“The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law”

31 08 2016

acceptance_letterYesterday, over a comforting bowl of roast pork egg noodle soup, my sister and I had an interesting conversation about the recent, potentially discomforting University of Chicago letter to new students (written by John Ellison, the dean of students) about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” The main thrust of the letter can be seen in this paragraph:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

A debate that has been brewing for some time now as one can see from the overview well laid out by Scott Jaschik in the Inside Higher Ed article, a survey worthy of a read, with accounts of both critics and supporters of the debate. Even my local university publication, The Daily Pennsylvanian, reports and chimes in on the current debate of psychology, free speech, education, and human development. But in continuing this discussion, it is perhaps, helpful to refer back to an earlier accounting of the social phenomenon of ‘trigger warnings.’

The Trouble with Teaching Rape Law” was the title of the article by Jeannie Suk Gersen in the New Yorker (Dec 2014) concerning the rising concern for words that trigger memories of traumatic experiences. Most likely not the earliest but one of the earlier articles considering the issue at hand. Suk Gersen describes the legitimate ‘phenomenon’ of a “second rape” that victims experienced in the courtroom reported as devastating in a 1991 book by Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble. In September of the following year, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt of The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Coddling of the American Mind” taking the thrust that trigger warnings and safe spaces are doing more than ruining the higher eduction of America, such ‘coddling’ hurts the mental health of the next generation, the article’s point perhaps encapsulated in the two questions that it rhetorically asks:

What are we doing to our students if we encourage them to develop extra-thin skin in the years just before they leave the cocoon of adult protection and enter the workforce? Would they not be better prepared to flourish if we taught them to question their own emotional reactions, and to give people the benefit of the doubt?

And here’s another article for good measure assessing Ellison’s letter and trying to explain the use and mis-use of the terms “trigger warning” and “safe spaces” in the entire discussion. But as much as the details of the meaning of words, the policies and the how’s of education, and sensitivity to trauma and emotion are all important, I think David Brooks contributes a fresh perspective in the discussion.

Perhaps it is our loss of purpose, or a life mission, that has inconspicuously contributed to the emotional volatility and lack of mental grit in the younger generation. Of course, this is, again, not to deny the reality of people having experienced trauma, but it is very much true that the mental grit of the younger generation is, to put it mildly, different. David Brooks asks veteran college teachers and administrators, in an Op-ed column titled “Making Mental Toughness“, how students have changed over time, and the answer he quotes is this,”Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.” But the insightful point that he ends on is the point that much of this is due to people’s lack of life goals, goals beyond personal comfort and success, goals that are, quite frankly, bigger than oneself.

John R. Lewis may not have been intrinsically tough, but he was tough in the name of civil rights. Mother Teresa may not have been intrinsically steadfast, but she was steadfast in the name of God. The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.

People are much stronger than they think they are when in pursuit of their telos, their purpose for living. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos. It’s caused by the culture of modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes. It’s caused by the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical. It’s caused by the status code of modern meritocracy, which encourages people to pursue success symbols that they don’t actually desire.

We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people, when we feel like a swimmer in an ocean with no edge.

If I may end with a bit of semi-introspection, Brooks’ insight is very instructive for myself as one in the position of educator and guide for younger folk. My tendency is to take out the whip (metaphorically) and try to create some grit through some old school suffering and discipline. But as tempting and easy as that may be, Brooks is convincing me to create a ‘telos’ for the younger folk, to offer a goal that is worthy of ‘throwing ourselves with abandon.’ A goal that is more than the prestigious college, secure well-paying job, the loving family, and the house in the suburbs (Perhaps the church has been dropping the ball by preaching morality without mission). For the strengthening of the modern mind, it may very well be that what this young generation needs is to find a purpose, a purpose not created from within but one that comes from without.

Plan B

13 08 2016

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

“Dreams” by Langston Hughes

The elderly often catch my eye. In a restaurant, on the street, in the subway. My mind inevitably wanders to a particular question: “What are their dreams?” It has been a destination of my mental meanderings as of late because at an age past the quarter-life, dreams seem to be a commodity of the past.

But dreams are not meant to live in the past. For a dream to flourish it must live in the future, and only when it flourishes in the future does it have a chance to enter into the present. A dream in the past only exists six-feet under, or at the most, six centimeters under our height.

Can a buried dream be revived? In this life, some, only some. As Niggle had to wait until the afterlife for his leaf to bloom into a magnificent tree, most must wait until the newness of life. But different dreams can be had. New dreams can be created into our futures for us to chase for us to strive. But how?

The West seems to tell us to somehow fan the flame of our dormant individual passions and create these new dreams ex nihilo. It seemed easy with youth. Hormones helped. But such individual fiats are next to impossible. New dreams are kindled, especially later in life, with friends, in relationship. The onset of life’s drudgery is often blamed on the death of individual dreams, but perhaps dreams are not the difficult thing to be had, perhaps, it is hard to meet those who will dream with you. To meet friends, companions, who help dream your dreams, who make them bigger, who refine them for good.

Origin of Politics

5 06 2016

Thursday seemed to be the last final piece of the Trump ship, making possible a unified sail towards the White House. Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking elected Republican, after weeks of waiting, hesitation, or whatever it was, endorsed Donald Drumpf’s nomination for the presidential race. The last few paragraphs of the coverage in the NY Times article is somewhat telling:

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said the Republican Party is now “the party of Trump.”

“Speaker Ryan’s abject surrender makes it official,” he said in an email. “The GOP is Trump’s party now.”

“Surrender”. Given the description finds its origin from the keyboard of the opposition, it cannot claim it to be an unbiased critique. But ‘bias’ doesn’t always negate truth, and here perhaps, the word surrender is telling of the nature of what the political system has become.

When modern people think of politics, the initial descriptions that come to mind are ‘corruption’, ‘power’, ‘policies’, and the like. Ryan’s ‘surrender’ seems fitting in such a climate of politics, where power is the overarching drive. Ryan to his credit seemed to be one more for principles rather than power. The Trump ship is more Machiavellian than The Prince, and it’s slogan of power can only be contended by it’s fragile desire for popularity.

Thus, ‘surrender’ is appropriate.

The irony, for one who knows a little of the classics and the origin of politics, is that power was not supposed to be centerstage of any well politically functioning society. Politics was a word representing polis or the city. It was about the city and the good of the city. Aristotle hints at what happens when power finds itself in the spotlight:

When states are democratically governed according to the law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people becomes a  monarch, one person composed of many, for the many are sovereign, not as individuals but as an aggregate…such a people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master, giving honour to those who curry its favour.

Us moderns like to think ourselves advanced, but in the current realms of politics, I daresay, we have devolved from even the standards of the ancient Greeks. Politics will never be void of power, but politics will never be helpful if power is an object to attain rather than dispensed for the good of the city. And though I am pointing a finger at Ryan for choosing power over principles, perhaps I will stop. Because I still want to a have hope. And hope rarely thrives in the bed of blame shifting, it thrives among the responsible. And so, I stop with the blaming and move to do more optimistic pointing. Without negating the importance of the federal government, I want to spotlight the importance of the polis, the city. And Mayor Kasim Reed can do a much better job than I at that, so to conclude, here he is: “How Are Mayors Better Poised to ‘Get Things Done’?

Drumpf, the Mob, Truth, and Belonging

16 03 2016


David Brooks wrote in yesterdays opinion pages an interesting piece on the shift of American culture from one of guilt to shame. Quoting much from Andy Crouch’s Christianity today article, he explains that rather than drawing lines between right or wrong, morality is pictured through the realms of inclusion and exclusion. Brooks interprets Crouch:

Crouch starts with the distinction the anthropologist Ruth Benedict popularized, between a guilt culture and a shame culture. In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.

And with the decline (or death) of modernity and the rise of post-modernity, subjective relativism is still lingering in our midst. The lines are not between what is true and untrue, it is between what you think and what I (or we) think. And the difference between the You-I, inclusion-exclusion line creates new markings for morality, but with a caveat. The line is always susceptible to change. Because rather than an unshifting standard of morality, the rules of in and out are determined (and perhaps shifted) by those in power. Again Brooks on Crouch:

….there are nonetheless enforcers within the group who build their personal power and reputation by policing the group and condemning those who break the group code. Social media can be vicious to those who don’t fit in. Twitter can erupt in instant ridicule for anyone who stumbles.

This is not to say that a guilt culture is better than a shame culture (and Brooks distinguishes the shame culture of the current discussion from historic Asian shame cultures), nor is it a push to return to the old. But what is worthy of taking note is that many of us do not know how to navigate these new territorial lines of shame. Perhaps semi-related is The Atlantic article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings and how over-sensitivity, tolerance, a lack of standards, and whatever else has stunted not only our education system but the American ability to discuss, civilly argue, and learn. The art of listening has long left us and all we know how to say in place of it is, “I’m offended.”

These suggestions about the shift in culture is perhaps very illustrative in the current presidential campaign with Donald Trump and his rhetoric. The inclusion and exclusion lines are being drawn, the presidential debates have devolved to shouting matches with no

"Somehow I thought it would be different up here."

“Somehow I thought it would be different up here.”

inkling of civil discussion, and the moral lines seems to be drawn and shifted to the likings of Trump’s daily emotional forecast (i.e. the police with power). But once again, shame culture, the concepts of inclusion and exclusion are not culpable here for the chaos or confusion (and violence), it is our unfamiliarity and misuse of such ideas that have perhaps placed the American political process where it is today.

Is there a solution then? If I could have it my way, I would bring modernity back, but as a realist (or pessimist), it is obvious that’s not going to happen. Perhaps, one possible way forward in the right direction, is to start understanding what exclusion really is, and to understand what real inclusion is without denying exclusion (like post-modernism used to say). A good place to start is, I suggest, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. Though he presents much to mull (and act) upon, one helpful suggestions he speaks of is the “drama of embrace” divided into four stages. One, ‘open arms’ equivalent to vulnerability. Two, ‘waiting’ speaking of providing time for the other to embrace. Three, ‘closing of the arms’ which is self-explanatory. Last, ‘opening of arms again’ where he means that you have been enriched by the presence of the other. Very practical, but sounds a bit cheesy, but cheese or not, most of us are so unwilling to even begin step one. We are fearful of what others will see in our vulnerability, we are arrogant in our impatience, and perhaps, sadly, it is frighteningly inconceivable to imagine ourselves changed or molded by someone so different from us.

What then shall we do with such fear?

I know of only one place where that answer lies, and it is not of humanity.

Politics of the Lunch Line

9 10 2015

It is often in the simplest things that reflect the profoundest of realities. Well, in this case maybe not profound, but reality… yes. Feeding a hundred and fifty people can oddly reflect the reality of the American political bipartisanship and the related economic issues. So, on a particular day with a particular group of 150 people, dinner was provided. The only thing that was determined for the 150 people was the order in which they were allowed to approach the food. The amount of food that could be taken was not regulated, at least in the beginning, and the distribution commenced. Eventually, several regulations were instituted, “Either the meatball or the chicken, not both!”, “One bread per person!” Then once, the food seemed to be disappearing faster than the line itself, ‘welfare’ allocation was instituted. Some food dishes were ‘saved’ for the end of the line so that the least could have at least some of the goods of society, or just.. dinner. Everyone was fed but not equally at equal amounts, some would say this is the beauty of the free market society and some would say it is the injustice of poor regulation. Hungry stomachs say some weird things. The one in charge realized after the fiasco that there was another way to proceed. Perhaps, unfavorable to the ones ahead in society (or line), this communistic method, if used from the beginning, would have guaranteed a better (Is equal always better??) distribution of food. To have regulators distribute a set amount of food for each person would have guaranteed that everyone got enough, or at the least equal amount of goods.

hipster-lunch-instagram-cartoonThis simple ‘slice’ of life, whether one falls on the republican or democratic side of economic and social issues, is at the least descriptively instructive for us. But two things must be mentioned if we are to learn the fuller picture of this anecdote, that is, scarcity and zero sum. Often in economic discussion, there seems to be a sense that there are limitless supply of goods, there is not, in a physical world contained in time and space, limitation is a reality that we must reckon with, and limitation means scarcity. Second, I have been told that the free market is a zero sum game. Even while acknowledging that I don’t understand that statement one hundred percent, I have to say that it seems incorrect. The free market cannot be a zero sum game because sin is not a zero sum game, and the free market involves sinful desires of people. That’s what supply and demand always incorporates implicitly. Sin is not the same as limitation, though related, to equate those would be a primal error in any discussion, but to the lunch line example, what it does show is that regulation is a helpful necessity but at the same time not a solution. This is so because the problem is not in the quality of distribution but in the desires of people and the blindness of people to the needs of others. “Incurvatus in se” the fourth century Bishop of Hippo used to teach. Our problems lie in our incurable proclivity of turning inward on ourselves, oblivious, if not consciously ignoring, the needs of others. But then, where art thou, solution?

The Art of Projection

10 08 2015

The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus (5th century BC) is known to have once said, “No man ever steps in to the same river twice, for it’s notprojector the same river and he’s not the same man.” Around it, he constructed a philosophy that claimed that everything was in flux, that everything was changing and change was the only constant. As erroneous as his framework was, Heraclitus is enlightening when we think of human natures propensity to project. Because even the same person cannot experience the same thing in the same manner twice (time does not say constant), it begs to ask, “How can one person understand the experiences of another person?” The best that one can do, perhaps, is to project our own experience on the details of the other person’s life as we try to understand them and their life.

And so, it seem that one of the hardest things in life, perhaps THE hardest thing, is to fully understand another person. On the flip-side, because it’s so unquenchable, perhaps our greatest longing in life is to be understand fully by another outside ourselves. Intimacy demands increasing understanding, and a best a human can do is to understand through our own experiences. The best a human can do is to project as little of our own experiences onto the other and try to understand afresh.

I want to hypothesize that the great reason for the boom of social media is loneliness. The world has grown more connected in search for the unquenchable, the search to be fully understood, to no avail. And so the world, we, continue to grow thirsty and thirsty. In our thirst, we are quick to want to be understood rather than to understand. We are quick to project rather than to listen. That is why my world was shaken by St Augustine’s three words (four in English), “Audi partem alteram (Hear the other side).” Can this be the cure for the loneliness in the world? For us to listen to each other first and strive to understand? Can we be fully understood by the powers of our ear? No, we can’t, at least not on our own. Not because Heraclitus was correct, but because humans can be fully understood just not by any other human. The cure for loneliness does not come at the ears of humanity but at the words of deity. And no, this is not a queue for pluralism here, postmodernism died long time ago. It is a hint that the solution to our world’s problems with intimacy lies with an incredibly majestic and ultimately personal God, and there is only one God such as this.

MERS, Fear, and Selfish Faith

17 06 2015


One Hundred Sixty-Two.

Six Thousand Five Hundred Eight.

Numbers and more numbers. It’s been around a month since the discovery of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in Korea and the numbers keep climbing. The numbers keep coming. The numbers keep our fears in their place.

south-korea-mers-virusThis concerning situation with the spread of the deadly virus has reminded us of thoughts that were buried by the ordinary routine of our lives. First, that death is real, unpredictable, and most prominently uncontrollable. Couple years back, I wrote a post on Ernest Becker’s Pulizer Prize winning book The Denial of Death. We are reminded again how Becker was right in how humanity uses everything and anything to drown out the unchangeable truth of inevitable death. Death is the ultimate problem of humanity, and yet so many live on without a hint of desire to seek out the solution. Second, fear is ok. Fear of the virus, fear of infection, fear of isolation, fear of death. Often, we jest and laugh to minimize or guise our fears. We want to look strong. Fear is a sign of weakness and weakness is oh-so-unacceptable. But perhaps, fear is not that bad. Panic is bad. But fear? A healthy dose of fear helps survival. When a wild hungry tiger comes charging toward you to make you its next menu for dinner, fear will drive you to find an escape, drive you to seek survival when charging straight on against opposition is not wise for survival. Fear can be wise. Hmmm… I think the author of Proverbs said something to that effect. Third, faith can be selfish. A week ago in the church elevator, an elder (a leader of a Presbyterian church) pulls out a mask often suggested for MERS prevention from his pocket and proclaims his faith or perhaps his humor, “I want to put this on, but I’m scared that people will think I don’t have enough faith!” My mind dashed initially towards how wrong his theology of faith was, but the more my mind ran, it saw how selfish such faith was. If strong faith means not wearing a preventative mask at the expense of contaminating other people, it is no worthy faith at all. A selfless weak faith will suffice, one that may be timid but has in sight the well-being of the other. One that says, “I don’t know how I look in this thing, maybe I will look foolish, perhaps even risk looking faithless but if it will help stop the spreading.” Fourth, family is important and they are not with you always. Speak kind words. Spend time with them. Fifth, humans think they have more control than they actually have. It is evident in light of the first point and this MERS outbreak, we have none. Control is an illusion.

Last. My thoughts go to the twenty-one. The twenty-one who had families. The twenty-one who spent their last days in quarantined isolation. The twenty-one who were not just a number to produce in us fear, but lives who had stories. Prayers to them. Prayers to their families. And a word from the late Professor Al Groves who wrote this while struggling with terminal cancer: “I am in distress. But that is not the final word in my prayer. I live on the other side of the cross and the resurrection, that toward which Nehemiah looked from a distance. For me the final word is not distress, but hope in the One who has raised me from the dead and changed me into a new creature in Christ.”