But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful...Mistrust all who talk much of their justice!...And when they call themselves the good and the just, do no forget that they would be pharisees if only they had--power.
Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
We all want harmony. We all need harmony. When we find ourselves in a group of people that differ greatly from us we feel like outsiders, strangers; we feel a lack of harmony. This discomfort takes on a special relevance for those caught between their sense of personal identity and the prevailing attitudes of society. Such people find themselves torn in two directions. If they focus on who they are, they become strangers in the community at large. If they do what is necessary to join the community, they become strangers to themselves. Such people know what it means not only to feel a lack of harmony, but to live a lack of harmony.
Growing up as a gay person in what Harvey Milk used to call "a fiercely heterosexual society," I've learned what it means to be an outsider. As a result, I find that I have much in common with blacks, Asian Americans, and other minorities. We face many of the same issues. Should we direct energy towards strenthening our own community or towards educating the larger community? Are we willing to assimilate or do we fight for radical change? Do we show humble forgiveness when our community is attacked and hope that in some distant future society will mend its ways or do we decide that "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore"?
There has been much talk in the last few years about how to close the gap for these communities at Stanford, to minimize the dissonance their members feel. Most everyone agrees that change is desirable, but in what direction? We can't seem to make up our minds.
Enter the political activists ready to lead the charge towards a new and brighter tomorrow. All we have to do is require ethnic studies, limit offensive language, forbid fraternities to discriminate against gays, eliminate the word "freshman" by saying "frosh" or "freshperson" instead, and so on.
Require, limit, forbid, eliminate. That is the language of politics. Politics involves a process of coercive manipulation. Its end result is power. And when it fails, it produces tedious and often angry debate.
Harmony is quite different. Its language includes: listen, understand, accept, expand, encourage. Harmony involves a process of loving interaction. Its end result is respect. And when it fails, it produces pain.
Without the pain, the political activists would find no foothold. But pain is the inevitable price of building harmony. The political activists would have us believe that they know a short cut that bypasses the pain, but they're wrong. I know, because their suggestions speak so directly to my own pain.
When I was in high school my pain was summoned daily, almost hourly, by my companions. Visit any high school in America and you'll find it in all of their conversations: fag, faggot, queer, sicko. In desperation I swallowed a bottle of mole poison, hoping to escape that constant barrage. I only succeeded in landing myself in the hospital, but somehow it left me in a state of numbness that allowed me to endure.
Perhaps, then, I should welcome the SCLC with their lengthy document defining the use of such language as a violation of the Fundamental Standard. But somehow I just can't think of a single example of where it would help.
Several young men at Stanford have called me "faggot" to my face. With the SCLC rule, I could have them suspended for a quarter. Will that make them respect gay people more? I think not. Perhaps it would silence them. Again, I think not. It might make them less bold, but not less belligerent. Just two weeks ago someone sent an anonymous message through the computer to me saying, "You disgusting fag." How will the SCLC rule stop that?
Of course, there is always the chance that we could catch them in the act. Once, for example, I knew exactly which freshman had written "Die Fags" in big red letters on the questionnaire he filled out in preparation for a speaking engagement on gay and lesbian issues. He laughed about it as he filled it out in front of his roommate, not realizing that his roommate was gay. We could have used the SCLC rule to have him suspended and then perhaps freshmen would think twice about expressing such thoughts. Of course, it wouldn't bring them any closer to understanding gay people, and it would only increase their feeling of hostility.
And then there is the sticky problem of exactly what kind of speech is covered. A year ago I found myself having trouble explaining to a student why we had taken off points for his solution to a midterm problem. It was a rather subtle mistake and he just didn't see it. I explained it several different ways. Finally he saw it all at once. "Oh," he groaned, "that's so gay!" I'm sure he meant it the way people used to mean, "That's so retarted!" in the days when prejudice against the handicapped was more acceptable. Was his remark meant to stigmatize? Did it constitute fighting words? Was it directed at me, or was he talking to himself? The possibilities for debate are endless.
The biggest problem with the proposed SCLC rule, however, is not the question of how it will be applied, but the reality of how little it addresses. The real problem is the sentiment behind offensive language, not the expression of such sentiment. If I come home to a chilly house and my thermometer tells me that the temperature is 55 degrees, I know to adjust the thermostat or fix the furnace. It does me no good to tell the thermometer, "Stop saying that, you're upsetting me!"
But people aren't thermometers, you might object. They have a conscience and they should be held accountable for their actions (for their furnaces, so to speak). Think about that a minute and decide if you really believe it. If someone does not like people of a certain race, or feels uncomfortable around people of a certain sexual orientation, or objects to women having an equal status with men, can you blame the person for having the feeling? Are you sure enough of your own morality that you can condemn such a person as bad? Do you know enough about human emotion to decide in advance that nothing justifies such a feeling and that such a person, therefore, must deserve punishment? I can't. I remember too well the strong influence of my own imperfect upbringing and I know too much about my own faults to make such a judgement.
But we're not asking them to change their feelings, you object again, we're asking only that they not express ideas that hurt other people. This is exactly my point. The SCLC rule does nothing to reduce racism, sexism, and homophobia. The SCLC rule requires all students to behave as if they were not racist or sexist or homophobic, even if the reality is otherwise. Only a political activist could see this as a victory. As Thomas Jefferson advised those who recommended a similar limitation on expression of non-Christian ideas, "Constraint may make him [a non-Christian] worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man."
So if the SCLC proposal isn't the answer, what else do the political activists have to offer? Distribution requirements. Why not an ethnic studies distribution requirement? While we're at it, why not a gender studies distribution requirement? This question deserves a lengthy discussion, but let me quickly say that I find it equally unsatisfying mostly because I think it will not accomplish its goal. Trying to eliminate racism by making someone take an ethnic studies course is like trying to eliminate atheism by making someone take a religious studies course. It won't work. Human emotions are not greatly influenced by impersonal facts presented in a formal course.
Of course, I still haven't addressed the pain. What about all those students who bear the brunt of racism, sexism, and homophobia? I wish I had a simple answer, but I don't. The way I see it, you have two choices. You can live with the pain or you can live in a world shaped by the political activists.
I guess I just don't believe that the political activists can do much to address what I see as the fundamental threats to harmony: prejudice and misunderstanding. Prejudice is one of the most intractable facets of the human soul. You can cage it in, but that only makes it more angry and more dangerous, more likely to explode unexpectedly with even greater ferocity.
Is that the world you want to live in? Are you willing to accept tolerance instead of understanding? Regulation instead of responsibility? Restraint instead of respect? Debate instead of interaction? Politics instead of harmony?
I made a choice at one point in my life to die rather than put up with the pain any longer, so I can't find it in my heart to fault those in pain for choosing the political activists' solution. But I can't help wishing that they would find the strength and the courage to live with the pain and work towards true harmony.
That doesn't mean accepting the pain as inevitable. For every person who calls me faggot at Stanford, ten others rush to my defense, and together we try to eliminate the misunderstanding and hate in that person's heart. And sometimes we can't eliminate it, but sometimes we can, and that gives me hope.
For me it boils down to whether I want to settle for a well-regulated society of hypocrites where correct behavior is constantly debated in University committees, or whether I'd rather have a community of imperfect people who sometimes hurt each other but who also sometimes help each other, through open and loving sharing, to become better people.
My belief is that the building of true harmony can never be accomplished through politics. Again quoting from Jefferson, "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error...It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself."