’s suing his school.
Administrators have retaliated by blocking his registration, claiming he violated the student conduct code on “physical/verbal abuse or harassment.”
I want to know if there are really progressives and Democrats out there who think this kind of conduct by the school is “acceptable,” and if any one of them can mount an intelligent argument for keeping the Obama standards that led directly to the improv “gotcha!”
Freedom of speech, academic freedom, fairness, creativity, common sense, proportion, due process: is there anything the new Left won’t throw on the bonfire in its mad worship of political correctness and victim mongering?
Pointer: Other Bill
23 thoughts on “The “Unacceptable Word” Fiasco: OK, Now I Really Want To Know How Many Progressives Seriously Endorse Stuff Like This?”
I have only one quibble with you on this, Jack. You wrote:
“…the instructor, who was apparently improvising the role of a fool.”
Pretty sure there was no improv on his part.
More “method,” then?
A remotely related discussion touching on similar principles:
The whole thing reks of setup.
I just have to say… I’m lukewarm at best on Trump, but this last two weeks he’s kind of been on the ball. His handling of the hurricanes has been decent (and we know that even the progressives think so, because they haven’t yet found something to bitch apoplectically about), he’s addressed DACA, and now Title IX. Which, I have to admit, I think may actually be one of the best things he’s done since assuming office, and I’ll give credit where it’s due.
Better than Gorsuch?
Oooh. You’re right.
*Ron Howard voice*
His handling of the hurricanes was not decent.
Yeah, he talked up his crowd sizes too, he’s a reality show star, it’s what he does. That’s not great, but can you think of something that he as POTUS should have done that he did not in fact do?
Hopefully he will be getting in touch with FIRE very soon if they haven’t contacted him yet.
I wonder where the Assistant Dean got the brilliant idea that a student can violate title IX.
Title IX bans discrimination by universities, and the actions of students can not be imputed onto universities as they are not agents.
Oooh, nice catch. Maybe the dean is insinuating that Zale perhaps got a mail order degree and has become an online university.
That would make this an attempt by the school to restrict commerce and to try to maintain their on-campus education monopoly. Perhaps invoking the Sherman Act would be in order…….
Yes, Bravo, Josh. I am beginning to believe that on college campuses, and probably too many places elsewhere, “social justice” is becoming defined as “unequal protection for the sake of advancement of certain protectors’ authoritarian fantasies of what fulfills equal protection.”
These cases have been making my blood boil for years. I really hope he’s successful.
What a complete failure of leadership on the part of the instructor and the dean. If the instructor was concerned about offensive language he should not have assigned this type of scene as a prompt–it makes no sense for him to blame the student for playing the scene authentically. The student should not be disciplined at all and is right to protest his unfair treatment.
You pass. As I thought you would.
It’s not just the university communities who have gone out of their minds. The ‘progressives”, Hillaryites and their ilk accuse everyone even vaguely conservative to be “neo-Nazi” and anti-American and full of “hate speech.” So it’s free speech as long as it agrees with their own speech, and hate speech — and not allowed — if it differs from theirs. The university campus is now just a liberal center for agit/prop, and those who don’t agree must be “re-acculturated” to liberal/progressive thought. Who’s the totalitarian here?
Apologies for length, but… Wow. Where to begin?
I am not an acting teacher by trade, but I have taught about two dozen sections of various college-level acting courses over the years. I’ve also taught directing maybe 15 times, and I’ve directed about 40 full-length plays (and a bunch of one-acts)—I’ve used improv techniques in the classroom and in rehearsal many times, although perhaps fewer than some of my colleagues of equivalent experience may have done.
It is remotely possible that the professor, Craig Rosen, imposed some restrictions on the exercise. I’ve done this. For example, if a student is working on a period piece and the language is, shall we say, less explicit than that of a work by David Mamet or Neil Labute or Sarah Kane might be, that young actor may be having trouble finding the anger a character feels if the verbal expression of it seems mild by 21st-century standards.
I’m reminded of working on a book chapter about an Irish version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The translator/adapter had Masha, one of the title characters, refer to her sister-in-law as a “bitch.” I happened to have access to a good friend and native Russian speaker, who also happened to be a scholar of dramatic literature. No, she said, Masha’s expletive doesn’t really translate that way… but for her expression of class-driven disgust to have the same effect on a modern audience that Masha’s line would have had in Tsarist Russia, she’d have to call Natasha a “fucking shopkeeper.”
I’ve therefore sometimes staged an improv scene and told an actor he can’t say anything gender- or race-related, or use any of George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television.” If Joshua Zale had been told explicitly that he was not allowed to use, say, “cunt” or “bitch” in his improvised screed, then his doing so would violate the rules of the game. Similarly, it’s sometimes off limits to refer to one’s partner by her real name, especially if such a linkage of actor and character is potentially offensive (e.g., implying that the female student is herself a sex worker). So the “unacceptable word” could be “Heather.” The chances that any such restrictions had in fact been put in place are, of course, slim, but I’ve around long enough to suspect that Mr. Zale’s account of events and reality might conceivably diverge at some crucial junctures.
There are other ways young Mr. Zale may have crossed the proverbial line, but none I can imagine that would precipitate the response he received, even granting that Assistant Dean Kelsay would apparently come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and a barstool.
In all likelihood, of course, Joshua Zale’s description of the incident is substantially accurate and complete, in which case we are faced with a number of very serious problems indeed. First off, literally the first thing taught in any introductory theatre class is that what happens on stage, or indeed in any theatrical performance event, isn’t real. We can dress it up with terms like aesthetic distance, but ultimately the bottom line is that we’re not shocked to see the actor who played Hamlet come out for curtain call even though we just saw “him” die, nor are we surprised to learn that the actor who played Claudius is a really great guy. What Zale did in character is utterly distinct from what he may do in real life.
Several years ago, I had a very talented woman in a Beginning Acting class. I’d told the class if they were uncomfortable with certain kinds of scenes, they should let me know and I’d assign their scenes accordingly. She said nothing, and it happened that the first scene I gave her involved some pretty explicit references to sexuality. She was outstanding in the part. It was only later I learned that she never (literally never) uses that language in her real life. I apologized to her for putting her in that scene. She waved it off: “You gave me the chance to say ‘no.’ I want to be an actress; I’m going to have to decide what I’ll do and what I won’t. Besides, what she says and what I say aren’t the same thing.”
Second, the scenario Zale and his partner were assigned to enact is a really bad choice for an improv scene. A really bad choice, even apart from the likelihood of engendering inappropriate language (assuming that’s a legitimate concern). Even experienced actors or improv-ers, as opposed to those taking a basic acting course at a community college, would be hard-pressed to find anything constructive in such a scene. The temptations to show the audience the relationship instead of allowing them to see it, to play stereotypes rather than three-dimensional characters, and/or simply to play for laughs instead of truth: all these are powerful, and all ultimately subvert the presumed intentions of the exercise. As noted above, I suppose that there may have been some specific instructions in place, but frankly, I doubt it.
Third, the idea that the mystical “unacceptable word,” even if it were spoken by Mr. Zale in his own persona, could not be revealed, is terrifying. Is this a bad re-make of Harry Potter, complete with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Or are we more in First Rule of Fight Club territory? Whatever, I’m beginning to think Kafka was an optimist.
Fourth, Dr. Kelsay has no business anywhere near the liberal arts. She is what every professor fears: an idiot with a degree and no practical experience. If her LinkedIn profile is to be believed, she’s taught only a course or two as an adjunct (and not in the liberal arts), yet somehow has authority over people who actually teach for a living. This happens de jure not infrequently, but generally such non-academics know enough to leave the real decisions about teaching matters to someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about. (Of course, Mr. Rosen hasn’t exactly demonstrated much acumen in these matters, either.) I wish I could say I’m shocked that Dr. Kelsay thinks, as Michael aptly points out, that a student can somehow violate the dictates of Title IX. Alas, such idiocy gets only a sardonic smile from me. Notice also that it is Kelsay, not the female student, whom Zale is accused of “mistreating as a woman.”
It’s unclear if Zale may have uttered the same magic word to Kelsay that he did in character to his scene partner, but the one thing petty administrators cannot stand is to have their self-image as omniscient and infallible beings questioned. It is certainly possible that Zale actually did insult Kelsay with a gender-specific epithet. This is not the right way to go; even if she deserved the vituperation, the expression may have been inappropriate. But the fact that he was in the same room with Kelsay to begin with suggests that something is seriously wrong at Moraine Valley, and that something has little to do with Joshua Zale beyond the fact that his predicament is a symptom of the disease.
I do disagree with one thing Mr. Zale did, however. Passing up the opportunity to write that “what I learned” letter was a mistake, unless he was already under advice of counsel not to comply.
What he learned, after all, is useful information to those who might otherwise have attended a juco which readily abandons its “core values” of integrity, responsibility, and fairness when they conflict with authoritarian and nightmarish visions tangentially related to “respect” and “diversity.” Saying that, and sending a copy of the missive to every media outlet in Chicagoland, would have been a boon to the population at large.
Terrific analysis. Very grateful.
I had a little extra time in my Directing class today, so I talked about this case. The president of our improv troupe happens to be a student in that class. His response: “You’ve got to be a special kind of stupid to assign that scene.” I concur.
I misread the title of the post; thought the Unacceptable Word was “fiasco.”