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Can the liberal arts survive itself?


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Read an interesting, half-humorous, half-depressing opinion piece yesterday. Seemed whacked enough so I had to follow up today to see if the events described actually occurred as written (much to my delighted horror, they did).

 

During a panel entitled, ironically enough, "Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts." Former ACLU board member and free speech advocate Wendy Kaminer used the dreaded N-word:

 

“Well let’s talk about n-words. Let’s talk about the growing lexicon of words that can only be known by their initials. I mean, when I say, ‘n-word’ or when Jaime says ‘n-word,’ what word do you all hear in your head? You hear the word . . .

 

And then Ms. Kaminer crossed the Rubicon of political correctness and uttered the forbidden word, observing that having uttered it, “nothing horrible happened.” She then compared the trend of replacing potentially offensive words with an initial to being “characters in a Harry Potter book who are afraid to say the word ‘Voldemort.’ ” There’s an important difference, she pointed out, between hurling an epithet and uttering a forbidden word during an academic discussion of our attitudes toward language and law.

Of course, she was immediately drawn and quartered. All that remains of her is a transcript of her "offensive" speech posted online, complete with trigger warning.

 

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I have to wonder -- for the most part, everybody here seems intelligent and reasonable. Does the fact that she uttered the "forbidden word" in its entirety during an academic discussion offensive to you? Does it make her a racist? Can you explain your reasoning?

 

Furthermore, what are your thoughts on the banning or white-washing books deemed "valuable" to literature that also contain language deemed "racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/ableist?" Does the culture and date such a book was written have any bearing in your view?

 

No mystery what I think. The last paragraph of that opinion piece sums my view up nicely:

 

Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement—a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day. What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.

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Context matters. Context affect the meaning of words, and words affect context. Obviously in the context of that discussion at a prestigious academic institution, uttering the word in such a way is not designed to be offensive. However, people go out of their way to be offended. She must've known the risk of the example she was trying to set, and effectively made herself the example. She martyred herself as a free speech advocate.

 

As far as white-washing books is concerned, like I said context matters. If you change even a few words you change the context in which it was written, changing it's meaning. Even controversial subjects...especially controversial subjects. White-washing is a miscarriage of literature and academic study.

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Well, we've been over this and over this and the thing it keeps coming down to from my perspective is that there's a definite politics of unreason going on, especially though not exclusively in the U.S (this sort of foolishness is popular in parts of Canada, the U.K and I suspect western Europe as well). It's specific form may vary: a portion of the population adheres to a literal interpretation of scripture. A portion of the population believe 9/11 was an inside job, with no small number believing in even more elaborate conspiracy theories. No small number believe president Obama to be an atheist, a Muslim, communist, nazi, antichrist or whatever. And of course, there's the politically correct crowd.

 

Common to all of these, I think, are the features of the closed belief system, one of which is an extreme form of textual interpretation, ranging from fundamentalism in religion to literary deconstructionism and its more plebeian manifestation: political correctness. There's a kind of universal rejection of the idea that context is vital to the interpretation of the written (or spoken) word, because this entails a responsibility on part of the reader to interpret or at least do some of the thinking himself. Something that people drawn to closed belief systems are, by nature, loathe to do as this entails ambiguity, precisely the thing so fearful to these kinds of people.

 

What I find worrisome is just how widespread this kind of thinking is becoming, in its sundry forms, across the political and cultural spectrum. While it's always been there in some form or another, it's become quite widespread and mainstream now with the advent of social media. In some critical way, the center is failing to hold, and a certain set of common understandings - such as tolerance and a measure of trust that the "other guys", whoever they are, are acting in good faith, is eroding. Academic and media pandering to this type of rubbish in the name of sensitivity and inclusiveness; the underlying assumption that all opinions or ideas are equally "valid" and that truth itself is relative or (worse) culturally constructed to benefit the interests of the "privileged" is certainly not helping. Lenin's Russia and its sundry successors in Eastern Europe and Asia are good examples of societies in which truth and morality are defined relative to "class" and "privilege." Look how well that turned out.

 

Given how vital an essentially liberal - and I mean classically liberal, not liberal in its contemporary meaning, philosophical foundation is to a free and prosperous society, our intellectual leaders, like our political and economic leaders, have a responsibility and they are abdicating that responsibility. This is a sign and a cause of overall civilizational decline.

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I just found the entire Paine quote. Didn't realize it was longer:

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.

And...

I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

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