As politics increasingly becomes a source of morality, community and identity for our most engaged citizens, it inexorably limits and twists our national discourse.
Instead of problems and trends demanding open-minded scrutiny, we have battle lines in which every issue is just another opportunity to advance the cause.
Consider the recent refusal of a Duke freshman to read a graphic memoir illustrating a few sexual acts. In a thoughtful Washington Post op-ed, Brain Grasso explained why his Christian faith would be compromised if he read Alison Bechdel’s book, “Fun Home.” Instead of exploring the many complex issues raised by Grasso’s stance, the mainstream media largely responded with scorn, derision and contempt.
For them, it was another opportunity to portray conservative Christians as close-minded bigots in desperate need of enlightenment – i.e., a heavy dose of their beliefs and values.
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In their urge to score points in the culture wars, they scuttled the chance to examine why many people feel their faith is under siege in America. Their mocking, silencing rhetoric was also at odds with a central reason Duke says it selected this poignant story, written by a lesbian about her closeted gay father. “I think this (controversial material), in turn, will stimulate interesting and useful discussion about what it means, as a young adult, to take a position on a controversial topic,” Duke historian Simon Partner said in April.
At a time when sexual imagery suffuses popular culture, what could be more stimulating than engaging those discomfited by this trend?
I was struck by a different aspect of this story. The phenomenon the media seized on – the refusal of a student to engage a work at odds with his beliefs – is, in fact, a widespread issue on college campuses fueled far more by the left than the right. Essentially, they ignored the log in their eye to attack the speck in their enemy’s.
The umbrella terms “trigger warnings” (a notice from professors that readings might include material that could awaken disturbing responses in some students) and “microagressions” (unintentional acts that some believe diminish them) capture this growing sense that words and ideas should be used with extreme caution for fear some might perceive them as injurious.
Just to be clear, we are not talking about the use of ugly slurs. We’re talking about some Harvard Law School students demanding that rape law not be taught because it distresses some students. We’re talking about a growing sense among some students that they can not only challenge but punish professors who raise ideas that make them feel uneasy. The headline on a thoughtful article on Vox website captured this: “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me.”
So, too, does an illuminating article in the Atlantic by Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff: “The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”
Going a bit deeper in this tight space, I’ll note that this development is not confined to college campuses. It is not simply about vindictive political correctness. It reflects deep developments in our culture, including the valuing of emotion over intellect (e.g., Oprah Winfrey); the breakdown of cultural hierarchies (there is no high or low culture; comic books and Tolstoy are the same); the breakdown of community (the “bowling alone” phenomenon); the secularization of society; and a heightened sense that the world is a dangerous place, especially for children (for its modern roots, see Richard Beck’s new book about “satanic” day care centers, “We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s”).
In “Notes on the Death of Culture,” Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa reminds us that these broad changes are happening throughout the West. The result, he writes, is a “civilization of spectacle … (a) world in which pride of place, in terms of scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion. Not being bored, avoiding anything that might be disturbing, worrying or distressing” has become a “generational mandate.”
These profound trends define our world. They shape each of our lives. Our tendency to see them all through the limiting lens of partisan politics is a tragedy that only creates division as it destroys understanding.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.