You may have heard that Harvard recently withdrew their offer of admission to 10 students, because the kids traded offensive memes in a private Facebook messaging group for incoming freshmen. According to the Harvard Crimson, the memes in question were racially charged, explicit, and in some cases involved “mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children.” Which frankly sounds par for the course when it comes to elite college students, or even the average round of Cards Against Humanity.
In the immortal words of the late, great Chef of South Park: “There is a time and a place for everything — and it’s called College.”
College is great for a lot of things. An education, obviously. But that isn’t the entirety of what college provides. It’s the first chance most kids have to be out on their own, away from their families and living with a diverse group of strangers. People who are their own age but come from different places, economic situations, ethnicities, religions, sexualities and gender identities — all sharing the same dining hall and standard-issue dorm furniture. And if we’re being honest, one of the ways people tend to deal with scary newness is to find a way to laugh at it — and people to laugh with. People who won’t judge you for saying some really terrible shit in an effort to grapple with the intricacies of the complex issues you’re trying to wrap your head around. in other words: friends.
Only these kids weren’t in college yet. They hadn’t even gotten to college orientation. In all likelihood they are days away from graduating high school right about now. They should be wide-eyed innocents about to have their minds blown by debauchery for the first time. Yet these 10 kids have already achieved what most students spend their whole college career working towards: being tasteless assholes.
So really, what do they need Harvard for? They already know how to be offensive. What they need to learn is the ins and outs of being offensive, particularly online. Really, getting their college acceptance rescinded was the best lesson Harvard could teach them, and it won’t cost them four years of tuition!
Now they know that “private” isn’t really private online, especially if you don’t personally know the group of people you’re talking to. All it takes is one person to take offense and share it publicly (or, say, with Harvard admissions). Look, Facebook was literally invented while I was in college. Those were the days when only a handful of schools even had access to what was then known as “thefacebook.com” and it was primarily used to share drunk pics from the weekend and/or find other students in your classes so you could skip and still get the homework assignments. It certainly wasn’t a place where parents, bosses, college administrators or even impressionable children you’d never met could see you what you posted. In a way, I learned about the internet by having to grow up with Facebook. As it expanded, I had to rethink how I presented myself online. Even when you think things are private or you’ve covered your tracks, you are still leaving a paper trail (just look at New Hampshire representative Robert Fisher, who was recently revealed as the creator and moderator of the misogynistic Reddit forum called The Red Pill). So maybe make your dead baby jokes in person, with a small group of confidants and in a setting where no one will overhear you. Like Cards Against Humanity played in a cabin in the woods with no wifi.
They have also learned that humor doesn’t always translate online. Somebody, somewhere will get offended by anything you say — and that is only magnified when you are actually trying to be offensive. Of course you don’t think anyone would believe that you’re a Nazi sympathizer just because you cracked a Holocaust joke … and you would be wrong. The world is a great big place full of people who really do believe some scary, terrible things — and they are on the internet too. So how can a stranger who doesn’t know you personally know that you don’t really believe what you’re saying? You should know your audience when you make a joke, but they also need to know you in order to know how to perceive it. Just remember the tale of poor Justine Sacco and her AIDS joke heard ‘round the Twittersphere.
These kids were part of the 5.2 percent of applicants that Harvard accepted this year. They clearly have something going for them, and will probably be fine in the long run. If nothing else they can write a book about this experience and then turn it into a TED talk in a few years. And I don’t for a second believe that they are all “bad kids” just because they shared some truly tasteless memes. I bet I would have laughed at some of them, if no one was around to hear me (and I’m sure I’ve said worse things in my time). In fact, I tend to think there is value to being an asshole at least some of the time. But context is key, and the trick to being a successful asshole is to know when and how to be one. These kids just got a free Ivy League lesson in the matter.