Seventh and final in the IMTE series
A reflection on October 6, “I’m Mad, too, Eddie,” (IMTE) claimed that minority points of view are swept under the rug and labeled as intolerant. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking at Harvard’s commencement, was correct when he said U.S. higher education is becoming dangerously narrow-minded. Contravening perspective relative to the status quo is frowned upon. This reflection is not about “political correctness,” an overused, misunderstood, and meaningless phrase that is bantered about to demean any view with which an individual or group disagrees.
Jonathan Last writes thoughtfully in The Weekly Standard on the changing nature of virtues in our nation and the impact these changes have on how we see the world, or at least how we say we see the world. Last makes a compelling example regarding smoking and sex. While it is acceptable — according to “modern” virtue — to treat smokers as lepers, the idea of suggesting that indiscriminate sex likewise has a negative impact on human physical and emotional health is relegated to citizens of the Cretaceous epoch. On the one hand the individual who detests smoking is current, proper, and virtuous. On the other hand, if that same person rejects casual one night sexual “hookups,” fueled by instantaneous gratification, and too frequently alcohol and/or recreational drugs, or sexual relations outside the bond of marriage, they would be branded as stupid, uncaring, and Neanderthal. On a good day.
Universities, to the diminishment of their effectiveness as reflective social forces, have become institutions prone to eye-rolling responses to diverse points of view. Harvey C. Mansfield of the Heritage Foundation provides thoughtful discussion on the issue and encourages caution of quick-draw, shoot-from-the-hip responses to complex issues. And apart from proclamations from the Ivory Tower, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers know that no educational opportunity is “value-free.” Some within the ivy covered walls believe freedom from values is the benchmark of university life. They are wrong.
Some points of view are just not welcome. And these unwelcome perspectives come from different locations on the spectrums of insight, knowledge, culture and morality. But, because virtuousness is determined by committees, standards are in flux. Committees take votes and the view that rises to acceptability is the one that causes the least grief. This falls short and transforms public morality into thresholds of acceptability. Different targets I fear.
The newest approaches to dealing with sensitive issues are “trigger warnings” to presage potential offenses to unwary audiences, like MPAA ratings for movies. While dean at a major college of architecture I issued a “trigger warning” regarding a gallery exhibit over 20 years ago. The show exhibited pencil drawings of acts of homosexual acts that many people found frightening for the content, but beyond that for the darkness and intensity of the presentations. A custodial worker asked me if she could be freed from cleaning the gallery as the images were so intense and disconcerting (she said “disgusting”) she did not want to see them. Said she, “I am having nightmares.” I told custodial service not to ask anyone offended by the exhibit to clean the gallery. They could find no one willing to do it.
I wanted to remove the exhibit. It was offensive to many beyond the janitorial staff. The Office of General Counsel said I could close the exhibit, but I would likely have to reopen it after a protracted public discussion. The attorneys suggested I post a “trigger warning” (they did not call it that) outside the exhibit hall. I acquiesced, fueled by fear of standing up for a value system that would be wantonly misconstrued by many. Even the faculty whose protégés produced the exhibited work were concerned and believed fair warning was appropriate.
It is possible to walk on the knife’s edge of personally held values and free public expression, but it is, nonetheless, a knife’s edge. What made the knife’s edge navigable was not a bureaucracy or a set of rules but thoughtful people trying to understand how to solve a difficult problem in a complex and changing world. In the end, I expressed my thoughts, representing many others, and the artists expressed their views through the work. A set of rules or a committee would not have achieved a desirable outcome. The commentary about “trigger warnings” suggests every work of fiction ever written would need a caveat, most especially so if the work had any value: Any idea worth its salt is offensive to some. Pick the offender: Auclert, Tolstoy, King, Dickens, Laozi, Shakespeare, and Christ are a few examples.
Jonathan Last points out seven “modern” cardinal virtues: freedom, convenience, progress, equality, authenticity, health, and the grandparent of them all, nonjudgmentalism. By comparison, and in contrast, Christianity’s traditional virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility seem antiquated. The primary difference between the two sets is simply summed up in Hindu philosophy: Virtue cannot be imposed or external, but is attained and lived up to by each individual, as an internal commitment. Interestingly, this is the foundation of Christian practice.
Universities are masters of their own fate and would do well to espouse and act on the fact that people are too. No two the same. Hide-and-seek with committees, rules, and processes obfuscate moral responsibility and diminish rather than define it.