Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Inoffensiveness and Protection

American colleges are facing a plague of protectionism. I never remember a generation so eager to thought vulnerable and so insistent that the University shield them from harms, from bad events and hurtful ideas alike.

A number of different forces have gotten us here. I think part of it is coming from consumerism and corporatism (we cater too much to our consumers, and universities like Harvard have to deal corporately with other big corporations like the Roman Catholic Church). Part of it is parental over-involvement, but it's not  just parents who are doing the infantilizing.

On the campus sexual assault front, Cathy Young is one of the few people who has the courage to say the obvious:
A far better solution [than Joe Biden's problematic grandstanding] would be to draw a clear line between forced sex (by violence, threats or incapacitation) and unwanted sex due to alcohol-impaired judgment, miscommunication or verbal pressure. For the former, victims should be encouraged to seek real justice: a rapist deserves prison, not expulsion from college. For the latter, the answer is to promote mutual responsible behavior, not female victimhood.
And as she wrote earlier this year on the general subject of protecting women from words,
To demand special protection on the grounds of women’s particular vulnerabilities is to turn female disempowerment into a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
I commented yesterday on the absurd overreaction to the Satanic Mass. It was a silly parody, which the Crimson got in to see at the Hong Kong. (If any of the reporters were converted to Satanism, they don't mention it in their story. though they do take note of the fact that one of the women performers was scantily clad.) 

What a lot of drama about nothing. I am glad that Harvard didn't quite throw the show off campus, but I thought President Faust went over the top in her comments about how dreadful it all was. Was it really any more anti-Christian than, oh, Bill Maher or Tom Lehrer or Richard Dawkins or Voltaire? Suppose we had a stage show or a course about such comics and thinkers and Cardinal O'Malley objected, would the President really get quite so apoplectic about it all?

Mind you, I'm glad she spoke up if that is the way she feels, and I am glad she did not shut the show down. I am just surprised at the strength of her criticism given that she wouldn't say a word to criticize Michael Porter when he disgraced Harvard by taking a bucketload of money from Muammar Gaddafi to deliver a report praising Gaddafi's Libya as a great democracy, and then posted it on his Harvard web site. The Harvard President probably knows a lot more about the example that Harvard faculty set for Harvard students and the world than she does about moral effects of silly religious parodies. 

Now I learn from the New Republic that colleges have started to require "trigger warnings" in course syllabi. That term was originally an Internet term of art for notice to readers of some of the rawer blogs that a rape scene was coming. The idea that sufferers from PTSD as a result of sexual assault deserved to notified, lest they experience a flashback. Blog editors can do what they want -- many make no pretense of being marketplaces of ideas, after all. But now colleges have picked up the practice and generalized it. For example, according to the article, 
Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," to remove triggering material when it doesn't "directly" contribute to learning goals and "strongly consider" developing a policy to make "triggering material" optional. 
A bunch of other examples are given (many of them just student proposals, to be fair, and none of them from Harvard, thank goodness).

Really? The faculty of these places go along with the idea that students should expect to be warned when they are about to hear potentially disturbing ideas? So they can arm their resistance mechanisms against the penetration of ideational challenges they don't want to have to handle rationally?

I always thought that was the whole point of going to college, to hear disturbing ideas. I always thought disturbing ideas were cool, still do. As a profession, are we academics really going to buy into the idea that students need to be protected, not just from being offended, but even from being disturbed?

(I riffed on some related thought in a Morning Prayer homily in 2006.)


  1. Why are schools and society overprotective.
    1) Society is a more dangerous place (but see point 2)
    2) The constant 24-hour news and faux news make us THINK the world is a more dangerous place, but its not (Teen preg and Teen abortions are both DOWN in recent years).
    3) Parents have far less kids. When they had 5 kids it was okay to lose one, but now that people have one or maybe two, its more traumatic to lose one.

  2. related issue: Students and even faculty objecting to having
    hearing someone they disagree with as a commencement speaker:

    Christine Lagarde withdraws from being Smith's 2014 commencement speaker
    in the wake of anti-IMF protests from faculty and students:

    How stupid this is:

    How stupid the trend is:

    Condoizza Rice withdraws fro speaking at Rutgers (the article is from before the actual withdrawal).
    Here is was the FACULTY who objected, though I suspect students did also.


    1. Yes, I mentioned the Lagarde nonsense in the previous post.

      The argument for the protesters is given in the Chronicle. It is basically that they don't want to listen because there is no dialog. Of course by that standard they should not have to read books whose authors they cannot interrogate. Pretty unconvincing and narcissistic even, but arguably the best case for a rationale.