We live in a culture of offense. In both public and private, people are always on the watch for some statement or group—somewhere—whose ideas might possibly run counter to their own.
This weekend, those who have drenched themselves in the celebratory wine of their own intellectual sensitivity might have been…offended. The Wall Street Journal reported that the speech given by Haverford College’s hastily rescheduled commencement speaker, who replaced Robert Bergeneau after he withdrew because of a student campaign against him, was none too gentle to sensitive minds:
William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, criticized students who had objected to Haverford’s having invited Robert Birgeneau, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, to speak at commencement. …
Mr. Bowen said in an interview Sunday that many in the academic community had suggested he should address the controversy over Dr. Birgeneau, who is well-known in academia for having advocated for the rights of undocumented immigrants to get a college education.
“He is a person of consequence,” Mr. Bowen said. He said he told students, “If you expect to agree with commencement speakers on everything, then who will you get to speak? Someone totally boring.” He added that he also called the subset of students who had objected to Dr. Birgeneau “immature and arrogant.”
The New York Times is indignant over recent attempts at popular censorship. Reporting on university student requests for “trigger warnings”—disclaimers to warn of possible violence, sexism, or general offensiveness in the great literature of the ages—the Times wrote:
Should students about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism – like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart – have to be preceded by a note of caution?The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.
University students paying massive tuition fees to learn how to function in civil society ought to confront the dangerous worlds of Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention commencement speakers, with a bit more stamina. Perhaps they could learn from the Apostle Paul, a persecuted minority leader if ever there was one. He wrote that “the greatest” virtue of love “is not easily provoked. . . beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
Resisting the culture of offense has nothing to do with permitting obscenity to run amok, letting kindergarteners play with knives, or sitting in dumb silence while social injustice blazes forward. Rather, it is about having coping mechanisms for intellectual stress other than picket lines and lawsuits.