I really doubt that Ryan Mucaj and Jarred Karal are “campus thugs,” but I have never met either boy and am basing my judgment on the fact that thugs constitute a very small percentage of human beings, and finding two of them together would be unusual. (To be fair, as a counterargument, some might say they attract each other and roam in pairs. You decide.)
Mucaj and Karak of course are the two young men arrested and charged with ridiculing on the UConn campus. They claim to have been playing a game in which they shout vulgar words. It’s a game enjoyed by almost everyone driving to Hartford on I-84 these days, so I understand the principle. But for some reason (they ran out of vulgarities? don't they read Shakespeare?) they decided that racial epithets would be just as entertaining, and they began to intersperse some of those also.
I took the story at face value for a number of days and found it pretty disturbing. Yesterday I saw the actual video: the two young men weren't shouting and their words were not really directed at anyone. In fact, these miscreants more closely resembled young children who learned some dirty words and tested the adults around them by sprinkling them into the conversation: “Good effin’ tater tots mom,” or “hurry up or we'll be late for effin' church.”
It’s dumb. It's crude. It’s tasteless. It’s immature. But I'm not sure if it's ridiculing. It certainly doesn't rise to the level of the Onion or SNL. And as for the words themselves, if someone were to play loudly a song which liberally used the n-word and the song was not directed at anyone, would that also comprise ridiculing? Or is that free expression? I’m not conflating the crude behavior of two young men with the artistry of a musician, but some might. Then what? Arrest?
Here’s a solution—let’s evade the result and go back to a basic factor—go all the way back, at least a century, and figure out the point of college. If it’s genuinely an institute of higher learning, then by its very nature it would have weeded out people too immature to enter. But that’s not college today. In 2019 college is where everyone goes after high school. And it’s huge business. Let's say for instance a college or university admits 500 freshmen and charges them each $50,000 each,. That’s $25 million—per year—per class. What does that buy? More dorms, more classroom buildings, more field houses and spas and game rooms and lounges and manicured grounds. Yes, the higher learning exists in libraries and labs, but it has been undercut by gloss and glitz. If colleges will always be a numbers game, then kids who act immaturely, who say stupid things, who embarrass the school, their families, and themselves will always be part of the mix.
I don't know if you can arrest them all. I also don't believe that higher education, as it has come to be known, will undergo any rapid changes. And so it's back to the result: Mucaj and Karal
It might be true that these two young men, and others like them, feel no animus toward anyone. They may have black friends, Jewish friends, gay friends, Muslim friends. They may be respectful toward women and work to place rescue animals. But maybe that night they had a few beers and let their brains lose control of their mouths. Or they were just being goofy kids. Because they weren’t shouting, they probably knew they were wrong. If they did know, let's sow that seed of conscience and grow it into something: a university of educators should be capable of effecting that. (And if this becomes, in the end, nothing more than a First Amendment argument, then we lose that chance.)
Many of the people of color who were offended the most seem philosophical too. It happens. No on wants it to, but it does. And it hurts. They know the difference between the questionable behavior of Mucaj and Karal and the murderous act of a racist bigot James Alex Fields, Jr. who ran down Heather Heyer in Charlottesville two years ago. After Fields' sentencing, Heather's mother said this, "I never wish for the death penalty and still don't. I would like to see him change in time from a white supremacist to someone who helps bring others away from white supremacy."
James Alex Fields has been sentenced to serve 419 years in prison, so his opportunities to do good are limited. But for the rest of us, including the two young men at UConn, there's still time. We can argue the merits of a law against ridiculing, or adopt some zero-tolerance policy that is doomed from the start—or we can do our best to make sure that these two men know why we're upset. They may very well themselves be mortified—may very well jump at the chance to make amends. They'll be under the microscope anyway—let's see how they do with another chance.