“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.

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.

Is Capitalism Biblical?

3 02 2012

Originally, I wanted to comment on Jefferson Bethke’s viral youtube video and the reactions following. But I realized many people have already done, in nuanced and articulate fashion. Some notable articles are Kevin DeYoung’s “Does Jesus Hate Religion? Kinda, Sorta, Not Really” (and his follow up article “Follow Up on the Jesus/Religion Video“) and David Brooks’ “How to Fight the Man“. But I will make this cursory comment, it seems that this country loves polarization and likes to pit grace against law. Well, as DeYoung explains, it is not because grace leads to law. Which is why it’s puzzling to see a young generation obsessed about justice and injustice without a proclivity towards appreciating law. Indeed, signs of confusion.

But now to Capitalism, or to the question: Is Capitalism Biblical? I won’t answer that here (mainly because I do not think I know a clear answer yet), but Aryeh Spero writes an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism“. His thrust is correct, honest money making is not wrong and voters should not blame Mitt Romney for being rich. But when it comes to the biblical explanation and support, Spero is, at best, spinning everything to fit his claim and, at worst, just plain off. For example,

Both history and the Bible show the way that leads. Countries that were once economic powerhouses atrophied and declined, like England after World War II, once they began adopting socialism. Even King Solomon’s thriving kingdom crashed once his son decided to impose onerous taxes.

Even if it were true that Solomon’s kingdom collapsed because of taxation, I do not think the lesson of that story was to be wary of taxation (or the socialist agenda, for that matter). And further, he touts individuality as a biblical principle:

At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.

Spero is right to say that individuality and creativity are good things in the bible, but not to an exclusive extent. Community and faithfulness in mundane life are very biblical principles as well. Take for example the ‘image of God’, Spero forgets that the foundation of the image of God is triune. That, in the Trinity, there is, if you will, a society. Spero, whether intentionally or not, decides to leave that important aspect out of his explanation. Capitalism may not be socialist but it is at least very social, and not merely about individualism. But again to our question ‘Is capitalism biblical?’ I am unsure that is the right question, maybe better is ‘How biblical is capitalism?’ Because as all political systems fall short of the biblical ideal, I believe this applies to all economic systems. Whether capitalism is better than socialism, I cannot say. It probably is, according to the economists, but one thing is certain, it can be said that all of capitalism as we observe it today is not biblical in its entirety, most likely piecemeal.

“If It Feels Right” then…

14 09 2011

Felling is not my forte, but it is this culture’s. Being ’emo’ is ever so popular, portrayed by the black & white shots of sad, never-look-at-the-lens pictures. Sensitivity is on an upswing, we have to always be on the watch to not offend, as feelings have taken over our foundation for morality. ‘If you are offended, there must be something the other did wrong.’ If your feelings are hurt, it is grounds to demand an apology. It is all, as they say, baloney.

To defend myself from criticisms of being a stoic biased against emotion, I call upon David Brooks for reinforcements. In his NY Times Op-Ed column titled, “If It Feels Right”, Brooks explores the rusting of the moral compass particularly in American college-aged youngsters. Having never really thought about scenarios of right and wrong, it is inevitable that what they are most familiar with, feelings, would fill this void of moral ignorance:

When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

To add to the moral ignorance, individualism (in it of itself not necessarily bad) acts to further decay the already gangrene infected sense of morality.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

And so, individualism only eliminates all possible standards outside oneself (social or cosmic) and begins to trust the one thing left to guide them: conscience led by emotion. The conscience is normally helpful but without an outside standard of morality, it merely becomes an excuse behind a nebulous impetus. Brooks’ diagnostic conclusion is a bit frightening:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

It’s frightening because justice, which encompasses rights and wrongs, always points to an outside standard by way of acknowledging a shared standard. Thus, this individual morality based on feelings is as good as no morality. Imagine someone feels like punching a random person on the street, and it makes the puncher feel good (and it most definitely will). Does this make such an act right? This outrageous example simply illustrates that it does not take much thought to realize the necessity of an agreed standard. The discussion of moral origination between social construct or divine institution is for another time and place, but one thing they share is the fact that they do not originate in each human individual. If you were to place morality on a continuum of evolution based on coherence, privatized morality founded on feelings would be from the stone age, morality of social consensus would locate itself in the medieval era, and morality sourced from an divine outside origin would place itself in the modern age. So like I said, it’s frightening. If what Brooks reports is true, we’re devolving…

“Creed or Chaos”…

22 04 2011

…is the title of David Brooks’ NY Times column, which was originally borrowed from an essay by Dorothy Sayers. In it, he initially comments on the artistically phenomenal musical experience of “The Book of Mormon” and leads into commenting how pluralism and universalism, of which in many instances are driven by ephemeral emotions, fail to move people into heroic acts of service. A pleasantly surprising corroboration of the conservative religious drive to protect doctrinal truth that clearly defines the lines of right and wrong. Brooks comments:

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

….Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

….Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.

In this still pluralistic, post-modern culture, which ironically places such value in humanitarian service, Brooks’ critique is worth thinking about. At the end of the day, humanitarian acts founded in the emotionalism of pluralistic, post-modern culture will only be a pat on your own back, and never heroic. But before we fully affirm (if we do) Brooks’ comment on rigorous theological tradition, we have to remember that religious radicalism can manifest itself in two extreme poles: violence (terrorism) and pacifism (Amish?). So as valuable and necessary it is to remember that theology (or belief) require a backbone for lasting effect, we have to always remember that HOW you believe (strong doctrinal conviction) is inevitably tied to WHAT you believe.

Aesthetics of Truth…

19 04 2011

From Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”

Recently, a couple of my friends and I attended a Christian conference in the Windy City covering the topic of ‘How to preach Christ from the Old Testament.’ The conference was immensely beneficial both in ways of encouragement and education, but there was a question that lingered forward from the recesses of my mind. One that has surfaced occasionally without resolution over the last five years. This perennial yet sporadic query is one that concerns the art of preaching, more specifically the use of illustrations and metaphors. But even more pointedly, it concerns what theologians call typology (the closest literary equivalent I could think of is ‘foreshadowing’) and relates directly to the theme of last week’s conference. The one of the main mechanisms (of course this is incredibly simplified) for preaching Christ from the Old Testament is to reveal that it foreshadows something of the future, that it ‘points forward to something greater’. In a sense, it is using temporal metaphors to describe the latter object of interest. The listeners of preaching that contains such literary mechanism, are moved, inspired, and in some instances exclaim, “Cool~”. But my question is this: “So what if it’s cool?” At the risk of sounding anti-Christian, what is the difference of such temporal metaphors and foreshadowing to ones we find in fictional novels (or nonfiction for that matter)? Here is an interesting column by David Brooks in the NY Times titled “Poetry for Everyday Life” concerning the prevalent use of metaphors in our everyday life that actually pronounces our weakness in comprehending intangibles or novel ideas:

Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses. Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states, so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high.

Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist.

Brooks is right to point out the prevalence and importance of metaphors in our thinking and learning. People need references to learn new concepts and ideas. In theology, theologians would say we use anthropomorphism to learn of the invisible God, and not the other way around. Such blending of patterns and recognition of relationships is where Brooks places the poetic nature of metaphors, that is, the “cool” aspect of metaphors, he grounds in their ability to unearth unseen, novel patterns. This gives no satisfactory answer for my question(s) of “So what if it’s cool? Do metaphors in preaching merely inspire because of it’s coolness?” With Brooks’ concept of poetry in metaphors, the inspiration from preaching would be no different than reading a very moving book. Thus, the aesthetic/poetic nature cannot be primarily grounded in the mechanism of metaphors (of course, the use of metaphors can be, secondarily, still pleasing) rather it is grounded in what it describes. To make a metaphor such as “You must have had a flat, I see the doughnut on your car” is informative but not moving. In preaching, the temporal metaphors and foreshadowing are “cool” not because of the point of these mechanisms but because of the object of their pointing/foreshadowing. It is truth and reality that moves and inspires. Truth, when it is correctly portrayed using metaphors, is intrinsically beautiful. This is often forgotten because many think of truth, that is, ultimate truth, as one-dimensional or simple, but it is the vastness and the depth of this truth that invokes the sense of novelty, the novel metaphorical patterns merely unearth them to us to realize.

Would it not only make sense that this Truth is so vast and inexhaustible that, as Brooks points out, we have such difficulty in understanding even with the help of metaphors?

Soccer, the Christian Sport?

23 06 2010

Charlie sent me this dialogue in the New York times between the Opinion columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks, titled “A World Cup Mentality“. My response: David Brooks is an idiot.

Soccer is not “a long series of frustrations leading up to certain heartbreak”, maybe the “neurotic creativity” analysis is better. But I would say soccer is about patience and art, and the all so non-American characteristic of delayed gratification. That is why the Americans do not like soccer, they need instance satisfaction, a shot made at every trip to the end of the court/field. Shall I be heretical and say, in that sense, maybe soccer is the most Christian of sports. Valuing artistic build-up, patience, perseverance, and delayed gratification.

David, your mentality is exactly why American soccer is so darn ugly.