Abhorrent Speech Should Be Called Out As Such

Ian Mitroff
3 min readMay 16, 2024

I’m publishing this series of articles to share and discuss my ruminations on coping with a troubled and messy world. You can “follow” me to never miss an article.

Two Op-Eds in The New York Times couldn’t be more at odds with regard to the case of the three Ivy League Presidents of Harvard, M.I.T, and the University of Pennsylvania[i].

To quote from Maureen Dowd, the writer of the first Op-Ed:

“On Tuesday, the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T., and the University of Pennsylvania put on a pathetic display on Capitol Hill when they were asked if calling for the genocide against Jews counted as harassment.

“It depends, they all said. Penn’s Elizabeth Magill offered a chilling bit of legalese. ‘It is a Context-dependent decision,’ she told Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from upstate New York.

“Not since Bill Clinton was asked about having sex with Monica Lewinsky and replied ‘It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is, has there been such parsing.”

In short, Ms. Dowd faulted the three Presidents for equivocating and not answering decisively that Anti-Semitism is absolutely Abhorrent and should not be tolerated.

In contrast, Ms. Goldberg noted that President Claudine Gay said that she found Abhorrent the use of the term “Intifada” by Harvard students when they called for violent armed resistance against the State of Israel. The difference is that she said that action would only be taken when Speech crosses over the line to direct conduct.

Nonetheless, as Ms. Goldberg notes, what makes things difficult is the fact that Universities have not been consistent — and therefore have not upheld a consistent standard — regarding Free Speech. Thus, where some have been tolerant of support for and against Palestinians, others have not. The same goes for Israelis.

In this way, it’s allowed Hate Speech to proliferate. While the need for consistent standards regarding Abhorrent Speech are needed more than ever, today’s climate makes it more unlikely that it will result.

In the end, I have no clear answer. I find more and more Speech absolutely Abhorrent. At the same time, I affirm the First Amendment all the more. Thus, while such Speech may be protected, I see no reason why it cannot be labelled Abhorrent.

[i] Maureen Dowd, “The Ivy League Flunks Out,” The New York Times, Sunday, December 10, 2023, P SR 2; Michelle Goldberg, “University Presidents Walked Into a Trap,” The New York Times, Sunday, December 10, 2023, P SR 5.

Ian I. Mitroff is credited as being one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management. He has a BS, MS, and a PhD in Engineering and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley. He Is Professor Emeritus from the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Currently, he is a Senior Research Affiliate in the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, UC Berkeley. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Management. He has published 41 books. His latest is: The Socially Responsible Organization: Lessons from Covid, Springer, New York, 2022.

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