No Offense

The usually insightful Peggy Noonan (WSJ) broached an issue several weeks ago that brought back memories of my college years. It related to an article published by four aggrieved students in the Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, about their sensitivities and concerns that, they claim, are being trampled by some faculty members and elements of the curriculum. What happened?

In the mandatory Humanities Literature course, some of the selections are provocative even if they are not meant to be. The most offensive passage, the writers found, was in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which contained “triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom.” To wit: passages that vividly depict sexual assault in a way that engendered (“triggered” is the phrase de jure) unpleasant reactions in a student who had unfortunately been the victim of such an assault. To add insult to injury, the teacher insensitively focused on “the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery” and did not take care to tiptoe around the feelings of this or any other student. The student “did not feel safe” and “disengaged from classroom discussion as a means of self-preservation.”

Poor child.

We should cut her some slack given her troubling experiences but sometimes one simply has to remain silent and even endure some discomfort. For where does it end? Should every student be pre-screened for disquieting images or incidents in the past that might prove vexatious or irksome when raised in an educational setting?

Perhaps Jews should be exempt from reading the “Merchant of Venice,” pacifists from reading the “Red Badge of Courage,” blacks from “Huckleberry Finn” and vegans from “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Moby Dick.” Or perhaps we should stop reading altogether because the only books that don’t challenge our minds are those that bore us to tears.

Well, the world has certainly changed. When I was a student at Columbia (mercifully, we didn’t read Ovid, who is only being spared prosecution and incarceration because of his untimely demise 1998 years ago), I also had to take Hum Lit and, as I now recall it (having been triggered), the trauma is just being felt. At one time, I too was vexed and irked, and didn’t even realize I was traumatized until now. Maybe that explains everything.

Our Hum Lit class studied the Bible as part of the curriculum, and the professor made it absolutely clear that the Bible was just another work of literature, the product of human hands r”l, and would be studied accordingly. Fresh from Yeshiva, I protested loudly, and rather than use the assigned New Oxford Bible translation, which I soon realized was flawed and inaccurate in several places, I daily brought in my “Mikraot Gedolot.” Every incorrect translation I corrected, every “contradictory” passage I explained as the Sages did, and every question he had on the text I swatted away. He got more miserable by the day, often cutting me off and not letting me speak.

And then one day he asked me to see him after class, and I did. My professor – interestingly enough – had attended yeshiva in his youth and so was familiar enough with the Hebrew original to know that I was right but had lapsed years earlier in his observance and Jewish commitment. He did not appreciate my theologizing the Bible, as I did not appreciate his secularizing it.

At our meeting, he shared his concerns. He didn’t mind the discussions as much as he did my assumption that the Bible was the Word of G-d and had to be analyzed with respect, humility and sensitivity. That assumption had no place or even standing in a secular university, and then he popped the question: “Why are you here? You belong in yeshiva!”

At the time, I was too young and innocent to realize the great offense that I should have taken and the trauma inflicted upon me. Imagine – a professor telling a student that his views are so unwelcome he should leave and find another place to study! Today, a professor who suggested that would be tarred and feathered, ridiculed and scorned, lambasted and fired after he took the required sensitivity training courses so that he should be able to re-enter society and not be forever banished to the wilderness.

We weren’t so fragile then, apparently, and so I simply responded that he is right – I do belong in Yeshiva – but, nonetheless, if I have some expertise in one of the books in the curriculum, and in its original language, I should be allowed to share it, and especially since the class seemed very interested in what I had to say (or at least – it was the 1970s – enjoyed seeing any professor successfully refuted by a student). I actually appreciated the dialogue, his sentiments, our exchanges and the rest of the semester. He even directed me – and only me – to answer a finals essay comparing something from the Bible to another work of literature (the rest of the class had a choice of essays) and I simply refused, noting on my exam that on religious principle I do not compare G-d’s word to that of human beings.

The writers herein went on protest the use of various tracts in the “Western” canon, “narratives of exclusion and oppression [that] can be difficult to read as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” (There goes “The Great Gatsby.”) They also protested a classmate who urged the teacher not to assign Toni Morrison books because they had been studied already in high school; such a request was “insensitive.” And they found that, too often, the great works of literature traumatized some students and silenced others.

Memo to writers: get over yourselves and grow up. Part of maturity is learning how to deal with all types of people from all types of backgrounds, even with people who are so clueless and insensitive that they would try to impose blasphemous views on a naïve teenager fresh from years of learning Torah. The writers – and their sympathizers, which might constitute a majority of young people today – seem to feel that they have a constitutional right not to be offended, and that if they ever are offended, the fault lies with the offenders who must be officially silenced, sometimes (if they are fellow students) expelled, sometimes (if they are professors) dismissed, and always dispatched for sensitivity training that is right out of Mao’s Little Red Book.

Imagine, just imagine, if rather than rebuked and put in their place, a professor had said to them: “Why are you here? You belong in another school. Here we study the classics, here we challenge minds, here we confront our premises, here we learn to hold our emotions in check and engage our minds.” Yeah, right.

Naturally, the University has already caved. The curricula will be adjusted, the faculty is on notice that “trigger warnings” must be issued in case a problematic passage is assigned for reading or discussed in class, and everyone is on notice to walk on eggshells around the highly sensitive, i.e., anyone who wants to bully others into silence. What a shame that is – an insult to the university (any university), to their fellow students and to these students themselves who are grotesquely ill-prepared to enter the real world having lived in a politically correct cocoon their entire lives.

But maybe they are right after all. With the intimidators prevailing, traditional values weakening and free expression stifled, these delicate flowers have found a rapt and receptive audience. Civil society is already under siege. Few have the stomach to fight back against censorship and risk being branded racists, haters, etc. Tolerance is a one-way street. If this is the new normal, then pity higher education.

One thing is true: unprepared as they are for the real world – its frustrations, disappointments, imperfections and, yes, offenses – the writers are unlikely to have any impact beyond the college campus. Except, that is, for the restrictions they impose on their fellow students who actually attend college to learn things they did not know rather than have the tired clichés and biases of their adolescent minds validated. And that seems to be a waste of time and money.

Perhaps, as my professor suggested to me so many years ago, it would be best if they just went elsewhere. And talked only to themselves – after screening any potential conversations for “triggers” that will shatter their cozy world.

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14 responses to “No Offense

  1. Avi Keslinger

    Some people in the Orthodox would agree with the professor regarding where you belonged. LOL. However, the question of where to draw the line can be very tricky. What about coarse language and explicit sexual content and illusatrations, both of which are de rigueur today?

  2. Agreed. But you can expect a secular college to reflect the tawdriest aspects of the culture.
    -RSP

  3. Mathew Hoffman

    Rabbi

    An insightful piece as usual. And I am awed by your willingness to fight for Torah even when you were young. Things have not changed much.

    However, I wonder if the “thought police” we have today would protect the views you expressed as a college student. It seems to me that they “protect” students and others of certain views. They seem quite insensitive to the offense they themselves cause in expressing their views and, as you point out, free speech is no longer valued . Thus, for example, try expressing conservative political views on certain campuses. So, I wonder if today whether a professor who expressed the irrational and unfair ones yours did would be disciplined and if he or she were disciplined, they might become a cause célèbre.

    Good shabbos.

    Mathew Hoffman
    Of Counsel
    Graybar Building
    420 Lexington Avenue, 18th floor
    New York, New York 10170
    Tel: 212-687-6262 | Direct Dial: 212-885-8861
    mhoffman@bartonesq.com | http://www.bartonesq.com |bio | vcard
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  4. I, too, read Peggy Noonan’s article. Many, many years ago when I was in college, there was a treatise titled “Student As N–ger” which was on the required reading list. As you can gather from the title (which would certainly “trigger” all manner of negative responses today, but only mild chuckles back in the day) students were portrayed as second class citizens or “slaves” of the professors or “masters” who held all the power and defied contradiction. Students were not allowed opinions, the ability to challenge, but were only to be sponges soaking up professors rhetoric (wisdom). The point of this selection was to wake us students up, stimulate us to action in the classroom, so that we were NOT just to sit and vegetate, but to engage, revolt, and participate in the class, but, more importantly, in LIFE. It was a lesson I took to heart throughout my career and my life. Nothing is really gospel, except the word of God. Or, in other words, open your mouth, but have a cogent argument based on facts, not “feelings”.

  5. PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas admitted in an Arabic interview, that his family was forced to flee in 1948 CE due to threats by Arab leaders.

    Jews were NOT responsible!

    SOURCE:
    http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/Abbass-Fable

  6. Egyptian Cleric Salam Abd Al-Qawi said this 2009 January 8:

    “Our hatred of the Jews is based upon our faith.
    The Koran tells us to hate them, not to love them.”

    SOURCE: Muslim Anti-Semitism Compilation
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6Ond1ESq8

  7. “If the Jews left Palestine to us, would we start loving them?

    Of course not. We will never love them. Absolutely not.

    Your belief regarding the Jews should be, first, that they are infidels.

    And second, that they are enemies.

    They are enemies not because they occupied Palestine.

    They would have been enemies even if they did not occupy a thing.”

    SOURCE: Muslim Anti-Semitism Compilation
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6Ond1ESq8

  8. Qatari Cleric Muhammad Al-Muraikhi said on Qatar TV:

    “We will treat the Jews as our enemies,
    even if they return Palestine to us,
    because they are infidels.”

    SOURCE:
    Muslim Anti-Semitism Compilation, 2009 January 9
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6Ond1ESq8

  9. PAT CONDELL SAID:

    “All anyone needs to know about the Middle East conflict is that: the Jews want peace and the Arabs don’t, because the Arabs hate Jews for religious reasons and they want them dead. Politics and territory are just excuses.”

    SOURCE:
    Why I support Israel by Pat Condell
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHC8KC5cLs8

    MICROBIOGRAPHY:
    Pat Condell is an atheist who was born in Ireland around 1950 CE and raised in England as a Roman Catholic and educated in Church of England schools.

  10. Rabbi, now you’re really asking for it. Not only will you be characterized as a hater of Palestinians but after this column you will be labeled as a callous and uncaring clergyman who blames the victim. Don’t be surprised to see your name splashed across the front page of one of your favorite weeklies whose publishers lie in wait for your next politically incorrect musing.

    It goes without saying that your column expresses wisdom and perspective not often seen or heard in today’s topsy-turvy society.

  11. Palestinian Cleric Wael Al-Zarrad said on Hamas/Gaza TV:

    “In short, these are the Jews.

    As Muslims, our blood vengeance against them will only subside with their annihilation, Allah willing, because they tried to kill our prophet [Mohammed, born around year 570 CE, died 632 CE] several times.”

    SOURCE:
    Muslim Anti-Semitism Compilation, 2008 February 28
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu6Ond1ESq8

  12. While I understand that the example sighted is not essential to your argument, I do see a tremendous lack of sensitivity in your equation of offending someone’s beliefs to triggering a traumatic reaction in a victim of violence, and your sarcastic sympathy towards said victim – “poor child.”

    At the risk of starting an analogy contest: If a congregant of yours lost a family member in a auto accident, would you include a story of a car crash in your drasha that week? I would assume not, no matter how helpful the story might be to supporting the point of your speech.

    While I agree that the line is hard to define, I think once actually has such a reaction to a specific stimulus it is reasonable to be a little more sensitive when presenting such literature in the future.

    Yes, I get the irony of making this comment on a post about people being too sensitive, but I’d rather hear of people erring on the side of sensitivity – especially shul Rabbis.

    • That week? No. Never? Of course not. You are asking for never. There must be children in your class who have lost a parent. Do you not teach the mitzva of Kibud Av v’Em? Is that insensitive? Should a rabbi not speak of Shemirat Shabbat because some who are not will take offense? Not oppose lashon hara because the gossipers will take offense? Ridiculous.
      The most common liberal cliche is to accuse someone of insensitivity. Frankly, I find you insensitive, always picking on words or phrases, out of context and not essential to the basic theme, all to show your supposed moral superiority. So, get off your high horse!
      Of course, I’m not serious, but there it is, in print: you are insensitive.
      I guess we all are.
      Oh, and I expect more from a rebbe…
      – RSP

      • I purposely lead by saying that I can separate the original example from your main idea. I agree with your point about tiptoeing around offending people’s values and beliefs. What I found insensitive was your sarcasm towards a victim of sexual abuse and your equation between reliving trauma to having one’s belief system offended. (Yet that somehow devolved into you claiming that I think that one shouldn’t oppose lashon hara.)

        And I am not asking for “never” on anything that can potentially traumatize. However I am arguing that once a specific stimulus does evoke such a reaction, it is reasonable to consider removing it permanently (depending on how crucial a source it is) or at least to consider provide a warning beforehand.

        Do you really not appreciate these distinctions?