Harvey Mudd College hosted local, Los Angeles-based comedian Allan Cunningham Feb. 4 for the weekly Wednesday Nighter. The Wednesday Nighter is meant to be a break from the perpetual study grind that consumes most Mudders. Past events have included DUCK improv comedy shows, the 5C ballroom dance team, and a number of student talent showcases. On this particular Wednesday night the crowd was much larger than usual, and everyone had come out expecting to get a good laugh. Unfortunately, the night of comedy did not go as planned.
The comedian was clearly struggling to get started, opening the show by just talking to the audience for a little bit and making a joke about how ugly the curtains in Platt were. After bumbling for a few more minutes, he announced to the crowd that he was having trouble transitioning into a set because the college had asked him to keep his act clean. He then proceeded into the set of jokes that he had prepared for the night. After around 15 minutes, a student who was offended by some of the material interrupted him. The comedian then got into an argument with this student and, subsequently, was asked to leave by a proctor.
Afterward, the student body received an email from members of the DOS staff apologizing for exposing the students present at the Wednesday Nighter to the “upsetting and offensive” ideas in the act. Dorm proctors also sent out emails to encourage those who found the jokes offensive to come talk to them and to reassure their dorm mates that these ideas have no place at Harvey Mudd College.
The incident as a whole sparked a discussion across campus about whether Mudd should be sheltering its students from ideas that may be offensive to certain groups. As time went on, the discussion developed into the wider question of whether or not Mudd, and the rest of the Claremont Colleges, should be sheltering students from ideas that might be offensive.
The reality is that these offensive ideas do exist, and there is a high probability that all of the students at the Claremont Colleges will run into them at some point during their lives and professional careers. College is a place where students are supposed to expose themselves to as many different ideas as possible so that they can create their own set of beliefs, not just inherit that of their parents. When colleges regulate the viewpoints that are allowed on campus, they begin to mold beliefs for their students, rather than allowing each individual to form their own. Some might argue that everyone having the same belief set is a good thing, but, to me, that sounds like the foundation of an Orwellian society. So, while I do not believe that the colleges should be seeking out and intentionally exposing their students to offensive ideas, they should not shelter students from these beliefs either.
The idea that “offensive” beliefs are not welcome on campus is a troubling notion when it relates to free speech. The fact that each of the Claremont Colleges promotes diversity within their campuses means that admitted students will inevitably bring with them a wide variety of upbringings and core values that might be offensive to other students. This is just a fact of life, regardless of what side of the political spectrum one sits on; we cannot all agree on everything. So, if “offensive” ideas are not allowed on the campuses, what are we to do about beliefs that might offend other students? Even the most progressive of student have beliefs that others students, particularly those on the other end of the political spectrum, will find offensive. The worrying thing is that, with the kind of thinking presented in the emails Mudd students received after this incident, it seems as if the PC culture on campus is trying to prevent any ideas that might be offensive to other students from being brought up. Is a PC culture this strict worth limiting free speech on campus?
I can only guess that, after this debacle, it will be a substantial amount of time before Mudd brings another professional comedian to its campus. In the meantime, we should ask ourselves if being sheltered from outside ideas is actually the best thing for our development into life after university.