Mizzou, Truth, and What Pleases Us

December 14, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments


Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Last month’s heavily publicized protests at the University of Missouri are tragic for several reasons. The racist slur that ignited them is tragic. The fumbled response of the University President is tragic. The threats from a member of Mizzou’s Department of Communication toward the media, calling for “some muscle” when an ESPN reporter was trying to cover the student protests, is tragic. But so is the response of the students. Their protests quickly spun out of control – moving from a specific instance of racism to outrage over everything from systemic racism to sexism to patriarchy. When others with differing viewpoints tried to engage Mizzou’s students on these important issues, the students blew up.

What happened at Mizzou has revealed just how incapable some college students are of having a conversation with someone with whom they disagree. Or, to put it a little less charitably, perhaps these students aren’t so much incapable as they are intransigent. It could be, I suppose, that they simply refuse to listen to viewpoints that differ from theirs. Indeed, the now famous student “safe spaces” are unapologetically touted as places of refuge where students can flee from any idea that triggers in them any sort of emotional distress. In fairness, it should be noted, as The Wall Street Journal rightly points out, that safe spaces are not just cloisters for the thin-skinned:

All of us seek “safety” from genuinely rancid views – how many of us would stay at a party where someone dominated the conversation with overtly racist bloviations? These students have merely overextended the bounds of the conclusively intolerable.[1]

It is true that there are some fools whose foolish viewpoints do not need to be answered according to their folly. The problem is not that students refuse to engage with a particularly rancid viewpoint. The problem is that some students refuse to engage with almost any viewpoint that does not mirror and mimic their own. Even a mildly disagreeable viewpoint, to some students, is an aggressively hostile and morally repugnant viewpoint.

Mizzou’s riots have brought to the forefront a hard reality.  For many people, it no longer matters in any significant degree whether someone who has a viewpoint that opposes their viewpoint has a point. Categories like logic, truth, and prudence – particularly on moral and ethical issues – have been shuffled into the sunset as quaintly archaic interests. What matters most now is how someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel. And if someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel threatened, even if, according to the aforementioned categories, the point should be well taken, it is rejected out of hand. Philip Rieff proved to be quite prophetic when he wrote in 1966, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.”[2] What matters is not whether something is true. What matters is whether people are pleased by it.

It’s not just college students who have fallen prey to this therapeutic bias.  In 2011, Susanna Dilliplane published an article in the Public Opinion Quarterly titled, “All the News You Want to Hear: The Impact of Partisan News Exposure on Political Participation,” where she laments how more and more Americans get their news only from outlets that share their own political views. It turns out that adults have their own “safe spaces” in the forms of cable news channels, Internet sites, and newspapers.

Even the media itself can fail to listen to viewpoints that differ from its editors. A recent article in The Economist asked, “Can porn be good for us?” Several contributors debated the question, almost all of whom accepted the premise that porn can indeed be good for us, a position which The Economist, if its own editorials are to be believed, seems to share. The debate was presented, at least implicitly, as closed. “Porn can be good for us.” But then The Economist posed the question to its readers. 80% disagreed with the newspaper. In one particularly tragic comment, a reader wrote:

Dear Madam,

Can porn be good for us? NO!! My husband has been trapped for forty years now. He stole “our” sex life used it all up for himself.[3]

The Economist thought the answer to its question was obvious. As it turned out, the editors spent too much time listening to themselves and not enough time listening to their readers. They got duped by their own sexually licentious safe space.

It’s time we begin to ask ourselves some hard questions. Have we become a people completely unwilling and unable to listen to those with whom we disagree? Have we become so impervious to arguments that threaten our worldviews that, even if they contain truth, we cannot concede that someone else who does not agree with us on many things may, in fact, have a point on at least one thing?  Have we blithely rejected Patrick Henry’s famed statement – “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it”[4] – preferring to believe lies that make us feel good instead of confronting truths that unsettle us?  Have we become so proud that we can no longer consider and humbly admit that some of what we say and think may, in fact, be just plain wrong, or at least incomplete?

Whether we are students on a college campus or adults with a daily dose of news or a news outlet with a suspiciously stilted question for debate, we seem to have become much less interested in informing ourselves with rigorous analysis and much more prone to amusing ourselves with tendentious pontificating. I fear, however, that we may be doing a little more than, to borrow a book title from Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.”[5]

___________________________

[1] John H. McWhorter, “Closed Minds on Campus,” The Wall Street Journal (11.27.2015).

[2] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 24-25.

[3]Online Pornography: Can porn be good for us?The Economist (11.17.2015-11.27.2015).

[4] Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” (Richmond, VA: St. John’s Church, 3.23.1775).

[5] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Just Passing Through  |  December 14, 2015 at 9:46 am

    “What matters is not whether something is true. What matters is whether people are pleased by it.” Well said. Didn’t the Bible predict this centuries ago?

    I think it’s dangerous to listen to just one side, as one side always sounds right until you hear the other. But more importantly, whatever we listen to must line up with scripture. God’s word is the root and basis of all Truth and will protect us from deception and frivolous arguments. Not all debates deserve our attention or input.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Reply
  • 2. 2015 In Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 4, 2016 at 5:22 am

    […] Students stage demonstrations on college campuses across America protesting what they perceive to be systemic campus racism and Paris is struck by a series of six […]

    Reply

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