The dangers of comfort

The Gray Area

Oh, what a week! UC Irvine’s student government attempted to ban the American flag for its offensive connotations, California lawmakers are attempting to ban flag banning, Rand Paul confessed that gay “marriage” offended him and the University of Oklahoma took action to purge its campus of a racially offensive fraternity.

Indeed, there was so much offense and offensiveness to go around during the last seven days that I thought we’d all perhaps explode from our own indignant bile. But once again, these scattered topics help prime us for a deeper discussion: the intellectual costs of being comfortable.

Where else more than at UC Berkeley — bubbled UC Berkeley, whimsical, carefree UC Berkeley! — can one find oneself in a more accepting and militantly tolerant environment? Traverse the streets of somewhere — anywhere — else and something, it seems, is missing. The world’s a bit harsher, people are less open and so many poor fools don’t even know what a microaggression is. (Microsoft Word itself refuses to accept it as a word. Alas, corporate America!)

Yet where else, too, do we see so much discontent? So much righteous anger, so much vitriol and venom professing just how miserably we have it here. Whether it be our utter outrage over a controversial commencement speaker or a culturally appropriative party theme, we lurch into action to not only condemn but eliminate the things that offend us from the sanctity of our ivory prison, seeking to liberate the home of the Free Speech Movement from the vice of the uncomfortable.

Constipated in righteous anger, many students seem to see evil in all directions while bearing a perpetual scowl. With so much hate needing to be silenced on this campus, fellow students, how do we sleep at night?

Blowing up social media this week has been a veritable avalanche of praise for the University of Oklahoma’s swift and retributive action against a fraternity that was caught singing a racist chant so blatantly insensitive that I won’t repeat it here. Among the university’s admirers are several of our own student leaders and perhaps even you as well.

Upon learning of how this fraternity had “misused their free speech,” as the university put it, the chapter was disaffiliated, the house forcibly emptied of its occupants and two of its members were quickly expelled with the chief charge of “creat[ing] a hostile educational environment.”

Reprehensible as these students’ choices were, the resulting actions should upset you.

Now my purpose here is not to paint this as an issue of legal freedom of speech. Universities may very well have the prerogative to remove commencement speakers and offensive fraternities alike (though legal experts have posed some convincing legal questions of Oklahoma’s right to expel two fraternities brothers). But just because we can create an artificial and sterilized educational environment, should we?

For while healthy criticism of the unjust is invaluable in a marketplace of ideas, when that criticism seeks to go beyond the parameters of dialogue and instead attempts to silence voices and opinions —  however loathsome —  this is what harms us all.

You laugh. How does banning a racist fraternity possibly hurt us as students? In short, it clouds our understanding of reality.

I want a public university where people can advocate banning the flag or banning gay marriage or legalizing heroin. I don’t want a public university that would prohibit the Westboro Baptist Church or deem a racist fraternity’s opinions too dangerous to allow on campus.

What a nightmare that would be! Besides robbing us all of some absolute comedic gold, we would also be spared that most precious of intellectual commodities. That oft-hated but oh-so-useful emotion, our kryptonite and our dram — offense. Oh, how we shrink from it today! How we take up arms against anything that dares to tug at our inner comfort.

Is there not an intellectual use for wrong, offensive and even stupid ideas? Of course we’re all quite sure that racism and bigotry are intellectually bankrupt concepts; but permitting even these keeps us aware of what exists in the wider world outside our academic cloisters, one that is gloriously unsanitized.

With every ream of bubble wrap we tack to the walls of our university, we lose the chance to see and experience error. In our mission to create a welcoming and inclusive university, we have unwittingly created a culture of mental erasure, a campus that is not only emotionally, but intellectually comfortable.

There is, however, little safe about a safe space. Limiting acceptable speech and speakers for the sake of emotional healing has its utility, but the wider we draw the boundaries of such an environment, the more dangerous it becomes.

Rather than seek to purge our university of the offensive, we should actively seek out those things that offend us. We should greedily eat up all the world — its truth and its error — and again learn to value what we once claimed to desire in coming to UC Berkeley: an intellectual furnace where the mettle of our beliefs is either forged or destroyed in the fire of debate.

When a fraternity hosts an “offensive” party that appropriates students’ culture, let us look on with disgust (if disgust there be) and welcome this newest reminder that our convictions are indeed right. Let us boycott it, denounce it and spread the word that it is wrong. But let us not invoke a higher authority such as the ASUC to officially censor it and ensure that no such thing ever happens again.

Let us replace our UC Berkeley bubble with a culture of radical tolerance, a campus where all that we believe is under constant attack by a multitude of voices both sacred and profane.

Here’s to a rich and real world of both error and truth. Have a sense of humor, grow some thicker skin and be content in the knowledge that, though stupidity abounds in this world, you defy the norm.

Brendan Pinder writes the Thursday blog on the gray area between political standpoints on issues. You can contact him at [email protected].

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