Crime and Race in Marquette Philosophy Class: Student Defends Cops, Forced to “Apologize”
Exactly what happened last Thursday in Marquette’s Philosophy 151 (“History and Philosophy of Crime and Punishment”) class: the professor (one Nancy Snow) “suggested” that he apologize. Coming from an authority figure who has the power to determine your grade, such a “suggestion” is more than just a casual piece of advice.
The whole exchange got started with a class discussion of supposed “over criminalization,” the notion that government outlaws too many things, resulting in a lack of respect for the law. It then moved to a discussion of how police supposedly abuse their powers, using traffic laws as a “pretext” to stop drivers in order to, for example, search for drugs.
At this point the student, Greg Karge, chimed in to point out that police often bear the brunt of this disrespect for the law, mentioning an incident he had seen. An Hispanic who was pulled over proceeded to abuse the cops, calling them “racist.”
In spite of the fact that race was explicitly part of the context of the discussion, Snow objected to the mention of the driver’s ethnicity trying to, according to Karge, “stop me in the middle of my comment, trying to give me a wave” and then saying “why did you bring that up?” Another student remembers Snow saying “Greg, this is offensive, we have a diverse group in the room.” Another student said of Snow’s response “it surprised me because I personally didn’t find his response offensive.”
Karge also pointed out that “if you are polite and respectful to cops they are likely to cut you a break,” the implication being that truculent attitudes of many minorities are part of the problem. He also defended using traffic laws to stop people who are suspected of carrying drugs, saying there is “no other way.”
A vigorous discussion ensued. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a vigorous discussion, but a large part of it involved Karge being berated by a handful of liberal students who were “offended.” Two of the blacks in class complained about how they had been stopped because of their race (although they had not been asked to get out of their cars, had not been ticketed and their cars had not been searched). A liberal student told Karge “you have no right to look at something from one side,” a hugely ironic statement, given that the class had been looking at the issue only from the side of aggrieved minorities.
After class Snow took Karge aside and told him that his comments “could have been interpreted as offensive,” mentioning especially offense to black students. She “suggested” to him that he should write an apology to the black students. Instead, he wrote the apology to the entire class. It read as follows:
I would just like to apologize for any of my comments that I said today that may have offended anyone, that was not my intention by any means. I did not articulate my argument the way that I wanted to, but that is no excuse if I did accidentally offend anyone I would like to explain myself [and] deeply apologize.It is obvious from several accounts of the incident that Karge articulated his position in a perfectly reasonable way, but then caved to pressure from the professor. A student in the class told us “Since Greg wants to be a police officer one day, he’s been working closely with other officers. He was simply relaying these experiences to us in class, and telling us what he saw and heard during these experiences.”
In the wake of this apology, two students from the class e-mailed him to insist that he had nothing for which to apologize. Other students, responding to our e-mails, said they saw nothing offensive in his comments, one saying “I personally didn’t consider the comments offensive. I could possibly see that some might be offended at the example he chose, but the point he was trying to convey is what I was focusing on.” And another: “From my perspective, when Greg was called upon, he was explaining that it is not as though the police officers are the bad guys, but that they are only doing their jobs.”
Thus looking at police/community relations from a “minority” point of view is perfectly alright, but looking at it from a cop’s point of view is not. And saying that minorities often show hostility toward the cops is also out of bounds. As another student in the class put it:
Everything that Greg said could be considered an observation. He mentioned something about how he had tended to see more African Americans and other minorities with a distaste for police officers. This directly correlated to what Husak, the author we are reading, mentioned in his article in terms of the cycle of overcriminalization. For some reason when Husak said it, this statement was not offensive, but when Greg said it the class overreacted a lot.
While Snow’s response was not appropriate, it is obvious that a small handful of liberal students has, in this class at least, been able to stifle discussion. Any politically incorrect comments are met with moans, tapping of pencils and ostentatious disrespect. It is not clear to us that liberal students are in the majority, but there are enough to chill viewpoints they don’t like.
Karge told us that, when the notion of “driving while black” came up in class, “I thought about going against that, but dropped the idea, knowing where it would go.” And further he has “talked to students who have said they don’t raise issues that are controversial, because they know they will be shouted down.”
Another student said the class has a “very liberal air,” and that “anybody who feels otherwise is jumped on immediately.”
Students, for example, are required to read a “fact sheet” from the liberal Death Penalty Information Center which is rife with inaccuracies and slanted data -- for example, the claim that over 120 people have gotten off death row because of evidence of their innocence. In reality, only a minority of people on the list have gotten off because of actual evidence of innocence, as opposed to procedural issues. A clear majority actually committed the murders for which they were sentenced.
Professor Snow failed to respond to two e-mails and one voice mail asking for an interview.
It is important not to overstate this issue, since a fair number of students simply don’t want to get into any controversy, and don’t say things that other students or the professor might disagree with. This is doubtless true of our own classes, and of pretty much any class that debates controversial issues.
But the professor does play a key role. He or she can send the message that differing viewpoints are acceptable – even if they meet with vigorous disagreement – or, on the other hand, that “offensive” views (meaning conservative views) are to be avoided.
Too many professors – especially in the humanities and in education – do the latter. Pressuring a student to apologize for perfectly reasonable comments sends a strong message of politically correct intolerance.