On November 30, comedian Nimesh Patel was kicked off stage at Columbia University, after students deemed his material to be too offensive for their taste. Mr. Patel paraphrases his joke in an op-ed for the New York Times as such:
“I open by saying I live in Hell’s Kitchen, a diverse area in New York populated by, among others, gay black men who are not shy about telling me they don’t approve of what I’m wearing. I try to learn things from everyone I encounter, and one day I realize oh, this is how you know being gay can’t be a choice — no one would choose to be gay if they’re already black. No one is doubling down on hardship. Then I say, no black dude wakes up and thinks that being a black man in America is too easy. No black dude says, ‘I’m going to put on a Madonna halter top and some Jordans and make an Indian dude real uncomfortable.’ That’s not a choice.”
After telling this joke, Columbia University students cut Patel’s mic, and asked him to leave the stage with thirty minutes remaining in his set. Whether or not you find Patel’s joke funny or insightful, it was unequivocally wrong for Columbia students to remove him from stage, and it represents an alarming trend in comedy on college campuses across the country.
What in Patel’s joke was “offensive”? Indeed, the very premise of the joke is addressing a common homophobic claim that being gay is a choice, and that it is a categorically wrong choice at that. Patel, himself a person of color, further comments on the hardships that accompany being black in America, a reality that some Americans deny exists today. In this joke, Patel takes on racial discrimination and homophobia, and gives a defense of the LGBTQ+ community in a manner that is lighthearted, non-confrontational, and perhaps even persuasive.
In doing so, Patel fulfills the real purpose of comedy. Comedy exists to push boundaries, to make traditionally uncomfortable topics accessible to large groups of people. Comedy is supposed to be method by which we can hold up a mirror to an often ugly society and find a way to exist happily within it.
The Columbia students who shut down Mr. Patel refuse to see that reality. It is not enough to take on issues of race and sexuality through humor. It is not enough to use humor to simplify a situation in order to persuade people to reconsider their prior opinions. I would venture to guess that the students who shut down Mr. Patel would fit in with the thirty-seven percent of students across the country who believe that shouting down a speaker with which they disagree is acceptable.
For these students, nothing but absolute, explicit condemnation of the conditions of race and sexuality in the United States would be acceptable. In their minds, we should not try to persuade racists and homophobes that they are wrong in their positions by any means necessary. Instead, we should condemn them, cast them out, and fuel the vitriol of their hateful positions.
What happened to Mr. Patel at Columbia is just one incident in an alarming trend of students denying the right to be heard to people with which they disagree, especially at elite universities. I have witnessed it first hand at my school, Harvard University. When Charles Murray came to campus, the event was scheduled with the intent of allowing students to interrogate Murray’s controversial positions. Instead, he was met with crowds of angry protestors, accusing him of being a white supremacist whose work was built on that of Nazi scientists. This demonstration delayed the event, cutting the time remaining for questions and meaningful discourse at the end of the presentation in half. Instead of arguing against Murray’s positions, they chose an easier course of action: silencing them.
The same happened at Harvard with a far less controversial speaker: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. When DeVos came for a speaking engagement at Harvard, students interrupted her speech by holding large signs accusing her of “white supremacy” and raising their fists.
Universities exist to allow students to push their boundaries, and the best way to do that is through totally free speech. Comedy amplifies the power of speech by uniting people under a comfortable umbrella of the shared experience of humor, even though individual experiences vary so widely.
As a college student, watching my university and schools across the country continuously refuse to uphold speech rights on campus is troubling. By refusing to uphold the right to express unpopular opinions, universities are teaching students that it is acceptable to silence people with which they do not agree. Harvard’s mission is to, “Educate the future citizens and citizen-leaders of the world.” If our future leaders are being shown that it is acceptable to silence speech with which they disagree, I am deeply concerned for the future of speech rights in general.