There is a crisis at Princeton University. This Sunday, the rapper Big Sean is scheduled to perform at one of those school events where bored underclassmen gather to watch a semi-famous musician they don’t actually like that much. This bit of the college experience should be numbingly routine, but instead it’s making a bunch of people at the school lose their minds.
In early April, two Princeton students—Rebecca Basaluda and a particularly opportunistic chap named Duncan Hosie—began circulating a petition in protest of Big Sean’s performance. Here is a summary of their grievances from the petition:
USG [Undergraduate Student Government] Should stop promoting rape culture and misogyny by rescinding the offer to Big Sean to headline Lawnparties Spring ‘15. In the future, USG should strive to bring non-misogynistic acts to campus
Big Sean is one of the most openly harmless rappers in recent memory. He is not a groundbreaking artist. He is a dumb goofball who dated Ariana Grande. He’s a typical rapper in that, among other things, he raps about sex and women in terms he likely wouldn’t use in front of his mother. This misogyny is a problem, but it’s one that rap music and its fans—female ones especially—are constantly discussing and policing.
Most people who listen to rap music learn how to navigate around, and within, the misogyny and homophobia that seep into so many tracks. The people who used to want to ban rap didn’t understand it, and some 20 years later, the people who want to ban rap nowadays don’t either. Those people are Bill O’Reilly, basically, plus assorted racists who think that every single black rapper is dangerous, and apparently, hundreds of young people on the campus of Princeton University.
It’s a bit distressing that our most active and ambitious young people (Hosie, one of the lead organizers against Big Sean’s performance, has appeared on MSNBC and blogs for Huffington Post) think that they can—and, worse, should—just protest away every little thing they dislike. That sounds like a terrible, suffocating and unsustainable future—especially if it’s a future built on fallacies like the one Hosie told The New York Times:
“His language provides the ideological basis for gender-based violence against women,” said Duncan Hosie, 21, a junior from Belvedere, Calif., who created the petition with Ms. Basaldua.
In justifying an attempt to disinvite a rapper from performing at his school, Hosie has, under the guise of progressivism, aligned himself ideologically with people who think video games and death metal cause school shootings. It’s a very anti-intellectual stance, but hey, it’s Princeton.
Hosie, Basaluda and those who have signed their petition aren’t the only people at Princeton flying off the handle over Big Sean. The night before the Big Sean petition was started, a group of white Princeton swimmers and divers performed at a school dance competition under the name “Urban Congo.” As Urban Congo, which was recognized last year by the school as an official organization, the men dressed up in crude loincloths, painted their bodies and faces, and banged arrhythmically on buckets.
Here is one of their performances:
A bunch of waspy schmucks mocking some vague notion of African people is something worth calling out, and plenty of people did, to the point that the group quickly disbanded. This is fine—there’s no harm to free speech in telling white airheads reveling in quasi-blackface to go away. But the ensuing fallout was equally as absurd as the Big Sean petition it predated.
Perhaps sensing a moment on his campus in the twin uprisings against Big Sean and Urban Congo, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber sent an email to students addressing the controversies. Here is how the email was summarized by the Times:
The controversies prompted an email to the entire campus from the university’s president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, in which he referred to Urban Congo as “offensive” and to Big Sean’s lyrics as “vile and demeaning.” But he also denounced the vitriol of the debates, especially online, and invited the campus community to “come together in a fuller, more human, and more personal way” at a gathering at Princeton’s chapel.
Even ignoring the call to “come together” at a place of religious worship, the main point of this email—that Urban Congo and Big Sean have fractured Princeton equally, and that fracture must be repaired—is pragmatic in a way that only a Democrat who sincerely adores his Republicans colleagues could love. A historically racist caricature and rap music do not carry the same weight, and do not have an impact on society in the same way. Conflating them is lazy—a perfect stance for a college president looking to please everyone at once.
This exact point was made by another group at Princeton, called the Black Justice League, though they, too, proved to be far from perfect. Here is the Times describing the scene at President Eisgruber’s chapel gathering:
But the tension was manifest at the gathering, too, which was held on April 12. When Mr. Eisgruber began to speak, about 20 students stood up and turned their backs to him. The protest was organized by an activist group on campus, the Black Justice League, which said that Mr. Eisgruber’s email inappropriately conflated the two debates and should have been more forceful in condemning Urban Congo. They left the chapel chanting “Hate speech is not free speech.”
When weighing how to voice their opposition to their school’s president conflating Urban Congo with Big Sean, this activist group itself conflated a poor logical argument about school performances with something actually worth staging a real, live protest against.
College, of course, is a place where kids get to exercise their impulses, so that when they enter the real world they have, say, exhausted their desires to argue for hours about Nietzsche. But what if the desire to petition and protest every last thing is no longer exhausted in college, but strengthened?
Chait’s anti-PC jack sesh from earlier this year was needlessly pathetic and ultimately self-defeating, but it’s hard not to see Princeton’s ongoing saga involving Big Sean—who is undeserving of being a free speech martyr—as a symptom of the ills Chait diagnosed, especially as it pertains to college campuses.
Hope, though, is not completely lost. At the end of the Times article, writer and Princeton student Spencer Parts quotes a junior named Kyle on his thoughts about the Big Sean performance.
“You don’t get the opportunity to challenge these things all the time,” Mr. Dhillon said, but he still wanted to see the rapper perform. “I’ll probably still go see him,” he said, “just because I do like listening to his music.”
[image via Getty]