This Friday, we celebrate some common sense in the defense of genuine academic freedom.
We tip our hat to Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal for taking on the clueless insanity that has manifested itself at Columbia University’s student paper. The paper penned an op-ed recently decrying western classical literature as
Triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.
In the styling of the inner party of Orwell’s 1984, liberal students winding through the halls of academia (and liberals and progressive statists in general) seem to want thought based on emotion – how you feel in relation to an event or idea rather than worry with ages-old tried and true approaches such as…logic or reason. And this is good. Provided that you feel the same way and react the same way as your betters. (Compare “bellyfeel” and “duckspeak” from the Newspeak Dictionary.)
Noonan’s response is the serious wake up call college students need before turning over any more of their minds to The Party.
At last year’s Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference, our editor Val Muller was lucky enough to hear Aranka Siegal speak. Siegal is a Holocaust survivor and was asked to attend the conference many times before she finally agreed. Now in her eighties, Siegal was encouraged not to travel, and her family discouraged her.
When she spoke at the conference, recounting her experiences in Hungary leading up to her time in Auschwitz, she cried. When she spoke of the last time she saw her mother–as her mother stood in line for the crematorium, she cried. When she spoke of nearly starving to death, of witnessing atrocities in the kitchens, of rape and abuse and death–she cried. There was no emotional safety in sharing these memories.
And yet she emphasized to all at the conference that she thought it important enough to speak to the room of educators not because she wanted their pity, but because she did not want the past to die. As horrific as those experiences were, and as painful as it was for her to recount them again, she wanted to share the pain of history so that it would not be repeated. So that the educators in the room would share her experiences – painful as they were – with the next generation of thinkers.
Avoiding history because it brings up unpleasant memories; bleaching out words of literature because they cause pain; or eliminating literary works to make people feel better about themselves in their present state of being is cowardice and weakness. But it is far more dangerous than that.
The Columbia student paper is advocating for censorship. At first it may appear to be benign – even benevolent. Why not wipe clean the sins of the past in order to spare a few tears or unpleasant moments during our present?
But it is the future that suffers from such folly. The level of censorship of works needed to wipe the past clean enough to accommodate the hyper-sensitivities of our current time would leave the next generation incapable of experiencing texts that can teach us to distinguish good from bad.
If our only reference point for unfairness is imagined exclusion, then we might overlook things like the federal government’s blatant dishonesty in saying it will only use mass surveillance to protect us from terrorists. Meanwhile we find out that federal agencies engage in “parallel construction,” bringing criminal cases against individuals constructed with bits of information obtained illegally and without a warrant.
If our only reference point for corruption is imagining that free market entrepreneurs only amass wealth and success by stealing it from poor people, then we become immune to widespread government theft of private property through civil forfeiture where a government agency seizes cash and property without ever filing charges against an individual – leaving the legal burden on the person to take the government to court to reclaim their own property.
If our only reference point for discrimination is sloppy math and dishonest studies used to politically decry a pay gap for women and to declare a “war on women” is on, then we might miss actual discrimination whereby the US government systematically abuses its power to discriminate against political opponents of the current administration.
And all of these examples are real and happening right now in the Land of the Free. And if the public tolerates these abuses, how much longer will it be before an all-powerful government can detain (even claim to kill) US citizens without trial. (Oh, wait, it can do that too!? Yes we can…says the President’s Attorney General)
Americans already tolerate the above abuses of their freedoms by the federal government – in the name of security, of course. And if we have already come this far, then how far away is an experience like Aranka Siegal’s – right here in the United States? Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Mass deportations of Jews into extermination camps and the eastern ghettos of Europe began with Operation Reinhard in 1942 – not even a decade later.
We believe sharing a painful past helps to prevent an even more painful future. Telling stories of suffering, of abuse, and yes, even of rape and the evil that Aranka Siegal endured, is strength. Recognizing the evil in those stories helps us identify it and know it when we see it instead of becoming numb and dumb to the world around us.
Perhaps we need to tell students painful stories more often, not less.