By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
We continue to get letters on the question of whether conservatives and Christians with traditional values are being intellectually inconsistent, even hypocritical, when they criticize campus liberals who impose codes of political correctness, considering how we call for prohibitions against performances of LGBT films and The Vagina Monologues, as well as appearances by pro-abortion speakers at Catholic universities.
Put otherwise: Couldn’t it be said that our side opposes censorship only when it is carried out by those who disagree with us, but are fine with it when it protects our values?
D.A., a professor at a Midwestern university, offers us a way to deal with this issue. “Suppose,” he writes, “two groups disagree with each other over the form or content of a type of speech expression. Each group’s principles are deeply held, like a faith, be it secularist or traditionalist, with charitable motives toward all involved. Assume also that each group wishes to be rational, not engaging in formally or informally fallacious arguments (ad hominem attacks, for example, are informal fallacies since they attack the person without engaging the argument, while any argument entailing a contradiction is formally fallacious).
“So far,” D.A. continues, “it’s simple for either side to point out to the other that when they shout down opposing viewpoints, they are not following universally understood rules of rationality. Both sides accept the fact that our democracy is pluralistic, so appealing to purely sectarian and private principles can’t lead to conflict resolution. Both sides understand that if they violate these principles of reason and fairness, society can’t hold together and everyone loses; if they all are simply self-interested, no one wants this end. (For those who do want anarchy or irrationality, we provide jail cells and padded rooms, for non-arbitrary reasons.)”
D.A. narrows his focus: “As a believing and practicing Catholic, I behave as a citizen just as I expect any citizen to behave, with the ballot box, wallet, pen, and voice. I accept that I’ll inevitably hear and see things offensive to me, without my doing to others what I do not want done to me. I know others will be offended by how I live and what I say but do not accept their infringing on my basic freedoms.”
How does this work in a classroom setting? “When I see either side violating this philosophy, I call them out on it. I do not accept fideistic and non-rational arguments for impinging on the freedom of others, from either side. Privately, I hold views that I don’t necessarily expect other fair-minded people to accept, but I do maintain my freedom publicly to express them but without forcing others to abide by them; and I accept the same expectation from those who disagree with me.”
D.A.’s position is sound and persuasive. But it should be noted that it depends upon civility and a commitment to standards of reasoned discourse on the college campus, what D.A. describes as “principles of reason and fairness.”
But consider: On a modern college campus you are likely to have living in the same dorm LGBT activists who believe that a film festival extolling their sexual behavior will provide an uplifting experience for their “sexually repressed” classmates, along with pro-life students who believe that abortion is the taking of an unborn life and that “gay film festivals” are pornography.
These students and faculty members are not likely to be disposed to view each other as D.A. recommends. There is no longer a core of shared values and an agreement upon what it means to be an educated and cultured member of our society. The Round Table has been broken. It will be difficult for modern professors to agree upon the “Great Books” or the canon of Western civilization. Indeed, a good number of modern intellectuals view Western civilization at the legacy of “dead, white males.”
J.M. of Boston offers a tongue-in cheek way for us to deal with the left-wing bias of the modern university.
He writes, “If the Pooh-Bahs of modern academia claim to be serious about diversity, we should put their feet to the fire and demand they offer the minority of conservatives on campus free programs and financial assistance to help them cope with their minority status by bringing in conservative speakers of their choice. How about initiating a course in ‘Conservative Consciousness,’ a week of introspection and insight into the world of conservatism; show young conservatives the same attention that is paid to the other minorities on campus.”
J.M. recommends that our readers look into the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, which he describes as a “group of Catholic missionary students whose numbers are exploding on many secular campuses, evangelizing with great success.” FOCUS has a website that may interest readers of The Wanderer. It is focus.org.
On another topic: The question of whether the time has come to accept the use of “their” as a single noun for convenience’s sake, which was discussed in the November 24 edition of this column. The American Dialect Society argues it is wise to make this change, in order to make acceptable sentences such as: “Everyone in the auditorium wants their son to do well.” In the past, teachers would have corrected the sentence to read: “Everyone in the auditorium wants his son to do well,” since “everyone” is a singular pronoun. This is not a satisfactory answer for feminists, who resist the notion that “his” should be seen as gender-neutral references, such as “his or her.” But many find it awkward to write “his or her” over and over in the same essay.
We cited in the column in question a Washington Post editor, who describes “the ‘ singular they’ as the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person personal pronoun,” thereby satisfying feminists who do not want “his” to be used as the default pronoun.
R.M. writes to disagree: “It seems to me that the solution to the vast majority of situations in which ‘their’ is used in conjunction with the antecedent pronoun ‘everyone,’ could be handled by simply making its antecedent plural. Rather than say, ‘Everyone who came brought their own beach towels,’ just say, ‘All the people who came brought their own beach towels.’ Every time I see ‘their’ misused this way, I always check the antecedent to see if the sentence could have been restructured to make it plural without altering the meaning the writer is trying to convey. Almost all the time, it could have been restructured.”
Yet, R.M. concedes, “Unfortunately, it appears the singular ‘their’ is here to stay.”
+ + +
Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.