American academia has been in what might be called “sensitivity” turmoil in recent weeks; perhaps the right word is “tizzy”. Everything is very delicate. The rough and tumble of debate produce not conclusions but tears.
It is not so much what we do to one another that matters, but what we say, hear, or see. An ever-growing list of things cannot be talked or written about, in public or private, because someone may be offended. University administrators are both the enforcers and the guarantors of this strange trend. It has become so bad that we might well wonder whether education is what goes on in some colleges and universities, since so many things are forbidden in public space.
Liberalism has become so free that nothing can be classified as wrong except causing someone to feel bad. We have so many rights that we cannot keep track of the wrongs that we inadvertently acquire. “Discrimination”, once a noble word for distinguishing this thing from that thing, now means almost any slight against almost anybody for almost any reason.
We hear of campuses that have “safe places” where those with tender souls and easily offended emotions can be assured of nary an unkindly word being spoken. Accompanying this social separation is a growing number of departments or “specialized” campus studies that cover almost any group that demands representation.
We have north, south, and east Asian studies, Black, Feminist, Chicano, Latino, Portuguese, Queer, Gay, Lesbian, Buddhist, religious, and atheist studies; the list goes on and on. Some are now even beginning to talk of “white” studies, as the only “unstudied” group left. But these folks are usually considered the cause of the problem examined by the other studies. The notion of classical studies is long forgotten, as no one can decide what a classic might be. Greek, Roman and medieval classics have been deconstructed to show that they are used to discriminate against whatever group one belongs to.
This somber spectacle in our intellectual life reminds me of the three wise monkeys of Japanese origin, see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Some want to add a fourth monkey, do no evil, because there is a link between how we think and how we speak to how we act.
It is helpful to have an idea of what evil is before we discuss seeing, hearing, speaking, or doing it. For the monkeys—who bear respectively the names Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, this was not a problem. Everyone knew what evil was. The problem was how to deal with it, both its coming into our own souls and its going out of them.
But if there is no natural evil, then we end up with a long list of evils we create. Since what is evil to us is probably not evil to the next person, we have to prevent ourselves from being offended if someone else thinks our chosen evils are trivial or even good. We have to segregate ourselves from those who do not share our values.
There are other interpretations of the three wise monkeys. They could symbolise not dwelling on evil thoughts. This implies that evil thoughts might be the source of our problems. It is up to us to rule ourselves, as Plato contended. They could also symbolise abdication of responsibility. If we see no evil, we don’t have to testify against it. This is the Mafia code of omertà: nobody saw or heard or knew anything about anybody.
Where do these fragile souls come from who are offended by whatever they do not agree with? The university was once a place where we could talk about our disagreements. But that position meant that we did not make up the world from within our own heads. Our mental faculties had an internal order. Truth was not a hated word but one that gave us information about what was out there, including what we are. Logic and reality were both objective.
The reason why these relationships have been rejected as a basis of learning is because they limit our wills. Once we think of our wills as powers to bring about whatever we want, rather than as powers by which we direct ourselves towards what is true, anything can follow.
What has always struck me is that once we choose to consider that our wills are unrelated to reality, hence free of any divine or natural order, we must live with the consequences. And these consequences do not let us alone; they force us to live them.
Reality has not been informed that it must conform to our minds. So if we have a right to do something that is ruinous or disastrous, we should not be surprised at the ensuing disaster. The only thing we can do is to cover up these consequences by calling them something else, some good.
Plato told us that our cities would be reflections of our souls. We have to find a city, if only in our minds, that preserves the relation between mind and things as they are. A city that has truth as a basic component differs radically from a city that has only feelings and rights. But what happens if there are no cities in which truth finds a place?
What can the monkeys teach us?
The Socratic principle on which our civilization rests is that “it is never right to do wrong.” See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil are related to do no evil. And this do no evil is related to the truth of things. There are things that are evil. We either rule them or they rule us. When they rule us, it is usually because we allow them to do so. That is, we do not resist it when we hear it or see it and we hesitate to speak it, ie, to identify it.
The current turmoil in universities about “sensitivity” is an attempt to flee the responsibility of judging by an objective standard what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. When we deny these distinctions, when we insist that what we feel or what we will is makes a thing true or false, we live in universities that do not want to hear truth spoken.
In the end, truth will always be “offensive” because it requires us to examine our souls. The alternative is not to allow it. The consequence of “not allowing” is pretty much what we have—places where we see no evil, speak no evil, see no evil so that we can do what we want as we define it. We do not see truth as a reasoned response to what is.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.