Here’s the latest from our sometime guest columnist. This one will make some noise, I expect. With no further ado:
WHAT PRICE SAFETY?
By Lawrence Christon
A mad, obsessive ship’s captain destroys everyone on board, save one, in his vengeful mission to kill a whale. An unhinged barber slits the throats of his patrons and delivers their bodies to an accomplice who chops them up and sells them as meat pies. In a fit of jealousy, an enraged mother murders her three children as an act of vengeance against her philandering husband. Three brothers murder their slovenly drunken father.
These are ghastly scenes from literary or theatrical classics. Someone deeply sympathetic toward the plight of whales may be appalled at Ahab’s arrogant heartlessness in “Moby Dick.” Someone going to the theater expecting a musical in the “Cinderella” canon may be nauseated by the blood that flows in “Sweeney Todd.” We see all too much of contemporary “Medeas” and “The Brothers Karamazov” in the news, where newscasters, unlike classical authors and dramatists, show a disclaimer for sensitive viewers, and pixels out the gore anyway. And there are some people with brutal family histories to whom this really may all be too much.
So what did you do, let’s say in the era before flower power wilted into the Me decade, up through the late ‘60s, when you were in college and read or heard something in class that was so upsetting that you couldn’t think straight and felt sick to the core of your existential being, as I was after reading Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”? Maybe you spoke up. Maybe you looked around to see that no one else appeared especially perturbed, and just gutted it out to the end of the session. Maybe, like me (though I was past my college days when I read ‘Last Exit’), you took a long stunned walk on legs unsteadied by the unspeakable horror of what humankind is capable of.
You could slip out for a drink or a cup of coffee, or read a magazine in the can; have a toke; listen to music. Talk to a friend. One way or another, you assimilated a radically unpleasant experience and recognized it as something that, real or metaphoric, happens in the world. You coped.
Now, as Judith Shulevitz writes in The New York Times, schools like Brown have special rooms set up for people upset by unpleasant ideas or opinions. She describes the Safe Space as a room “equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies.”
There’s a temptation to ask if formula-filled bottles with rubber nipples are also on hand, in what seems an increasingly infantilized generation of undergraduates hurled by trigger warnings out of the lap of the gods into those of wet nurses. In principle, the idea of the safe room has its defenders, even if its reality appears almost literally comical, and the actual origin of the trigger warning came from a legitimate source—a young woman who had been sexually molested asking if there was some way she could be spared having to deal with the topic of sexual violence in class.
The Shulevitz article has created a stir with those — particularly conservatives – who worry about what’s going on with the education of our leaders of tomorrow. (They fear, in short, that we are producing coddled liberals.) I’m inclined to think that journalist Phoebe Maltz Bovy is closer to the mark when she implies that that the kids are all right. More or less. In this week’s New Republic, she writes that our reported over-tender student sensibilities, “…in no way resembles anything I observed teaching undergraduates over the past several years at New York University…I also wouldn’t be so quick to assume that students are, in fact, hypersensitive.”
She questions the scope of the Safe Space idea (is it just elite universities?) and wonders too if the safe environment, an intellectually gated community, isn’t something the schools aren’t offering themselves in exchange for hefty tuition fees levied on the well-off parents of spoiled post-adolescents.
I see a larger picture here, first sketched out in the 1980s, where historians and social observers like Robert Hughes could write, in books like “Culture of Complaint,” of how the tyrannical inner child had successfully usurped the doddering adult in reconceiving infantile demands as inalienable rights. Haste and oversimplification, not eloquent or irreducible simplicity, have come to rule the arts, history, and our oxygen-starved world of ideas. It’s all now re-defined as the marketplace of ideas as the global market concocts ways to make revenue-generating metrics of the unquantifiable.
Rigor, discipline, complexity, disappointment and sometime failure are the lot of us all in our passage through this vale of tears (or Happy Faces, depending). To give a trophy to every kid on both winning and losing teams is to devalue its meaning and falsify the terms of struggle.
It’s the nature of young people, even the privileged, to hunger for truth and meaning, as we’ve seen in the wildly popular philosophy seminars of Harvard professor Michael Sandel. Still, it seems a paradox of the age that we can be so deeply narcissistic and at the same time so devoid of the individuality it takes to deal with, or even try to understand, the world as it is.