- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

Amid occasional storms of political correctness, I have consistently held straight (as in nonhomosexual) white males (sometimes known as SWMs) deserve respect, too.

After all, we may have come here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now, as the late great civil rights leader Whitney Young used to say. Sometimes we need to pick up our oars and give each other some elbow room so we can keep rowing together.

So, with that in mind, I registered no small alarm to hear a young SWM at the University of North Carolina has been illegally subjected to “intentional discrimination and harassment,” the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights ruled, because he was “a white, heterosexual Christian male” who expressed disapproval of homosexuality.

In a letter to the university chancellor on Sept. 22, the civil rights office ruled Professor Elyse Crystall violated student Timothy R. Mertes’ civil rights last February by improperly accusing him of “hate speech” in an e-mail sent to students after a class discussion on “Literature and Cultural Diversity.”

During a discussion on whether heterosexuals feel “threatened” by homosexuals, Mr. Mertes said he was a Christian and felt “disgusted, not threatened” by homosexual behavior.

“What we heard Thursday at the end of class constitutes ‘hate speech’ and is completely unacceptable. It has created a hostile environment,” the teacher wrote. She also referred to the student as “a white, heterosexual, Christian male” who “can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable.”

My attempts to reach Ms. Crystall, who spokesmen say still works for the university, were not successful. But, based on official accounts, it seems her mistake was to wait until after class to critique Mr. Mertes’ views by e-mail instead of airing the discussion in class.

As Rep. Walter B. Jones, the North Carolina Republican who requested the civil rights probe, said, “If you don’t have that right [to express yourself] in a collegiate classroom, what rights do you have?” Instead, Mr. Jones said, the young man became the target of personal threats and vandalism to his car.

I don’t agree with Mr. Mertes’ views. I think the sex lives of consenting adults are their own business, as long as they don’t do it in public or frighten the livestock. But if he can’t express his sincerely held views in a class on “cultural diversity,” I wonder, where can he say it?

Would you rather have him saying it only amid the circles of those who agree with him? Or do you want the opportunity for his views to be heard and challenged openly in a free intellectual exchange, during which ideas have a proper chance to compete on their own strengths or virtues?

Having taught college classes during which we discussed racism, sexism or homophobia mostly in the abstract, I would have welcomed the opportunity to have a genuine outspoken racist, sexist or homophobe in the room to air out what so many other people keep to themselves, as long as we can keep the discussion civil. No cursing, crying or throwing dangerous objects at one another.

As the corporate world has discovered, the world and the workplace are becoming increasingly diverse. That puts a new premium on learning how to work and live with people who may be quite unlike ourselves in many ways. The campus is an excellent place to learn how to get past the few things about us that are different so we can focus on the many things we have in common.

Happily, the North Carolina case has been resolved in a way that enables all parties to claim a victory. Alice B. Wender, the Education Department’s Southern regional director of civil rights, said in her letter to UNC Chancellor James Moeser last week that the teacher improperly targeted the student for a charge of “hate speech” because he is “white and male”; but no penalty or further action was necessary. Ms. Crystall apologized, the student received a high grade and the university convened faculty workshops to discourage discrimination against white, male, Christian undergraduates.

Little local stories like this one reveal a lot about big cultural shifts in the country. One of the more troubling trends has been the seemingly open-ended way some lecturers and administrators define certain forms of speech or assembly as “discriminatory.”

As an African-American male, I appreciate the concern universities have to prevent unfair discrimination, but I don’t want to be protected from ideas. Experience has taught me that, if you’re nervous about your ideas, you probably need to re-examine them and come up with better arguments.

After all, you can come up with better arguments by confronting those with whom you disagree than you can by trying to silence them.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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