The (academic) World of Pain

A spectacle is currently unfolding on university campuses across the nation: college students are marching, organizing sit-ins, promising boycotts of academic and sporting events, brandishing placards and harassing the staff. What truth are they attempting to ‘speak to power’? Topically, it’s about the idea that free speech may go so far as to cover ‘inappropriate’ Halloween costumes, but that’s only the surface. No, the greater point of the protest is that college is no place for an intellectual discussion.

It’s unacceptable when the Master of your college is dismissive of your experiences. The Silliman Master’s role is not only to provide intellectual stimulation, but also to make Silliman a safe space that all students can come home to. His responsibility is to make it a place where your experiences are a valid concern to the administration and where you can feel free to talk with them about your pain without worrying that the conversation will turn into an argument every single time. We are supposed to feel encouraged to go to our Master and Associate Master with our concerns and feel that our opinions will be respected and heard.

But, in his ten weeks as a leader of the college, Master Christakis has not fostered this sense of community. He seems to lack the ability, quite frankly, to put aside his opinions long enough to listen to the very real hurt that the community feels. He doesn’t get it. And I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.

Emphasis mine. The above quote is from an article that ran in The Yale Daily Herald. Or rather, I should say, was from that student paper: the article has been withdrawn at the request of the author, Jencey Paz, a Yale student. Ponder that for a moment: an article cited (critically, to be fair) all over the web is simply removed. Put aside any accusation of intellectual cowardice, what person working on the web today imagines you can just erase a controversial article?

Apparently, the Yale man…

Pain. That’s the key to this discussion, and the use of pain and therapeutic language is no accident: in an excellent article at The Atlantic, Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt use the term “vindictive protectiveness” to describe the pathological mode of thought that has overtaken the academy at this moment. But it is by no means limited to the academy (thought it is most pronounced there). Writing at National Review about a month ago David French discussed the case of  a lesbian couple and their 5 year old child. The couple wanted their child to attend a private, explicitly Christian school, and when the school averred, citing the fairly well known disfavor traditional Christianity has for same sex couples. This simply will not do, so let us take a look at how an attorney described the potential harm to a child not being admitted to a Christian school;

“Now the question is where do you draw the line?” [the attorney] asked. “If you have a religion that believed in human sacrifice or amputation of the arm or the hand for theft, would we permit that in the interest of permitting the free practice of one’s religion? I don’t think so, and one could argue that psychologically… this is as devastating to the little 5-year-old girl as some of those other vicious practices.”

Got that? A Christian school’s refusal to admit a child (from a family engaging in flouting the school’s tenants) is arguably as psychologically devastating as “human sacrifice” or amputating hands for theft. With that in mind it scarcely should be surprising that the campus police at University of Missouri are requesting you call the police if you view examples of hateful and/or hurtful speech.

The pathological mode is increasingly gaining ground at law schools as well. The laws that govern rape are some of the most complicated and nuanced areas of criminal law, and last year in the New Yorker Professor Jeannie Suk wrote about the difficulty in teaching this uniquely complicated subject at Harvard Law;

When I teach rape law, I don’t dwell on cases in which everyone will agree that the defendant is guilty. Instead, I focus on cases that test the limits of the rules, and that fall near the rapidly shifting line separating criminal conduct from legal sex. These cases involve people who previously knew each other and who perhaps even previously had sex. They cover situations in which the meaning of each party’s actions, signals, and desires may have been ambiguous to the other, or misapprehended by one or both sides. We ask questions like: How should consent or non-consent be communicated? Should it matter whether the accused realized that the complainant felt coerced? What information about the accused and the complainant is relevant to whether or not they should be believed? How does social inequality inform how we evaluate whether a particular incident was a crime? I often assign students roles in which they have to argue a side—defense or prosecution—with which they might disagree.

Though “[t]hese pedagogical tactics are common to almost every law-school topic and classroom,” instructors are encountering ever increasing push back from students: “asking students to challenge each other in discussions of rape law has become so difficult that teachers are starting to give up on the subject” to the extent that “a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students.”  Tellingly, the complaints focus on the pathological language once more, the lingua franca of such arguments;

Some students complained that I should have given them a “trigger warning” beforehand… For at least some students, the classroom has become a potentially traumatic environment, and they have begun to anticipate the emotional injuries they could suffer or inflict in classroom conversation. They are also more inclined to insist that teachers protect them from causing or experiencing discomfort—and teachers, in turn, are more willing to oblige, because it would be considered injurious for them not to acknowledge a student’s trauma or potential trauma.

By way of contrast, I currently am enrolled in a course through the Jewish Learning Institute. Titled “Journey of the Soul: An Exploration of Life, Death, and What Lies Beyond” I’ve just learned that the course (being conducted in Chabad institutions across the country) has an enrollment of over twenty-two thousand participants. Given that the old saying claims two Jews will produce three opinions, that’s plenty of room for offense to be taken, especially on weighty matters such as life after death, the nature of the immortal soul (and the nature of that immortality) and other matters that are both intensely personal and highly charged.

It’s a challenging exploration and a great privilege to study under a Rabbi who, while tactful, must travel treacherous waters. Not for the students alone, either: at Yale the thought of a badly done trick-treat outfit leaves a Yale student “not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns”, as the now withdrawn article above put it. Imagine then being an instructor and speaking candidly about your grandparents, murdered by the Nazis, their bodies desecrated in a direct violation of every tenant of Jewish law.

Yet for all that the Rabbi has imparted a lesson during the class that has nothing to do with the specific topic per se, but everything to do with learning: that when a topic is difficult, when it is something that you struggle to grasp, those topics are the most valuable when mastered. The students at Yale and Missouri turn this idea on its head, regarding those most challenging ideas and subjects as the ideas and topics least worthy of grappling with. It is a vision of the University not as a place for personal growth and exploration (after all, exploration, by definition, requires stepping outside of the familiar), but the University as a Safe Room writ large, complete with puppies and a barred door to keep any uncomfortable or challenging ideas at bay.

In the end, while there are less charitable interpretations, it’s very difficult to disagree with the conclusion Robby Soave at Reason comes to;

It’s clear that many of today’s students—at Yale, Missouri, and other campuses—don’t value free expression the way their radical predecessors did. But the Yale and Missouri incidents reveal something even more startling: they don’t value their own independence, either. Their goal is to re-enshrine in loco parentis. They want their administrators-in-chief to hold them while they cry, pat them on the back, and softly whisper into their ears, “you’re right, I’m so sorry.”

Will these same students, complain, I wonder, if their administrators start sending troublemakers to bed without supper, or preventing them from hanging out with their friends until they finish their homework? Keep in mind that prior to the ‘60s, administrators placed broad restrictions on students’ rights to socialize, organize, and speak. That’s what parents do, it’s what used to take place on college campuses, and it’s what awaits these students who are suddenly so desperate to be treated like children again.

 

The Shameful Decline of Academic Virtue: or, the continuing affair of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

First, I have the rare pleasure of congratulating an Ivy League university for doing the right thing: later today Yale University’s William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale will welcome Ayaan Hirsi Ali to give a lecture on their campus. For those of you who are not aware, Ms. Ali is a rare individual who embodies the triumph of the individual against overwhelming odds and (sadly) also the perfidy of our current academic climate.

This invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali was explicitly a reaction to the actions taken by Brandeis University earlier this year: for those unfamiliar with the earlier fracas, Brandeis University was set to award Ms. Ali an honorary degree, in recognition of her tireless fight for women’s rights, especially the rights of women in Islamic countries. Unfortunately Ms. Ali would discover that the virtue of speaking for powerless women, of being “a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights” is no protection for a critic of Islam.

Along with many others, I found the incident a shameful renunciation of the principles Brandeis claims to honor (my letter to the administration can be found at the bottom of this post), a sign their priorities had a great deal less to do with Truth, and more to do with what was politically comfortable. In fact, just as the news of the rescinded honor was making the rounds, Brandeis was flogging on their Facebook page a hagiograhpical movie about that tireless defender of women… Anita Hill.

 

Isn’t it funny how unattractive “speaking truth to power” becomes when the people with power actually cut off critic’s heads?

This is the second reason I am congratulating Yale University and their William F. Buckley, Jr. Program: the same forces of “tolerance” that succeeded in persuading the hapless Brandeis administration to rescind their honor have descended on the Yale administration. Thankfully Yale (or, more appropriately, the Buckley Program) has stood fast in the face of those who would destroy freedom of speech to save free speech. People like, say, the spokesman for the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA) who proclaim that “the group and their Islamic values uphold freedom of speech”, but, alas, “The difference here is that it’s hate speech, [which] under the law would be classified as libel or slander and is not protected by the First Amendment.” Ah, he is only looking out for Yale and its liability, how generous of the fellow!

Except, of course, his legal understanding is completely wrong. Unfortunately, while he may be completely wrong, the list of organizations that has signed on with the MSA shows he is far from alone.

 

The following is the letter I sent to the Brandeis University administration on the occasion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s dis-invitation;

As a Brandeis alumnus, and with the holiday season fast approaching, a certain folktale was brought to my mind when thinking about the recent incident with Ayaan Hirsa Ali and how her outspoken criticism of Islam (especially its shameful treatment of women) seems to have cost her an honorary doctorate.

Many are familiar with the stories of the Maharal of Prague, Judah Loew, and his creation of the Golem. How with his hands he carved it from base materials of river clay and breathed life into it by carving upon its forehead a certain word. In some versions the Golem is animated by the name of the Lord, but in other versions, a more familiar word is used. That word is “Emet” and it is familiar because it is inscribed in the center of the Brandies University school crest, for it means Truth.

You see, what is important about this version of the Golem story is how it ends: the Golem, tainted by world concerns becomes unable to fulfill its purpose. So the Maharal placed his hands upon the Golem’s head and erased the Aleph, leaving behind only Met.

Which is Death.

The divine magic gone, the Golem returned to the lifeless clay from which it came.

Has the Aleph been scratched from Brandeis’ crest? Has the school that proclaims “Truth, Even unto its innermost parts” turned its back on the truth, on the principles of open debate and free speech? Is what may and may not be said to be determined by the mob?

Ms. Ali “is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world” and before last week she was worthy of an honorary degree. But not last week. As of last week, Brandeis “cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values”(1).

One must forgive a certain confusion as to what these core values are, precisely. One wonders also what the “past statements” of Ms. Ali were, they certainly must be very serious to be both so obscure that they were unknown until now, but also so inflammatory that they cannot be borne. More serious certainly then the statements of Tony Kushner (honorary doctorate 2006) who “believe[s] that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing”(2). And that “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.”

When it was time to honor Mr. Kushner, then Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz proclaimed the standard was to look beyond politics, and award the degrees only on the basis of specific works;

“Brandeis bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.

Over the years, Brandeis has honored hundreds of men and women of distinction whose personal views, I am sure, span the full spectrum of political discourse, and the University applies no litmus test requiring honorary degree recipients to hold particular views on Israel or topics of current political debate.”

What now? If Truth at Brandeis is subject to the mob’s veto, if one’s politics can stray far from the polite and into the insulting, but only when certain groups are involved, what then is left of Truth at all? Should we get the chisels and carve an asterisk into the motto? “Truth, Even unto its innermost parts*” *So long as no-one from approved groups is offended; so long as only Israel and Jews are demeaned.

Let’s be clear: I don’t know and I don’t care if Ms. Ali is deserving of the “honor” of an honorary degree from Brandeis. What I do know is that the principles that operated before, the principles of open discussion and tolerance that had Desmond Tutu (no friend of Israel there!) address my own commencement, have been cast aside.

Maybe it’s time to just scrape the Aleph from the school’s crest and be honest about things?

1) http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2014/april/commencementupdate.html

2) http://www.scribd.com/doc/54643560/Letter-to-CUNY-Trustees-05-04-11