“Just call me Medusa”

The graduate students in the Divinity School are not happy with me.

Mind you, the burden of the letter that they published in the campus newspaper last Friday was to make various demands of my colleagues in the Divinity School: to include students on the Diversity Committee at the Divinity School, to have more programming at orientation “to proactively combat current climate issues,” and to conduct annual surveys of the members of the Divinity School “to maintain transparency as we continue to define our institution in the future.”

But mainly, of course, they are upset with me. So much so that sixty of them--four anonymously--signed the letter. I guess they won’t be taking any classes with me. (Not that I have any slated for next year that they could take for their Divinity School requirements. My faculty appointment is in the Department of History; I only cross-list some of my courses with the Divinity School.) But neither does it seem that any of them knows anything about what I teach, never mind what I have actually said. Certainly, they do not quote me in their letter. Rather, they make inferences from what I (purportedly) said to point to its effect in the “current political climate” at large.

To wit:
...we are compelled to contextualize Fulton Brown’s argument in our current political climate.... No institution can thrive while significant portions of its population are at risk of being marked, targeted, threatened, or silenced. The publication of Fulton Brown’s article [they mean this one] must be understood in its proper context: the escalation of bigotry and its violent effects, both locally and nationally. In fact, the central ideas Fulton Brown relates in her essay resonate with and act as means of harassment and recruitment common to the informal coalition of the self-identified alt-right.... One need not establish whether or not Fulton Brown supports or collaborates with these groups [I don’t, nor has anyone approached me on campus or through other avenues expecting I would], given the bare ideological similitude. What remains essential is the welcome offered to such individuals and organizations by national politics, University policy, and Sightings editorial standards. Unwittingly or otherwise, the publication of Fulton Brown’s article has provided a platform for the proliferation and mobilization of white supremacy, nativism, and patriarchal chauvinism.
In other words, they don’t need to quote me, because it doesn’t matter what I have said. All that matters is the climate that I wrote in. If there are bad people out there who might agree with me, I should shut up. I am, in their minds, a snake. (You saw that coming, right?) I’m cribbing now from Professor Peterson, but what strikes me most about the students’ letter is how it proves once again that I was right.

What I said in the Sightings article was that Milo “scares students, and faculty even more” because he is a fool. Peterson says harlequin, jester, comedian. In Jungian terms, Milo is a trickster, a sacred clown. Think Loki. Coyote. St. Francis. Or Jesus. In Peterson's words:
Trickster figures emerge in times of crisis. And they point out what no one wants to see. And they say things that no one will say.
 In mine:
It is much easier to call Milo names than to accept the challenge he presents. Milo’s tour has made clear how high the stakes are. If you drive out explicit theology from public education, you get not no theology, but only bad theology, theology never properly examined as such. 
Which apparently is about the scariest thing you can say. According to my colleague Amy Dru Stanley, also in the History department, suggesting that religion should be taught as religion (that is, as something worth studying as a source of knowledge and understanding in its own right, not just a cipher for studying society or culture or some other secular mechanism) is worse than wrong. It is “both so specious and odious as not to be worth debating.” To be fair, Amy also included my “opinion on race, sex, [and] gender” in this anathema of my opinion on faith. My beliefs, as Amy reads them, are “hateful” and, just to be clear, “not the values of the History Department--but solely her own.”
“Do not come near,” the LORD said to Moses from the burning bush. “Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5 RSV).
There are only certain species of opinions which are too “odious” or “hateful” to discuss. What might they be? Statements slandering the reputation of particular individuals by, for example, attributing to them things they never said? Calls for ostracism from a community for holding opinions different from the majority? The insistence that intentionally or not something that someone has said is threatening to others because it might be taken out of context and misused? Blaming someone for the actions of others or, worse, the likely actions of others on the basis of no evidence, never mind the total absence of intent?

I understand why Amy and the Divinity School students are upset with me. They are upset because, just as I said in the Sightings article, Milo--and I--have threatened their faith. I am the snake in the garden, the predator who opens the eyes. I am the one saying the things that should not be said lest the values of the community be called into question. I am the one breaking the frame of the myth that gives their life meaning. Worse, I am the one exposing the myth as a frame, calling into question the very reality they perceive.

The students are categorical:
We reject any characterization of students that assume we are incapable of discerning the critical quality of arguments [okay, to be fair, I kinda did, but I meant to exonerate them and lay the blame on their teachers, my colleagues in academia at large for the last thirty or forty years].... We discern and describe our terrain with analytical categories of race, class, and gender that require capacious critical thinking as well as serious engagement with so-called “politically incorrect” speech, not its avoidance. 
Excellent! Let's be politically incorrect! I like the way Professor Peterson puts it, explaining the importance of the fool:
Carl Jung regarded the Trickster as the precursor to the Savior.... It’s a very complicated idea. What it basically means is that in order to find your genuine voice or even to move the truth forward, you have to be willing to be a fool. Because you don’t know enough really to speak on behalf of the truth. By even attempting to do so you’re going to put yourself in an awkward position and make mistakes.... And so you have to be willing to do that. And so that’s really Milo’s position. He’s a provocateur...a comedian.... And comedians say what everyone is thinking but won’t say. And that’s why people laugh. 
You remember what I told you back in November about the importance of laughter and why people like the librarian in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose hate it, yes? Laughter is dangerous--or so Jorge of Burgos would insist--because it threatens to drive out the fear of the Devil, which means that people will not fear God anymore. Without fear, Jorge insists, there would be no way to enforce belief in the Incarnation. There would be no way to enforce the faith.

Why are people so afraid in the “current political climate”? The Divinity School students insist there is cause.
Freedom of expression cannot exist without freedom of subjects... Freedom of subjects requires a prior commitment to protecting the physical, emotional, and intellectual security of all people, especially those most concretely and historically threatened: people of color, LGBTQ+, trans, gender non-conforming people, immigrants, undocumented people, women, religious minorities, and people with disabilities.
They are writing on behalf of those threatened, urging the University to concern itself first with their “physical, emotional, and intellectual security,” and only thereafter with freedom of speech. Their primary value is the safety of the group, above and beyond the exploration of new ideas. They want to scare me--and the University--because they are scared. They see the Devil in Milo (and me) because they see us as blaspheming against the truth, the truth that says all of the subjects that they name are oppressed--and, therefore, in danger.

One of the most fascinating things I have learned listening to Professor Peterson's lectures on personality and the way in which we experience meaning is how important motivation and values are for how we perceive anything at all.

Speaking neurologically, we perceive the world only insofar as we are motivated to act in it. Our perceptual structures are, as Peterson puts it, determined by our goals. Without goals--reasons to act--there is nothing to perceive. Our goals--our projections of our desires into the future--enable us to see. (He talks about this perceptual condition frequently; go here for his complete series of lectures on personality.)

Where do these motivations come from? Simple: the stories that we tell about the way in which we ought to or want to behave. Our perceptions are, quite literally, governed by myth, the stories told over and over again for generations about what it means to be human, to encounter the unknown.

At least some of them are. Some are governed by more recent stories that we have told, about how capitalism is evil because it creates inequality as well as wealth. About how patriarchy (a.k.a. Western civilization) is responsible for all the evils in the world, up to and including the impending destruction of the planet thanks to climate change. About how white heterosexual men have historically been the oppressors of everyone else.

For the Divinity School students, as well as many of my colleagues, these stories are not myths, but matters of fact, to deny which is to be not only willfully blind, but evil. These are the frames through which they orient themselves in the world, the stories that motivate them and give their lives meaning. The stories that, at the deepest level, they need to believe in order to be able to act. My frame story, like Professor Peterson’s, is rather different. (This is what I meant by “religion” in the Sightings piece: the deep stories by which we see the world.)

Again, in his words:
The idea that the West is founded on is that the human soul confronts the potential of Chaos and generates habitable order out of it. And that’s why the individual has divine status in the West. That’s why in our oldest books the human being was made in the image of God. Because God is also the thing that takes potential and transforms it into order. 
This is a profound idea. It’s something that the postmodernists, they hate that idea. They absolutely hate it. And that’s why they won’t do things like engage in dialogue. 
Dialogue is the shared Logos, that’s the root of the word. They won’t engage in dialogue because in their world your identity is either oppressor or oppressed. And that’s all you are. Whatever your ethnicity or your racial group or your sexual identity or whatever identity group they want to come up with, because they can be infinitely fractionated. And you’re either an oppressor or an oppressed. And that’s all there is to you. You’re just a member of a group. 
And if you’re oppressed, then you’re good. And if you’re an oppressor, then you’re bad. But the problem with that, even though there’s some truth in it. Because, like, I could pick out an identity dimension for any of you that you’re an oppressor along, and another dimension along which you’re oppressed. No problem. But the problem with that is, it doesn’t actually tell you what to do. 
This is also the problem with postmodern identity. Identity isn’t just who you think you are. And it’s certainly not your bloody ethnicity or sexual preference or anything so stupid. And the reason for that is your identity is what you use to operate in the world. It’s what makes you a functional person. And not only as far as other people are concerned, but as far as you’re concerned. And also so far as nature itself is concerned. 
An identity is more like the toolkit you use to operate in the world. Being black or being white or being gay, that’s not a toolkit to operate in the world. At best it’s a shallow description of one dimension of your being. An identity is something you have to negotiate with other people because they need to trade with you. If you have something to offer and I have something to offer, then we can communicate. And hopefully it’s good for you, and it’s also good for me. We both benefit from that. And that’s identity. 
These ideas that identity is first of all subjective whim...a really poorly socialized three-year-old thinks that.
It’s time to grow up and learn some new stories. Maybe even some old ones.

Image: “Medusa,” by Caravaggio (1595). Professor Peterson also likes using this image: Medusa makes you freeze because that is our first response to something that might be dangerous, like a snake. Or a new idea.

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