Can a coffee cup change the world?

Isn’t it astounding just how intolerant our celebrated societal tolerance has become, particularly across colleges and universities? In a society where tolerance has come to mean acquiescence and bland generic acceptance, we’ve discovered now that even a coffee cup can be offensive. The absurdity of it is that if the cup had said “happy holidays,” our Christian friends–presumably the most tolerant of all–would be offended by the removal of “Christ” in Christmas. If the cup had a nativity scene on it, complete with three Wise Men and a Virgin, our secular friends would be offended by the idea of sipping their double-mocha venti (with skim milk) out of a paper cup with blatant Christian symbolism on it. One can hear Kurtz’s voice echoing from somewhere deep within the Amazon: “The horror, the horror!”

From Harvard, we’ve learned that university students really should be sensitive in their selection of Halloween costumes, and if there are any questions about what such sensitivity may entail, one is invited to check with the university’s “Diversity Office,” which I imagine as a sort of Dickensian Chancery Court, right out of “Bleak House,” where a robed and wigged justice intones: “This one…not that.” We also learned in the barrage of emails that became public, to challenge such an idea, to engage in an intelligent, intellectual, civil debate, is not to be tolerated, as villagers-in the guise of students–stormed yet another castle attempting to kill the monster. According to “The Harvard Law Review,” fascism is alive, well, and perhaps thriving at Harvard.

Amazingly, student groups were once bastions of tolerance and intellectual debate, now “interdisciplinary studies” has had the unintended effect of making students cultural anthropologists with an ideological point of view. This has played out recently at the University of Missouri. Now, students demand protection from words and ideas that frighten them; prompting university professors to post “trigger warnings” before discussing a topic or a work. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” while a lengthy piece, presents a brilliant discussion of these warnings, and their potential harm to students.

Then, of course, there’s what euphemistically referred to as “political dialogue,” and the assertion by those on the right, that colleges and universities are fortresses of an enlightened liberalism where conservative students are bullied into adopting a Democratic point of view, to say nothing of the (presumably and) predictably corrupt and damnable liberal social thought of professors, who by and large are viewed as a class of people who couldn’t find employment anywhere else. To paraphrase presidential candidate Marco Rubio, “We need welders, not philosophers.” This “silencing” of dialogue was witnessed at the University of Missouri, where a “Wall of Free Speech” was erected, and Ian Paris, chapter president of Young Americans for Liberty, said “Basically, if your feelings are hurt the police are going to crack down on whoever hurt your feelings.” Based upon the emails sent, Paris appears to be right. That being said, it also appears that now “free speech” means freedom for your own speech.

Lest anyone think that such enlightened shenanigans occur only among the Ivy Leagues or the large state schools, consider Clarion; consider “Jesus in India.” According to the list-serve email, “Jesus in India” was to be performed by Clarion’s theatrical students, but the playwright pulled the production at the last minute because the roles were written for “South Asian actors.” At the risk of being labeled as “insensitive,” it’s worth pointing out to the playwright that this is not Thailand, Korea or Japan. This is the eastern Alleghenies, in the state of Pennsylvania, and among the many things that we do have, a large population of “South Asian actors” is not one of them. As a person who has successfully designed in theaters across the United States, I have yet to see the play where its integrity was inextricably tied to the ethnicity of the actors. I’ve certainly heard that assertion made by directors, and especially among theatrical students when they go through their “artist” phase, believing that the world is their proscenium arch to design or act within. The larger point though is this: if the message of the play is universal–and it should be–then it makes not a bit of difference who is cast in the roles. His argument has to do with privileging truth within a group or class of people, and that there are personal experiences that are privileged to “South Asians.” Other races and nationalities need not apply, for the experiences are not those shared across humanity, but rather special only to a specific group. There’s nothing intellectual about his argument, it’s simply bigotry.

The purpose of truth today is not to expose a falsity, but rather to allow us to feel good about ourselves, our system of values, and perhaps most importantly, about the decisions we make. We’ve become the venerable Dr. Frankenstein, creating a “truth” from bits and pieces stolen from graveyards, and as the monster (in)famously said: “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”

It is after all “our” truth, one that we have created for ourselves, within ourselves and to benefit ourselves. It serves as a sort of barrier to keep other truths–perhaps inconvenient truths–from landing in the harbors of our minds. Of course, the absurdity of this is much simpler than it is philosophical: these same truths that we’ve lovingly created in the laboratories of our minds, and that we confess, we’re ready to instantly deny to that same creational privilege to someone else. Yet the monster speaks again: “You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!” No bright angle of discussion, the monster has turned dialogue into the unintelligible hissing that Milton’s Satan is reduced too—a hissing that plays itself out with an increasing frequency on colleges and universities.

Is this what Dr. Pangloss had in mind when he said, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”?

Given that even a fraction of these observations have even the slightest–dare I say?-+“truth” to them, what does this say about us as a society, and more importantly, what does it say about the atmosphere on university campuses?

If I may impose upon your patience and at the risk of sounding clichéd, I’d like to speak as a parent, albeit briefly, so as not to bore you. I sent my own children to school, like many other parents, so that they would be better than I am, so that they would achieve more, aspire to greater things and make a better life for themselves than I had. I grew up in a housing project, second generation American and had nothing; for them I wanted more. I wanted them to learn to think critically, to understand logic and rhetoric and to read classical philosophy, to read primary sources. I’ve never been a devotee of secondary sources, though I was in graduate school when the reading of literary critics-not primary sources-granted one a seat at the table of the intelligentsia.

Free speech or intellectual debate is not for the faint of heart, in fact it often bruises. Literary works, philosophical works, biblical works, rhetorical works, works that are central to our humanity, can be unpleasant and they can challenge; that’s their raison d’etre. Personal likes, dislikes or opinions simply cannot, for example, dictate a reading list in an American Literature class, or any class on any campus. It seems to me that if you have a level of sensitivity that demands “trigger warnings,” perhaps a college campus is not the place for you.

To speak freely, to engage in debate-which by its very nature demands two sides of an argument–is a bit like being in a boxing ring: you expect to be hit, to bleed, to seek the aid of a ringside doctor and from time to time to throw in the towel. To engage in free speech–and you should–means that your speech isn’t the only speech that’s constitutionally protected; that of your adversaries is also protected, even when it’s hateful.

Voltaire once said, “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary that here great fear was the blind acceptance of “a religion, a political system, a literary dogma” because we would become “automatons.” That is a trend on the rise on campuses today, largely because self-generate and sael-rationalized truths can, in the words of the Grand Inquisitor “appease a man’s conscience,” and ultimately “take his freedom away.”
Learn to think critically. Learn to argue rationally. Read. Read. Read…and for heaven’s sake use the time you have now with a university setting to your absolute advantage.

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