Twelve angry Carls sat around a table, in another one of those Wednesday night conversations. Except it was a trial, with someone, or perhaps some idea, in the defendant’s seat. They all agreed that the accused was guilty, with the exception of one. This quiet skeptic looked around, and with a voice so soft that it shook the room, the skeptic whispered: “not guilty!”
At least I hope this is how Twelve Angry Carls would play out. Recently I’ve become worried. Do these skeptics exist? Would they be strong enough to have that all-important trait of being opposite?
Case in point: “I used to teach a class on Islam,” said one of my professors last year, “but I found this impossible to do at Carleton.” How could this be the case at our Carleton, this magical place where ideas bloom through a vigorous and free exchange of ideas? The professor told us: his examination of Islam was one that extended beyond this faux-postmodern relativism that has become de rigueur in colleges across the country. His students rejected this approach. Any criticisms he directed towards Islam were perceived as racist, and his students closed their ears.
What does it mean for a student to close his or her ears? It means the student ceases to be a student. So this unfortunate professor never taught another class about Islam at Carleton. There was simply nothing else to be done. This professor was one of the most impressive teachers that I encountered during my time at Carleton, so I imagine that this was a great loss for our school’s academic climate.
Since this shock I have become increasingly aware of the fact that the public discourse that happens at Carleton is surprisingly intolerant of opinions that stray outside this cage of generic liberalism that we’ve created. Our intolerance is insidious in that it actually stems from one of Carleton’s best traits, which is our community’s deep desire for tolerance. What forms does this curious intolerant tolerance take?
Consider that omnipresent device of labeling opinions we disagree with as privileged, racist, sexist, etc. Your brow is probably furrowing up in anticipation of outrage right now so let me say that I am, in theory, completely in favor of the use of these terms. That which is racist should be labeled as such. But here’s the problem: too often we use these terms not as a means of criticizing an idea, but as a means of excluding an idea. Racism is not a Boolean label, and yet how something is racist seems to me to be a lot less frequently discussed than whether something is racist or not. As if labeling an idea as racist does all the work of throwing it in the garbage bin. We don’t criticize, but we ostracize ideas in this fashion out of laziness. It allows us to keep our hands clean.
Combine this laziness with the general homogeneity of opinions we have in our public discourse and you end up with a real problem. It becomes very difficult for people to express a non-normal opinion. Tocqueville already identified this very problem in the young American culture that he studied: “In America the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion: within these barriers an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them.”
During his talk at Carleton, Salman Rushdie said that a cab driver he met in Egypt told him, referring to The Satanic Verses, “In Egypt your book is banned,” but “Everyone has read it!” In some places those in power step in to protect the established dogma from criticism. At Carleton we do all the work ourselves. It seems to me that this sort of voluntary censorship we engage in as a community is even more effective than the kind of censorship enacted by force, which according to this book-loving driver, is not very effective at all in practice.
Here is another story about intolerant tolerance: I have in general found that personal discussions at Carleton are not homogeneous at all. Carleton is a community made up of people who are, on the whole, very thoughtful, and have many opinions that could never be labeled as “generic.” I wish these fantastic people would become more active in the many great print outlets that our school has for public discourse. However, what I hear over and over from these people is that they will do no such thing. They know their friends and acquaintances well. They know that the community as a whole won’t accept any opinions that stray from the Carleton dogma. I used to think that these people were simply afraid of being exposed to criticism. However, after considering the nature of intolerant tolerance, I now see that it is the opposite: these people are afraid that their ideas won’t be criticized. Instead, they fear that dreaded label, and then the garbage bin.
I believe that the life of the mind at Carleton is, though not terrible, surprisingly constricting in certain respects (I wonder what sort of rating Freedom House would give us). Professors need to be careful about what they teach in their classes. Students don’t feel free to exercise their freedom of expression. Even the books we read seem to be de facto censored by our own busy lives. Every time I am seen reading a book for fun in public I seem to be asked that generic question: “what class are you reading that book for?” Reading at Carleton is dead. We need Geordi Laforge and the Reading Rainbow crew to come here.
Do you remember when Sunday used to be a part of the weekend? This is the extent to which we have been changed and shackled by our own community. Enough is enough! I feel the birth of a new group of students who are anxious to break out of their self-created chains. They reject dogma in all its forms. Politically, they are on the left and on the right, but perhaps they are also on the up and down, front and back. Black and white are different words for gray in their dictionary. They are rude, and they are polite. They will leave no stone unturned in their quest for learning, but while doing so, they will worry that even that may be a mistake.
Remember: to be against this article is to be one of them...one of us!