Scary ideas

Zineb El Rhazoui, a columnist for Charlie Hebdo, recently gave a talk at the University of Chicago. She spoke about living under the constant shadow of death threats issued by the Islamic State.

Judith Shulevitz, in a New York Times article titled In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas, describes what happened next:

During the question-and-answer period, a Muslim student stood up to object to [Charlie Hebdo’s] apparent disrespect for Muslims and to express her dislike of the phrase “I am Charlie.”

Ms. El Rhazoui replied, somewhat irritably, “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing,” and not everyone has the guts to do that (although she didn’t use the word guts). She lives under constant threat, Ms. El Rhazoui said. The student answered that she felt threatened, too.

A few days later, a guest editorialist in the student newspaper took Ms. El Rhazoui to task. She had failed to ensure “that others felt safe enough to express dissenting opinions.” Ms. El Rhazoui’s “relative position of power,” the writer continued, had granted her a “free pass to make condescending attacks on a member of the university.”

Fortunately, other students at the university rallied to Ms. El Rhazoui’s defense. Still, isn’t there something backward about people feeling threatened by ideas, especially when the people voicing those ideas are being threatened with literal death?

Cap and deploma: censoredShulevitz also reports on a dust-up at Smith University over a speaker who refused to use the euphemistic “n-word” in a discussion about Huckleberry Finn. The speaker, Wendy Kaminer, is quoted as saying “It’s amazing to me that they can’t distinguish between racist speech and speech about racist speech, between racism and discussions of racism.”

It’s amazing to me too.

Have things changed that much since I went to school? I came from a pretty sheltered middle-class existence, and when I arrived at college I heard ideas that surprised and shocked me. But I thought then, and I think now, that hearing those ideas was a fundamental part of my education. Rather than insulating myself from them, I used them to refine my own beliefs and gain a better, more confident, understanding of who I am. If something surprises me, I can evaluate it critically and maybe even adjust my own opinions. If something shocks me, either morally or intellectually, I can explain why and I can defend my own moral position.

It never occurred to me that other people should be barred from expressing their views. If I didn’t want to hear something, I didn’t have to listen.

I know I wasn’t alone. In fact, one of the things that made the academy a free, non-threatening space for me was the assurance that the rest of the community felt the same way.

I’m not talking about literal threats to person or property. I’m saying that a confident, self-assured person won’t feel threatened by ideas — no matter how stupid and offensive. You might feel annoyed, you might feel angry, you might even be inspired to take positive action. But you won’t feel threatened.

I heard some stupid, offensive things when I was in college. Often they were disguised as humor: in Virginia in the mid 1970s it was appalling to see what some people thought was funny. Most of the time my standard reaction — “that offends me, and I won’t listen to it” — was enough to put an end to things. Should I have done more to silence the people who were telling those jokes?

I don’t think so. Why not? It gets back to the original question: Would I have been better off if I’d been insulated from hearing things that surprised or shocked me? Absolutely not.

The same answer applies to today’s college students, whether they know it or not.

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who is quoted in Shulevitz’s article, would disagree. Posner writes that today’s college students are “quasi-children who need protection from some of life’s harsh realities.” I think Posner would say that my generation was just as immature and just as much in need of protection. But in that rebellious age of protest marches and co-ed dorms, we didn’t know what was good for us.

To that I can only say: College is about growing up, not about extending your childhood. If today’s students need to be sheltered at 20, 21, and 22 years of age, when will they ever be ready to have their belief systems challenged and to start thinking for themselves?

Or will they grow into adults who listen, unquestioningly, to the “safe” things they hear from their “safe” government or their “safe” media outlets — and never expose themselves to other points of view?

Now that’s scary.

5 thoughts on “Scary ideas

  1. Scott Berkun

    When people complain about hate and outrage on social media I always suspect that outrage, and inability to accept other points of view, has always been with us. Social media has just revealed it back to us.

    I had similar experiences in high school and college to yours – shock, surprise, diversity, awakening – but many people don’t go to college (65% of Americans do). And even among those who do it takes a certain kind of curiosity to choose classes that push those limits. If you’re easily offended you avoid the very things that will help you get past that limitation. It’s a kind of trap.

    I think it’s hard to measure if one generation is truly more or less open mined than another. It’s far too easy for older generations to complain about the new one, as we’ve been doing that since Socrates. I’m optimistic that the sheer exposure to films, movies, youtube, twitter and more than today’s youth grows up in provides a broader worldview than I had with TV and Radio.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Scott. You make an important point: some people choose to broaden their thinking, and some choose not to. With dozens of TV news networks at my disposal, I find it much more comfortable to watch the ones that reinforce my worldview. It takes extra effort to expose myself to the ones that don’t.

      It is hard to know whether it varies much from generation to generation. I’d’ve guessed that it doesn’t. That’s part of why I was so surprised to read about what’s happening at colleges and universities today.

    2. Kaylin Tristano (@theleastshrew)

      I think we’re approaching some sort of acceptance singularity – I do believe that every generation gets a little more open minded and accepting of things and people who are different (the silent generation had racism, the baby boomers had homophobia, for two obvious examples), but we’re also pushing the limits of what is socially acceptable in a lot of ways. For another very obvious example, just look at the amount of sex and violence you can find on an average prime time show now versus even ten years ago. I’m not saying that’s inherently bad or good, but the number of boundary-pushing things that adults and children alike are exposed to every day is exploding.

      So if you push past a so-called limitation and “get over” your offense at a thing, there’s another thing that takes it to a whole new level waiting right around the corner. I can see why, in that kind of environment, some people are regressing to a more “protected” world view.

      1. Larry Kunz Post author

        Well said, Kaylin. I certainly understand people’s desire to retain a world view that’s more “protected” and less likely to cause offense. But there’s a difference between saying “I choose not to watch those TV shows, read those books, etc.” and saying “No one should be allowed to air those shows, publish those books, etc.” It’s the difference between freedom of choice and a nanny state (or worse).

  2. Pingback: Don’t offend anyone — and don’t communicate either | Leading Technical Communication

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