“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.


Kony 2012: For or Against?

8 03 2012

So this past week, I was one who was caught up in the viral nature of the documentary video of Invisible Children (IC) titled KONY 2012. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you take a peek. The film is very inspirational and effective as is show by the many critiques, rejoinders, conversations, and arguments that are flying out there in the media and social media. There are many critiques and rebuttals and I do not want to get bogged down in the slew of information flying out there, so you can decide for yourself. Here are some places you can go: Justice in Conflict blog, Foreign Policy blog, Time Global Spin blog, Invisible Children’s response.

Some of the critique seems valid: that the video is overly emotional without providing enough information, some say the video implies a very “white man is the savior” complex, others say that the methodology that IC is undertaking is entirely flawed, that Kony actually isn’t the worst embodiment of evil and that there are more pressing things to turn our attention and resources to, like the ‘nodding disease‘. I believe all these critiques have merit to an extent, and I have come to agree for the most part that that IC’s efforts could be maybe use better elsewhere (for one, bringing Kim Jong Un, since his dad already died, to justice, I think bring down the leader of North Korea would have more far reaching effects than hunting a criminal who’s a fugitive in the forests). But I do think that the video and especially what the video has created, that is the plethora of conversations, is of some value.

It has value because of what justice is. I don’t mean philosophically, but to the average individual. To the average person who checks Facebook 50 times a day, justice is nothing but an emotional high. I would even say that to all of us who are blogging, writing, responding on the internet in what we think is a constructive or intelligent manner, justice is again merely a thought that gives us good feelings. That’s why the video works so well. It moves people initially. Because justice is always sweet when you bandwagon, and most people do not realize that the rest of the ride is very rarely sweet, that it is hard and sometimes even painful, because most of us jump off that wagon before it starts to hit the rocky road. Then we go back to our computer screens, checking Facebook for the next emotional high that pops up in our news feed. This is why those of us who are not doing any alternate acts of justice cannot be fully critical (of course we can point out errors) against those people who are acting and spending their time and energy, even if it may seem wrongly directed. Because on the individual journey of justice they are ahead of us. They are our teachers.

So I do not think I will be donating to the Kony 2012 Campaign, but I will not be against their campaign. For the average individual, IC is a small part of a life long education process, one nudge, but maybe an important one for that indifferent person to be moved to fight injustice, to actually learn the difficult life of Justice, and not merely feel or rage about it. As Bruce Waltke teaches us the true meaning of justice, “The wise and righteous are those willing to disadvantage themselves in order to advantage others.”

Sex Trafficking on the Web

26 01 2012

Nicholas Kristof writes a column titled, “How Pimps Use the Web to Sell Girls“, concerning the greed of the executives of Backpage.com and their refusal to comply with the pleas of attorneys general and the community to prevent trafficking on their site. Technology is not in itself evil, but it is amazing how we humans can taints such things. As I wish all to read the entire column itself, I will not quote from it here.

Another horrible misuse of facebook reported on cbsnews.com.

Fighting against REAL Injustice

19 10 2011

While Occupy Wall Street people occupy themselves with a cause that mostly like is not about injustice (for it is when you defend something other than yourself that a true act of justice is performed), there has been a surge of activism in the South Korean peninsula which seems to be more fitting with what one may call a ‘just endeavor’ (btw, an interesting read on Occupy: “Brick by Brick“). The film Dogani (도가니) has raised so much awareness (4.4 million people according to NYT) of unjust laws protecting teachers who commit sex crimes. Here is the trailer of the film:

An article from The Economist points out that in a report given by the education ministry “in September 2010, the punishment for teachers who commit sex crimes is usually nothing more than a salary cut or a short-term suspension. It is typical for other categories of convicted sex criminals to be sentenced either to suspended sentences, fines or probation.”

Other such injustices that point to the weakness or failure of the rule of law are incidents such as the following that a New York Times article points out, the article titled, “Film Underscores Koreans’ Growing Anger Over Sex Crimes“:

Last year, for example, Chey Cheol-won, 41, a trucking company owner and cousin of one of the country’s richest men, was convicted of hitting a 52-year-old former union activist 13 times with an aluminum baseball bat while his executives watched. He then wrote out a 20 million won check on a company account and threw it in the victim’s face. Mr. Chey received a suspended sentence.

The rise in awareness has, in the case of South Korea, moved politicians to slowly change laws and pass bills that strengthen laws that have often been so inept to protect the weak, poor and disabled. Once again, this political stir in the far east guides my attention to the people who think they are the 99% of this world, toward the people who think they are the oppressed. Yes, maybe relatively speaking, they are economically oppressed. Yes, there may be a point in saying that America doesn’t struggle with such issues as the rule of law. Yes, the heart of the Occupy movement may even source itself from a noble cause, but quite frankly, it most likely will not escape the label of a temper tantrum. What the Occupy people need (wait, they don’t even know what they are asking for…) is a dose of realism, to use the English idiom, to understand that there are bigger fish to fry. To get out of that small pond of ethnocentrism, of individualism. To get out into an ocean of bigger perspectives. To learn the world.