Sometimes an attempted trail of reason, in working its way through cacophonous riot and poignant sentiment, doubles back on itself; sometimes, in honest perplexity, you write contradictions.
I wondered if, in the course of the past two weeks, I might have sealed myself in a rhetorical labyrinth. I recall declaring myself ready for a formal, political severance from people who think my kind fit for a death camp merely because of our genetic composition (viz., “old white guys”)… and then, a few days later, I appeared to hold mainstream society responsible for producing that poison, and I confessed a certain pity for the little vipers who bore it in their bite.
I have put myself on trial, therefore: am I being contradictory?
In my defense, I would first observe that the idea behind a looser American Confederacy, with the secessed Caliwashegon enforcing no citizenship requirements whatever and taxing her few productive members to the hair roots, was one of self-teaching. The newly formed republic would be free to prosecute her utopian experiment fully, as the rest of us watched in great interest. The cadets aboard this space ship would be at their stations, not to suffer punishment, but to see if she would fly. True, I was convinced that the experiment would be truly punishing: the foolish upstart states would repent and come begging for readmission to the broader group under the Constitution’s terms. I still believe—firmly—that such an approach is infinitely better than imposing the Southeast’s will (for instance) upon the Western Seaboard. I wrote, indeed, that if the US had embraced this policy a century and a half ago, the nation would not have slaughtered three quarters of a million of her citizens, industrial and fiscal imbalances would have been reconciled, and slavery would have died of is own primitive torpor.
Now, as for the people who shower me with porcine epithets because I’m an “old white male” and feel themselves inspired by holy zeal to spit accusations of rape, assault, racism, and genocide in my face when I enter a restaurant… why would I not, a fortiori, be willing to give them their own island whereon to learn good manners as they spray each other with excrement like Yahoos? Actually, I would be entirely willing to do that, for their numbers overlap almost perfectly with those of the Far West Utopia. Austinites could emigrate back to California (where most of them come from these days).
Yet at the same time, I believe I was extending an important point last week, which was the following: new members of the spit-and-spray species would arise among us even as we rejoiced in their formal exile, for something within our socio-cultural engine is churning them out. There’s a reason why bratty children exist, and it must be sought in the quiet suburbs where their virtuous parents reared them.
As I mulled over all of these complex connections, my mind drifted back to perhaps the most disappointing day of my career as a college professor. I’ve related it before, many times: I had grown vexed with the rate of absenteeism in an upper-division English class, and I vented my irritation one day by quipping that X, Y, and Z must be missing because Question 4 had driven them to suicide. I believe several coeds probably wanted me dismissed that same day. Little did I know—for I have only found this out within the last month—that suicides among young women have spiked dramatically over the past decade. Should I have known that at the time? Should a teacher construct a demographic profile of each class—detailed with the moment’s hot-button issues—before Day One and prepare himself to steer clear of possibly delicate subjects?
I didn’t apologize for the remark, and I wouldn’t today. It was quite brief, clearly intended as a joke, and indexed both to an undue amount of whining about homework and (as noted) a sloppy level of participation. I will go further now than I ever have before in my defense: suicide is always an apt burlesque of a situation where difficulties are melodramatized, for suicide itself is always melodramatic (if you exclude examples that ancient Stoics offered of resisting a tyrant, some of which are physically impossible). No misery in this world justifies self-murder. Such a response indicates a disastrous lack of proportion (often equivalent to an utter absence of faith). We are not mocking the victims of suicide when we use it as a trope for excessive drama any more than we’re denying the seriousness of alcoholism when we hold up drunken behavior as buffoonish. We may grieve over a brother who ruined his life in a fanatical religious cult or through a gambling addiction: that doesn’t mean that the bizarrely warped thinking in one situation and the surrender of self-control in the other cannot be scorned. It certainly doesn’t mean that either behavior “deserves respect”.
Perhaps I can best convey my position as an educator with an analogy. Picture, if you would, three houses. Two are private residences adorned to the taste of the occupants: the third is a temple. To me, the subject matter of that advanced course in English grammar was the temple wherein we were all meeting to honor and absorb as much cultural tradition and wisdom as we could. One of us, say, didn’t usually wear shoes in his personal dwelling, and one of us liked to have loud music running in hers. In my opinion, all such personal predilections should become irrelevant the instant we cross the temple’s threshold. I’m not in your house, and you are not in mine: we are collaborating in a service which, done properly, should join both of us—along with our entire culture, if not our species—in a harmonious unit. So I wear the slippers prescribed for respectful entry, and you temper your ear to accept the rhythms of gongs and chimes.
I wouldn’t know that you might be offended if I remarked upon chimes being more restful than drums… but I really don’t care if you contest the judgment. Suppress the personal here for a moment, would you? It’s not appropriate. In my erratically attended class, I was wholly unaware that suicide had acquired the mystique of the AIDS epidemic thirty years earlier. People continue to say, “I’ll kill myself if her mother stays another week.” It belongs to our general parlance: not all of us are twenty-year-old girls witnessing a crisis peculiar to their circle.
When we are nevertheless commanded by the Politically Correct to “respect the feelings” of this or that prickly demographic subset, we are being compelled to adore a new mystery. Suicide is not a god to be venerated. She is not Suicide. Her name should not be uttered seldom, and then only whispered with downcast eyes. The problem that the current generation of females has with willingly staying alive is indeed peculiar; and, like all peculiar behaviors, it arises at least partly of their own choosing. Young women spend too much time on iPhones and are far too concerned about popularity and criticism in this fantastical alternative reality. As an older person, I should not consider myself morally obligated to memorize a through-the-looking-glass geography in order to communicate with one of these spirits as she fades in and out of our three shared dimensions: not unless I’m a therapist and she is my patient. I am not a therapist. The outrage directed at me as we attempted to understand subordinate clauses had all the shocking suddenness of a black student’s warning, issued to me years earlier, that I was risking my life (because of my race) by pronouncing “gangster” as “gangsta”; and in that instance, I was actually trying to understand and fuse with the trend.
The attempt to understand never matters in these cases, it seems. Only the occasion for the “wounded” party to bleed in public matters. If a catalytic brute like me didn’t exist, he would have to be invented.
I submit that something very similar to that unhappy day’s events is unfolding with the “I believe her” and “all men are rapists” micro-orthodoxy. Very specific and personal experiences are now being forced into the collective consciousness as objects of awe commanding us brutes and clods to servile obedience. Their causes—their surrounding reality—must be excluded from all questioning. “What do you mean, she might be lying about the assault? How dare you suggest that women are not universally abused!” is the contemporary equivalent of a radical Puritan’s roaring, “What do you mean, things sometimes happen by accident? How dare you suggest that God hasn’t a plan for everything!” We are to fall to our knees as soon as certain words are whispered. Your bad day, once upon a time twenty years ago, must smite me like a thunderclap because others in your clique claim to have lived through similar days. I don’t get to question the precise extent of your clique, the degree of similarity in its experience, or the causes behind that experience.
But as a free, reasonably sane human adult, I claim the right to question. In your specific case, Traumatized Coed, I’m sorry if a boy forced himself on you during a wild party in college… but that doesn’t mean that I have to suppress the wisdom of Ulysses’ judgment when he says of Cressida, “Her wanton spirits look out at every joint.” Shakespeare’s Cressida is not Juliet: she does things she shouldn’t have done—that a “good girl” doesn’t do. Is there an implication that you should perhaps not have attended that party, or perhaps shouldn’t have accompanied that boy up to his bedroom? I agree that no woman should be a victim of force… but I’m not trimming my lesson plans to absolve your conscience of any possible degree of fault or complicity. (And I’m sorry your sister leapt off the Golden Gate Bridge, very sorry… but I’m not apologizing if an, “I’m jumping out the window the next time this computer system crashes!” leaks out of my mouth.)
And as for your claim that all men are rapists… if this were so, then raising an uproar about a specific incident would be futile, for a good half of your likely auditors would be rapist males. Your outrage can exist only if there is a higher law recognized by all sane, mature human beings. How is Shakespeare’s Angelo a monster unless his abuse of power in attempting to seduce Isabel offends decency and fairness—and how can his attempt so offend if all men do the same thing routinely? (The blunt irony here is that feminist critics uniformly detested Isabel in the Seventies and Eighties for being a stodgy prude whose virginity mattered more to her than her brother’s life… what’s a little rape now and then, especially since dating options in the nunnery are limited?)
We can’t discuss issues of general importance with people who refuse to leave their house and enter the public forum—washed, wearing shoes and clothes, their favorite swear words bottled up. We can’t conduct classes when a third of the group sits it out in an acute attack of depression or screams for the teacher’s head if he blurts, “This is killing me!” We can’t plumb the depths of Shakespeare when we have to anticipate treading on twenty-first-century, politically sensitized toes. We can’t evaluate a Supreme Court candidate’s credentials if the faintest aroma of alcohol in his adolescence revives memories of date rape in some unspecified portion of the population.
I can’t be responsible for not living in your house, surrounded by your furniture and saturated with your preferred sounds and smells. Honestly, I don’t want to enter your house, because the “you” that has exited its front door screaming at me for uttering innocent quips, dropping gendered pronouns, and ordering the occasional hamburger doesn’t strike me as fit for participation in civic life. But if you can attract enough visitors to your salon, why not declare it a forum unto itself? Then the rest of us will be able to mark it plainly on our map as a place to avoid.
If things are happening beyond your front door that have hounded you into your little house of horrors, then we should address those together and decide if they are objectively problematic. Don’t tell me that I may not say “suicide” out loud: tell me that people of your age and gender are neurotically sensitive to the word because of an epidemic among them. Let’s talk about the epidemic—its causes and possible resolution—but not wail over it and keen its victims as we pour ashes on our heads. Suicide is melodrama: that’s where the discussion begins (and I say that as someone who battle suicidal tendencies off and on in his twenties, alone and quietly).
Having a phobia of the next sunrise is not normal; neither is entertaining a phobia of all males. (If “homophobia” is a genuine article, by the way, then why isn’t “androphobia” equally so?) Do not demand that I “honor” your cold-sweat terror of sudden air travel, solitary doors of entry, or words that end in “-cide”. Let us begin in admitting that you have a weakness—not in condemning me for blasphemously declining a tone of abject awe.
If you felt yourself compelled to have an abortion in college after waking up without clothes or memory in a fraternity house, let us by all means discuss campus policies about “recreation”—and especially the explicit campus endorsement of unconditional sexual adventures. But let’s also recognize that you were not whisked off the sidewalk, bundled into a car, and dragged into the fraternity house. You arrived there under your own power, and of your own volition. Sucking out the brains of viable babies should not be legal just because your social life took a dark turn. Come out of your bunker for a moment, will you?
Certain people cannot be taught because of the rigorous “safe zone” that they insist upon squeezing through every classroom door they enter, and certain people cannot contribute to a public debate because of the unresolved personal traumas that impel them to quest for vengeance or broadcast their nightmare incessantly. Yes, we should listen to the wronged and the troubled; but when they cannot render themselves “listenable”, the best thing for them might be to retreat to some commune where their unprocessed grief and fury can find infinite echoes in the howls of other tortured souls. Sooner rather than later, those who wish to opt for sanity will have had enough, and they will flee back into the world of the living with something like a coherent grievance.
Well, I’ve just finished my longest entry ever… and I still haven’t addressed the forces within our socio-cultural mainstream that are producing fringe behavior. I’ll try again next time.