All Commentary
Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Dear Arbiters of What Is Offensive

A Plea for Disarmament in the Culture War

Dear opponents of yoga on campus. Dear aspiring regulators of Halloween costumes. And dear patriots who throw water balloons at flag-burners; you need to hear this, too.

Control does not lead to comprehension.

Most people have no idea why you consider certain things offensive, oppressive, or appropriative. By and large, if they do not already share your opinion, they do not understand it.

And they cannot learn by being shouted at on campus, being defamed on Twitter, or having their student organizations disbanded under opaque university rules.

Submission on the surface often comes with vengeful defiance in the shadows.

Reeducation is Not Learning

Learning takes effort and courage. If students’ goal is to learn, they have a long and difficult road ahead of them. Understanding and appreciating North America’s strange mix of national pride, commercial innovation, and lingering interethnic suspicion depends on learning — learning to carefully consider historical data, learning to compassionately take the perspective of others very different from you and learning to humbly reevaluate your own assumptions.

But if students’ goal is simply to escape condemnation, they have a much simpler option. They can learn to fear and avoid your favored topic.

That sound you hear in the halls or the classrooms, and that look you see in people’s eyes when you speak about your passion — you think it’s assent. Sometimes it is. And sometimes it’s just submission.

If you’re a student of oppression, you should already know this: submission on the surface often comes with vengeful defiance in the shadows.

Your attempt to control what other people do with their bodies in yoga classes or with their property in flag-burnings — that is an attempt to gain power over people with whom you disagree. Humans do not suffer power gladly.

Power does not lead to peace.

Thought-Control Backfires

And when some of the people you have tried to exert power over resist, what will they think they are resisting against? If your attempts at control come under the label of anti-racism, might not the ignorant people who resent you think that “anti-racism” means being cowed and controlled — and that embracing racist vitriol is therefore the defiant pose of freedom? If, when you exert power over others, you say you are “pro-America,” will those who rebel against you not come to think of your whole country as their enemy?

Your attempts to police the boundaries of expression also provide ready formulas for “outrage porn.” Simple insults come to seem daring instead of merely petty, and thus garner an eager audience. Want some views on YouTube? Burn a flag. Want some Twitter followers? Try some anti-Semitic slurs.

Thus, we have called forth both the resurgent racism of the far right and the censorious puritanism of the far left.

You are reaching for the reins of power. You may seize them for a time. Or perhaps, just as you clutch at them, an intolerant backlash from your most regressive opponents will seize them from you. Whether you or your opponents win, the outcome will be much the same for the rest of us: suspicion and division in our private lives, compulsory unity and obedience in our public lives.

In the long sweep of history, the identity and intentions of the rulers matter only for a fleeting moment. What matters for the ages is how much power the rulers can exert over the ruled.

Control does not lead to comprehension.

Power never changes. All who quest for noble causes feel its lure.

I know the truth, we think. I am dedicated to justice. If only I could force my foes to yield, I could lead all our peoples to the promised land.

Equality! Freedom! Anti-racism! Communism! The Fatherland! In the hands of power, all these different metals twist into the same thing: manacles for those who dissent.

Control does not lead to comprehension. Power does not lead to peace.

Deep Learning

Deep learning about different people requires play and work, discovery and failure. It requires open pathways and unknown destinations. (This is why all learned people disagree.) If you insist on one destination, and if you close off all but one path, your peers and your students cannot learn.

Deep learning about different people requires play and work, discovery and failure.

They can obey. They can repeat. They can rebel against you. But they cannot learn.

But there’s good news. When people play and work together — when people engage freely in love and commerce and open inquiry — they can and do come to understand each other better. That’s the real secret of the slow rise of interethnic and interreligious peace in North America over the last century.

I do not ask you to let go of your convictions, nor to silence your voice in the great debates. I merely ask you to let go of the reins of power.

I admit, if you do, there is no guarantee that others will agree with you about what is sacred and what is profane, what is respectful and what is repugnant. But people will at least have a chance at understanding.