Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Political Correctness Screw Makes Another Turn

March 11, 2013

Pop tarts are dangerous—or at least they seemed that way to faculty at Park Elementary School in Baltimore and ended up as such for 7-year-old Josh Welch. He was suspended for two days after shaping his toaster-pastry into an approximate gun-shape; the school’s official letter said the “student used food to make an inappropriate gesture.”
Before you laugh—or cry—ask yourself if it would be more or less absurd if it had been a college student who was suspended for chewing a Danish into a sideways ‘L’ and saying “bang.”
Additionally, imagine that instead of shooting imaginary bullets with a pop tart, the college student had made a YouTube dance video based on the viral “Harlem Shake” meme. Such was the case for several students in student programs, who put a video of themselves, gyrating hips and all, on YouTube. Apparently the clip was “offensive” to certain staff members; it was promptly removed from YouTube and the students who participated had to write letters of apology about the incident to the assistant dean of student programs. Everyone in Student Programs has maintained a tight-lipped silence about the whole issue, since, as one member put it, “it’s no longer in [our] hands…we want to protect the student’s due process in case it becomes a bias incident.”
Wait, apologies for what? How can they get in trouble for a YouTube video? Why is this bad, even supposing it was as offensive as it has been portrayed? No one is forcing anyone else to go watch a video. There are countless YouTube videos that are far more disgusting than a Harlem Shake redux, videos that I choose not to watch because they bother me. I don’t ask for them to be removed; I just don’t watch them. Is that so hard?
The problem is two-fold. First of all, an extraordinarily large part of our society has been convinced that people have a right not to be offended. This is most tellingly proven by our own school’s bias incident policy. A bias incident, for those who aren’t familiar, is “conduct, speech, or behavior motivated by prejudice or a bias toward another person that does not rise to the level of a crime.” These are inherently subjective standards, of course. I might be offended by non-organic food, or by petroleum-based products or any number of other things but that doesn’t give me a right to take away other people’s rights to use these things. Like shooting pop tart guns, creating a less-than-perfectly politically correct video for YouTube is a “victimless crime.” Or, to be more accurate, is simply “victimless.”
Riding off of this non-existent right, the second part of the problem is that people have become convinced—sometimes even taught!—that they are victims. I’ll never forget interviewing a student earlier this quarter who said that another student had made him “feel inferior,” by bumping him in passing when the other student was trying to walk away from a verbal altercation. This sentiment is only reinforced by Bellevue College, which claims in its “Don’t Let the Haters Win” pamphlet that, “The college’s highest concern is for the emotional and physical well being of a person affected by a bias-motivated incident…” Really? I would have thought it would be education. I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s more than a little condescending that the school wants to protect me from having my feelings hurt, and I say this as someone who has been verbally attacked solely on the base of my race and gender. I can take care of myself, thanks, and I’m paying for an education, not for therapy.
Part of growing up is learning to live with other people, people who look differently, talk differently, think differently and find different things humorous. If people didn’t hear this as a child, it’s never too late to learn the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It would be one thing if students were jumping out of the screen and attacking people, but we walk a dangerous line in imposing “our” idea of what’s appropriate or inappropriate on others. What would the school do, I wonder, if someone claimed to be offended or hurt by these inescapable policies? The claim of offense at unconstitutional rules would certainly be more justified than someone claiming offense over a YouTube video they could just as easily not watch.

Remember, the Medium is the Message

March 4, 2013

The student rally at Olympia last week was great. We all met with legislators and their assistants and appeared to make generally positive impressions. They seemed to agree with us about the importance of putting more money into colleges and universities, or at least not making any additional cuts. We made lots of noise, we endured the cold, windy weather and most importantly, enjoyed some great boxed lunches together. One of our most important tasks, however, was to send a solid, coherent and true message to the people in charge of our state’s budget, and while Bellevue College and the rest of the schools present didn’t do a terrible job, we certainly could have done better.
First and most importantly, choosing your friends is as important a job in lobbying as it is in the realm of the more mundane social sphere. Note to lobbyists, anarchists are not your friends. Nothing sends the message, “Money spent on us is money wasted,” stronger than dressing up as and acting like the Irish Republican Army on the steps of the state capital. Even if BC students weren’t wearing the black bandanas and balaclavas themselves, waving black flags and distributing literature advocating “plundering” from the establishment, accompanied with sinister lines about how “cops aren’t invincible in the street,” standing in solidarity with this kind of company is bad. Very bad. To give you an idea, the website of the group that was distributing this literature was bragging just last week about the number of security cameras they destroyed. Associations with groups like this not only empowers them, but also undermines the agenda and goals of the more high-minded students trying to make good things happen. Taking part in a parade led by these people is something BC should avoid repeating in the future, for both pragmatic and moral reasons.
Secondly, metaphors and   symbols are an important part of communication. The Princeton psychology professor and famed author Julian Jaynes even went so far as to say that metaphor “is the very constitutive ground of language.” According to Jaynes, even basic words like “is,” and “to be,” are metaphors derived from Sanskrit: asmi, “to breathe,” and bhu, “to grow,” respectively. So what kind of message was a parade of students marching around with a 10 foot tall ball and chain supposed to send? Or a giant sign that read, “EDUCATION IS A HUMAN RIGHT?”  As it turns out, the enormous black ball was supposed to represent student debt, and the sign was supposed to represent a kind of obligation on the part of the legislators that they weren’t fulfilling.
Unfortunately, there are three problems with this image. Most obviously, education is not a human right, and even if it were, there are plenty of ways to educate oneself without going to school. Going to a library or surfing the more educational parts of the web doesn’t require any money from Olympia. As for the debt, hauling around the giant inflated black ball doesn’t do anything. Legislators didn’t put students in debt—students put students in debt. No one forces college students to take out loans. Trying to pass the burden of responsibility from the people who took out the loans to a group of dedicated public servants who are desperately trying to dig our state out of a budget deficit is not merely counter-productive; it’s reprehensible.
The final issue is what all of this together is trying to convey. At the first rally, on Feb. 8, the crystalline message was, “We are the future, don’t cut the future!” College is an investment in the future of not only the citizens of the state, but the state itself—culture, economy, businesses, society and everything else. It was a message of mutual benefit and argumentation: “here’s why this is important, and it’s in everyone’s interest to put money into our education.” By contrast, the message of the rally on Feb. 18 was one of coercion and entitlement: “we deserve this money, it’s our right, and we’re going to dress up in a threatening manner and play Rage Against the Machine to prove it.” The Canadian philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan famously said that, “the medium is the message,” that the metaphors and symbols we use define how the message is perceived. If you were a legislator, what sort of message would these kinds of demonstrations send? Would it really seem like something positive to invest more money in?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Nothing Man

The Nothing Man does his the best;
Doing nothing, like the rest
For as he sits, though life goes by,
He can't let all the others try.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Dark Tower in our Midst

Brian LaFrance, Society of Digital Artists

The stronghold of tyranny has but one rifle, and we, its enemies, are many. We imagine ourselves lined up in ranks and files, ready to do battle with the evil forces of bigotry and intolerance, but it is only in the anonymity and safety of the crowd that we declare our moral strengths. Over time, we have become accustomed to this anonymity and safety, and when the rifle settles on us, we lose our courage.

The tyrants have learned a trick; if they point the gun at the nearest person, the one stepping farthest out of line, everyone is quick to ensure that someone else is closer than them. All of the brave defenders of liberal democracy and freedom make sure they are not at the front of the line and in the sights of the rifle. Thus, the outnumbered enemy has kept us in constant retreat, and even convinced some that if only we would remove the more outspoken and aggressive critics of hatred and oppression ourselves, they would leave us alone. The old tactic of divide and conquer is conquering us, and in our never ending race to the bottom, so-called liberals are turning against each other in the hopes that they won’t be seen as a threat by the enemy. In doing so, some have even managed the double-think of convincing themselves that the enemy isn’t really the enemy; that the true enemy is the one the tyrants point their angry fingers at, the ones who step out of line.

These are the people, we are told, who threaten peace and harmony. A peace upheld by submission to those who daily denounce the core principles of our nation: freedom of speech and the secular state.

But the enemies of liberty and truth cannot hide forever. Intolerance of gays and lesbians, mistreatment of women, bigotry against Jews and other religious faiths, and murderous contempt for any criticism are not the hallmarks of the critics of militant, reactionary Islam, but of militant, reactionary Islam. This is a fact that must be acknowledged if our values of freedom and democracy are to survive. These are values that benefit all people, no matter their gender, ethnicity or religion, and they really, truly are under attack.

The solution to the prisoner’s dilemma, the dilemma of the group having a single rifle aimed at their midst, is simple in theory. Without courage, however, it can become lethal for those who attempt it. One need look no further than the likes of Salmon Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Theo van Gogh, Maajid Nawaz, Lars Vilkes, Geert Wilders and, more recently, Lars Hedeggard to notice this. These are the brave soldiers who marched forward, sure that their line was advancing with them. Perhaps too late, they noticed they’d been left to advance against the fortress alone.

Three things must happen.

First, we must acknowledge that there are tyrants—backwards, violent theocrats—who do exist in the world today. They’re not “just” a vocal minority, they’re not doing what they do because they’re victims of Western imperialism and they really do kill people. We must admit to ourselves and proclaim and repeat that there really is something objectively, morally wrong people killing other people for being homosexual, for leaving their faith or for criticizing these practices too loudly. This requires the courage to face harsh realities, or as Orwell once put it, the “power of facing unpleasant facts.”

Second, we must stop submitting to the demands of the tyrants and shooting our own in the back with nonexistent labels like “Islamophobe,” and putting such people on trial for “hate speech,” as if an idea or a religion had feelings one could hurt, or a reputation one could destroy. The double-standard is clear if we consider what we would think if a politician were put on trial for hate-speech for saying blaming a political party for an economic downturn or accusing members of discrimination. This requires the courage of reconciliation, of admitting we might have been wrong about some things and that people we may have strongly disagreed with in the past might have been right.

Third, we must turn and join the charge against tyranny. Tolerance not a virtue when it tolerates intolerance, and that is precisely where we are and where we will remain if we do not find the solidarity and the courage to put an end to an enemy that isn’t unwilling to throw battery acid, rape, shoot, behead, and bomb whomever they like, and all the while to call for tolerance of its most grotesque crimes. This requires the greatest courage; the courage to acknowledge and accept that the rifle-sight may fall upon you in its sweep across the soldiers of the enlightenment. Many have died, and it is all but certain that many more will join their number before we can declare that we are through this dangerous chapter of history.

But the price of victory over the imposition of totalitarianism is worth it, for a life without freedom is, arguably, a life not worth living. We as a society face a choice: we can choose to accept a tower of death to stand unchallenged in our midst, destroying whom it pleases when it pleases, all the while growing stronger day by day, or we can choose to be intolerant of those who openly and incessantly call for the death of our culture and civilization, and laugh with delight at every sign of this visions’ progress. It is not a choice we may have for much longer.