A sudden eruption of heat, steam and flame in an otherwise cold night reaches out with its fiery hot tendrils and grabs attention. The bright white and orange colors, dazzling with intensity and menace, flare in the stillness. Those nearby who missed the initial action revel in the thick, black smoke that billows from the retracting blaze. The inferno implodes. The smoke lingers but gradually dissipates.
Silence follows: How did this happen? Surely the air was to blame—atomic particles aligned themselves in a specific fashion to make enthalpy change in such a manner as to make it more likely that heat was released. A simple explanation. The unexpected explosion, which illuminated the night, failed to significantly affect anything outside its immediate vicinity. We are safe. We can forget.
Except there is no such thing as spontaneous combustion. One of my high school history teachers once told me that every major event in history has two components: a tinder and a spark. When examining events critically, a specific action is easy to analyze. The systemic groundwork which set the stage for that action is a far more difficult and complex nut to crack. A lack of empathy for others, unwillingness to respectfully debate ideas and a failure to accept extremes permeate campus and cause people to act hastily without appropriately considering the consequences of their actions.
For some context, a close friend of mine has recently gone through some defining circumstances and endured a dichotomy of social exile and exuberant embracement because of it. My friend’s decision to make a series of public, atypical sexual choices has ostracized him/her from many people on this campus who previously enjoyed his/her company. These decisions were the lit match that set the social system ablaze, but if we want to understand why it burns, we need to look away from anecdotes and look inward.
H. Jackson Brown Jr. said, “Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.” Arguably the biggest ingredient that causes scandals at Duke to blow up is a blatant disregard for other’s humanity. People are social creatures and the temptation to get sucked into rampant gossip or malicious rumors is tempting, but we need to remember that in the end we are talking about other people. No “juicy rumor” is worth attacking another individual in an attempt to destroy their self-worth. People need to recognize the complex combination of pressures, motives and preferences that interact and not dismiss someone’s actions as an unequivocal, absolute moral wrong.
Ultimately, while all undergraduates come together and live together on this campus, we are different people. This means that our personal lives should be exactly that: personal. The preferred lifestyle, occupation or hobbies of someone should not brand them with a scarlet letter and put them on a scaffold for the snide jeers and collective judgment of their peers. If someone is more sexually promiscuous than the conventions accepted as the norm, that’s fine—just like if someone is less sexually active, that is also fine. One’s preferences for his partner are his own and should be devoid of judgment from others. College is, in fact, the greatest time for us to discover ourselves and our own passions while being challenged to accept others for who they are, regardless of our own preferences.
I like to think of myself as an open-minded individual. I am fairly confident that you, my valued reader, also consider yourself to be someone who is open to other ideas and considering actions independent of the agent who espouses them. I challenge you to think of your own set of moral convictions and ideals and wonder where they were derived from. The French novelist Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I implore you to critically analyze how you see the world and orient and reorient yourself. The simple, plain reality is that not everybody shares your beliefs and that your rose-colored glasses are only one vantage point among a spectrum of attitudes about life and what is and is not appropriate.
Opinions, like students at Duke, come from all the corners, nooks and crannies of the world. The more people that are put together in one place at any given time the more likely it is that they are going to disagree and be challenged by each other. This friction of ideas is necessary for dialogue to be created and so the ideas that have the most merit can naturally rise to the top. All sentiments deserve to be heard and considered, but the manner in which they are expressed should be scrutinized. When hot button issues surface on campus, people have a tendency to resort to ad-hominem attacks rather than using logic to demonstrate errors in the opposing idea’s reasoning.
I aim not to convince you but to allow you to convince yourself. Some of the truest facets of human nature are that we can improve, change our perceptions, broaden our horizons and help others do the same. If we want to stop fires, we need to remove the tinder.
Tyler Fredricks is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Wednesday.