Another year, another “scandal.” I use the term loosely. If we call having a porn star a “scandal,” then this probably qualifies as well. Is anyone surprised?
A group of freshmen have opted out of reading “Fun Home”, Duke’s latest summer reading selection. The students believe that reading the graphic memoir — which deals with topics as controversial as feminism, sexual orientation, and mental health — would compromise their Christian morals.
This is not “Fun Home”'s first rodeo with allegations of immorality. Despite receiving critical acclaim (along with enough awards to fill a glorified trophy case), the novel has been subject to repeated calls for its removal from libraries, course syllabi and university-approved reading suggestion lists. When South Carolina’s College of Charleston distributed “Fun Home” to its incoming freshmen in 2013, members of the state legislature reacted hotly, with Governor Nikki Haley ultimately signing a budget that punished the public college by forcing it to use $52,000 of government funds to offer a curriculum with a heavier focus on U.S. founding documents (you can’t make this stuff up).
So far no one has demanded that Duke apologize for selecting the reading. Instead, a handful of students have decided that they will not read “Fun Home” to preserve the sanctity of their faith. While standing up to perceived immorality might be admirable on the surface, the decision not to read the novel comes meddled with likely inconsistencies and unfortunate moral consequences.
I wonder if these same students walked out of Shooters during O-Week when they saw a straight couple grinding, turn off the radio whenever The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” starts to play and routinely skip every scene of Game of Thrones featuring a boob or two. Sure, we all draw lines, and we are all inconsistent. Acknowledging inconsistencies in our standards of behavior, however, allows us to understand how much of our morality actually is rooted in faith. When individuals inconsistently use faith to evaluate the behaviors of others, their faith often becomes little more than a justification for unfairly applied prejudice.
Assumed inconsistencies aside, what worse way is there to offer a moralistic opinion than to do so while consciously isolating oneself from alternative perspectives? Without spoiling the novel, “Fun Home” depicts many of the struggles of growing up identifying as LGBT, both physical and emotional. Included in these struggles is the psychological burden leveraged on LGBT individuals by those who find homosexuality immoral and sinful. Imagine the parallel to LGBT students at Duke, when their peers line up to watch “50 Shades of Grey” but find “Fun Home” morally hazardous.
Though empathy should propel us to make some effort to understand alternative viewpoints on issues that are innately moralistic, logic requires it. Without an open-door policy on competing experiences, ideas and perspectives, our opinions turn from rational thought into ego-inflating malarkey. Far too often, individuals brand one another by their willingness to absorb controversial information. Suggest to a foreign policy hawk that the United States has been anything less than an infallible saint in its centuries of foreign policy, and you will be branded anti-American; tell an Evangelical conservative that you are interested in reading the Qur’an, and you will be labeled a possible terrorist; tell the typical liberal Duke student that you think Ben Carson made a good point in his latest interview, and you will be reflexively considered an ignorant jerk.
These labels harm objective appeals to empathy and logic, and both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of deploying them like missiles. Liberal Duke students have spoken out passionately in response to the few who refused to read the novel, but I question how the boycott of “Fun Home” bears any meaningful difference from 2013’s student walkout on Charles Murray or 2014’s controversy surrounding General Martin Dempsey as the commencement speaker.
As Republicans have bitterly attributed political correctness to partisan divisiveness, conservatives have unleashed a moral backlash against any aspect of popular culture that seems unnatural to them. As Democrats have fought for a preservation of diversity in thought and expression, liberals have trampled on unfettered free speech. Contrary to common perception, both conservatives and liberals see value in censoring certain perspectives; they only differ in which values they use to assess which perspectives are appropriate.
As human beings with reason and empathy, we have a responsibility to ourselves to become aware of our unique biases and preferences. As students at a place like Duke, we have a responsibility to analyze alternative viewpoints when opportunities to do so present themselves. To the freshmen who feel victimized by Duke’s alleged negligence of their faith, gosh, I really do hope you can watch “Game of Thrones” even with its vulgar moments because, let me tell you, that show is incredible.
Brendan McCartney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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