By Dr. David Cowan
This comment originally appeared on The Catholic Herald site 30th September, 2016
An academic colleague of mine summed it up. She was exasperated, she said, at always being told by her students what they feel. She wants to know what they think.
Across academia, logic and reasoning are being crowded out by the emotions and feelings of students. Many teachers find that, when they attempt to open up a conversation, that only creates more emotional storms, rather than calm debate and authentic attempts to understand each other.
It’s well-known that campuses are increasingly defined by trigger warnings, fears of “micro-aggressions”, and fears of cultural appropriation. One recent example was a welcome event at Clark University in Worcester. A student nervously raised her hand and took the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this…when I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?” The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, was a clear “no.” The “N” word may be in a song by a black artist, but it is not for white people to sing-along.
Some warnings seem helpful, almost innocuous. Professors might want to warn students of offending images or themes, such as the portrayal of blacks in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or flagging discussion of rape cases. Micro-aggressions refer to words or acts which inadvertently offend others, such as asking a British woman who looks Asian “where are you really from?” as it implies she is not truly British. A white person blacking their face like a minstrel does cause offence to a black person.
However, the boundaries are being pushed much further. It is argued that advocating the “American Dream” is a micro-aggression because it assumes opportunity is available to all, rather than perceived bias toward the mostly white portion of American society. It seems absurd that some students argue ignoring triggers creates situations where the content causes symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in “victims.” The key term that has also come into play is “without permission,” which sounds even more alarm bells.
Such warnings, though well-intentioned, are turning into challenges to free speech in the classroom and lead to students avoiding hard topics for fear of offending, particularly in respect to race, gender, U.S. imperialism, and even religion.
If we are to have meaningful dialogue in an increasingly angry world, trolled by social media, we need understanding of why and how we are different, since commonality only goes so deep. We all need to be sensitive to the views and experiences of others, and education and dialogue help to achieve this, but education is also about fostering a degree of robustness in argument and allowing room for both traditional and progressive voices.
So Catholics should be wary of those – like one anonymous professor at a liberal arts college – who want to extend trigger warnings to conservative or religious students. The professor proposed warning about foul or sexual language, sexual content, or violence “in order to allow our very conservative students to feel more in control of the material.” Many religious students are more resilient than this comment suggests.
Moreover, the role model for Catholic students is Jesus, who was condemned by the state and spat upon and cursed by the populace as he made his way to the place of crucifixion. Likewise, for most of America’s history Catholics have had to fight against marginalization by the old Protestant establishment. Catholics thus know what it means to be marginalised and can show sympathy for those others who equally seek recognition in society.
The campus is the place where tomorrow’s leaders, decision-makers, opinion-makers, teachers, writers and intellectuals are being formed, and the same is true of tomorrow’s Catholics. The worry is that Catholic students who do not go along with the new progressive establishment are bullied into submission and silenced (a problem exacerbated by social media), or they self-censor to protect themselves and create their own safe space.
If students are to defend traditional Catholic identity and challenge misrepresentation of Catholicism on campus, then they probably need more theological support from chaplaincies and congregations than they are getting.
In his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI said: “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.” The world is in even more trouble than back then, and Catholic students need to participate in what Pope Benedict called a new trajectory of thought, promoting an understanding of how we relate to each other to live more authentically.
5/16/2017 0 Comments
By Dr. David Cowan
This comment originally appeared on The Catholic Herald site 1 September, 2016
University campuses across America and in Britain have long debated racial inequality, but in recent months the emerging race issue has been black slavery. Many universities have had their slave origins “outed”, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia.
The latest to seek reparation is the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington DC. In 1838 the University sold 272 slaves working on Jesuit plantations in southern Maryland, and used the proceeds to pay off the university’s debts, receiving $115,000 in the sale, the equivalent of about $3.3 million today.
In offering an apology and seeking reparation, the University has decided that the descendants of those 272 slaves will now receive admission to the university on the same basis as other legacy applicants whose parents or siblings are alumni.
The policy, which does not include financial aid, reportedly will apply to descendants of all the slaves whose labour benefited Georgetown, not just the 272 slaves. This policy is a slightly curious – not to say privileged – solution which assumes these descendants actually want to apply for the university and can afford the $70,000 it costs to go there.
The university was cautioned “against a utopian pursuit of reconciliation”, so Georgetown President John DeGioia said they had to use what Edmund Burke called “moral imagination”.
He explained: “In particular, we have been troubled by how the lack of moral imagination – the inability to see black human beings as deserving of equal dignity – could lead to institutionalised trade in their bodies and labour. By extension, we have asked ourselves how our society and its business practices might lack moral imagination today. In what ways does our economy and its institutionalised trade make us blind to injustices?”
Interesting that he should use Burke’s phrase from Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke described the destruction of civilising manners by the revolutionaries, stating: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
Burke then wrote: “On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”
Instead, Burke believed that the spirit of religion sustains moral imagination, along with a whole system of manners. Lacking such imagination, he says, means that we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow”.
The discord and confusion of the antagonistic student protest and identity politics, promoted with great media success, is a call for all and sundry to apologise for slavery in the United States, bolstered by a populist notion – only in true in part – that America was built by oppressing African Americans, for which reparations are now demanded.
In the groves of academe, and indeed elsewhere, the revolutionary cry is to tear down statues, rename buildings, get rid of emblems of this past, change the language, all the while paving a way to the gallows to judge the past. These are the calls for penitence.
Today’s leaders cannot apologise, or take responsibility, for what their predecessors or other society leaders did, but Georgetown has forged a version of the three-step process of apology. The first step is the acceptance one has wronged another. The second step: this is communicated as an acknowledgement. This taking of ownership is the means of taking a third step, which is the attempt towards reparation or reconciliation, which may or may not be accepted or achieved.
Georgetown has acknowledged and accepted the sins of the past, and communicated this with steps of reparation, but can it achieve reconciliation? Forgiveness of those sins has long since been in the hands of God, for both the victims and the perpetrators. This theological point is not offered in the report.
Slavery is clearly a wrong, but there is still an awful lot of it about. It is a wrong that goes back to the earliest days of human organisation, and it is a mark of progress in the capitalist and democratic organisation of society that it was gradually phased out normatively, along with appalling conditions experienced by many other workers.
Despite this, there are still, according to International Labour Organisation estimates, roughly 21 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labour, while the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation estimates there is over 45 million in slavery today. Modern slavery takes many forms, such as forced labourers, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child brides in forced marriages and other expressions of property and chattel in the servitude of absolute ownership. The United States, per capita, has a very low rate of slavery of a mere 0.02 per cent, or one in every 5,000 people, which still adds up to a lot, namely an estimated 60,000 slaves in America today.
The Georgetown report, spanning some 100 pages, is surprisingly light on moral argument, and even lighter on theological reflection. It gives an impression, in short, of being a morality tale forged in haste by committee. The main task of the report is to record – dare I say, confess – the history of the acts of slavery at the university. The main objective is then to outline as many different swords to fall upon as possible.
What can be better achieved is the learning of past events and avoiding the repetition of history, though sadly humanity is all too adept at doing so in different ways. Protesting students, rightly horrified by the past, would do well to turn from prosecuting those whom God alone can judge and reconcile, and turn their energies to modern slavery.
One theological approach to highlight as the university continues to consider its history is that offered by St Ambrose of Milan, who explained in a letter that it is not nature that makes a person a slave, but folly, and it is not emancipation that makes someone free but learning.
By Dr. David Cowan
This comment originally appeared on The Catholic Herald site 1 September, 2016
Retweeting and changing your profile picture feeds the beast of social media but really changes very little
September 2 was a viral anniversary. Of course in our social media age, viral anniversaries occur every day, but last year on this date social media went viral with the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish background, lying face down in the water. He had died on September 1. It led to an outpouring of online rage and demands that something must be done.
Almost a year on, we had a new image of Syria. The image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, sitting in an ambulance covered in bomb dust looking dazed but alive.
Two boys in Syria. The contrast of the boy who fled and the boy who stayed. The two pictures are icons of suffering, and in the interim period nothing has really changed. Again, the rage and the demands come and go. Nothing changes, but the beast of social media is fed and satisfied. St John of the Cross wrote: “Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved.” People on social media feel great things, and they no doubt feel they have achieved something when they retweet, like or change their profile picture.
However, there is a futility about social media. It produces and promotes iconic images of suffering, and much more besides, but sadly it says more about us than it does about the people involved and the situation. Of course, suffering has always been like that – there but for the grace of God, and all that.
Suffering is one of the unpleasant words that remain in our vocabulary. As political correctness and feelgood-speak seeks to re-orientate our discourse in certain directions, it is one of the words that needs expunged. We believe instead of suffering that we can and should do something about it, or at least someone should do something about it, and of course there is always someone else to blame.
On social media, icons such as the two Syrian boys have a different and very secular result, as the likes and comments and demands all speak about us and what we want. However, if we look at the religious reason for icons, they came into being to help people to pray. An icon of suffering is one that should stop us in our tracks, causing us to fall to our knees and look to God for understanding. The point of suffering is to see what God wants, not what we want.
Returning to St John of the Cross, he wrote: “Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”
Social media is its own highly populated thicket, and people in their addiction to it can be lost in the thickets for days on end, but perhaps amidst the thicket of images, causes and mindless trivia in social media, these icons of Syrian suffering may move some to go beyond the indignation and online scolding and choose to pray.
Dr. David Cowan
Trump rages while Hillary laughs all the way to the White House
Just before the summer break, I blogged what I thought was the Trump communications strategy. I was right to a point, in that I said he would be nominated with the strategy he had. Having beat a particular drum to get on the slate and nominated, calling on a particular base of the party, I then fully expected him to change his approach and become more mainstream to appeal to a broader audience. This bit I got wrong, it has not happened, why?
Trump is running his campaign like the CEO of a business, rather than a political campaign; this is the reason why. I’ve worked in communications roles with CEOs and observed them at close quarters. They can easily find themselves in a bubble and curiously more concerned with trivia than the big picture. They run a command and control form of leadership, whatever they may write in opinion pieces, say to journalists or preach at the annual shareholder meeting.
One CEO I worked for, one far wealthier than Mr. Trump, couldn’t get past a publication I was discussing with him because it had a picture of him with employees which did not have him at the center of the group. It was actually a very good picture of him and showed him in a natural situation with employees, but he argued and told me the picture had to be replaced with one of him in the center. Publication project delayed, picture changed, childish CEO whim satisfied.
You see CEOs want what used to be called “yes men.” I was never one of those. I guess political candidates respond warmly to “yes” men and women as well, but I suggest also they listen to contrarian voices because it is alternative voices that get stop them getting elected. They need to understand the opposite point of view and the range of feelings outside of their own range, because if victorious they will have to govern supporters and opponents alike.
CEOs do not generally behave this way, they want to make decisions and get their way. It is not in the nature of CEOs really to listen to others and weigh up the evidence, that is done by the line managers and customer care centers as they try to deal with the difference between the image sold and the product or service bought.
Trump is the same, acting like a CEO rather than a politician, and he no doubt thinks that is a good thing. He wants people around him to reinforce his picture of reality. In my book on communications, I wrote that good and bad behaviors in an organization emanate from the top, and Trump is a classic case. What he permits ripples throughout his campaign.
As November approaches, don’t think the parlous state of Trump’s campaign is about Trump or his people going off message or bullying to the detriment of the campaign. It is the campaign. Trump is the campaign, and he himself is off message and a bully. He is, in short, unelectable.
His antics are also obscuring his opponent, to her benefit. As November approaches, Hillary Clinton is getting a largely free pass when it comes to true scrutiny of a candidate. That will have to wait until after November and 4 years of another Clinton White House. By backing Trump, the GOP has failed its supporters and it has failed the general electorate of America.
Dr. David Cowan
Donald Trump has exceeded expectations because the expectations were so low in the first place. The problem with much of the analysis of Donald Trump the candidate is that it either tries to look at policy content or to set him up as a buffoon. What we really ought to look at is the manner of his communication and realize that Mr. Trump knows his audience, and he understands the means of modern communication very well. This means he can be flexible over content, and whatever else he may be he is not a buffoon.
There are three elements to his communication campaign: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The good – First, he is not an insider as I discussed yesterday. He is not part of DC nor is he a “professional” politician. Opponents mentioned, and still do, President Obama’s political career amounting to being little more than a community organizer before he was a candidate. Mr. Trump, however, comes with considerable experience of running a large business. Will he become a breath of fresh air? He’ll certainly be a different politician, and he already is, because his campaign is not the conventional political campaign, it is a modern communications campaign.
Traditional campaigns try to control the language and the response. They try to match idea A to response A, idea B to response B, and so on. Mr. Trump lets things get out of control and uses incendiary language, so that idea A gets responses A through Z. He wants to create a “communication noise,” and in that noise he can target specific groups. As his candidature evolves, so does his approach. He has his base, and now he’s got everyone’s attention. This was not going to happen without making a noise, and getting everybody talking and tweeting.
The next step he needs is to narrow the responses, and start to address those who might now listen to him, if he can say the right thing. However, he needs to do this deftly, as he has to confront the bad and the ugly that has gotten him to this stage.
The bad – Even his supporters will admit he has divided many people, but rather than distressed about it they’re happy, because for them this is Mr. Trump making a stand. Yet, if he is to win then he has to get some of the people still opposing him on his side, and of course this includes finalizing the GOP nomination. In his communications strategy, he has allowed for this, because from the outset he would have known that the GOP would never embrace him with open arms. So, you don’t communicate as if they are, not in expectation, nor in hope.
Mr. Trump knew from the start he was in for a rough ride, so what to do? Make the ride rougher. This not only gets attention, it also shakes complacency in your opponent. Keep rattling them, keep them running in different directions, while you ruthlessly pursue your own agenda. This is high stakes, but if Mr. Trump pulls it off, then what a coup. He can show how he turned his opponents around, and his endorsement makes him someone who can bring this all together. This, I suggest, for an outsider was the only realistic strategy for achieving success.
At the moment all the talk is inward looking, it’s about the GOP. Once nominated it will all be about the Democrats and shaking the complacency that will have gotten Mrs. Clinton nominated. If her complacency, or that of her campaign managers, leads to portraying Mr. Trump as a buffoon and asking America to elect the sensible candidate, she will most likely lose. She’ll need to be cleverer than this.
The ugly – Which brings us to the ugly. To date there is much that has been ugly about the GOP campaign. The style of Mr. Trump’s attacks and the disgraceful behavior and online intolerance of a significant portion of his followers has made this a very ugly campaign. On one level, the sooner he distances himself from such behavior the better and he will be able to concentrate his attempts on appealing to a broader voter base. Many of the people who condemned him in the past will at some point change their tune, commentators always do, because they want to be seen to be backing the clever money. On another level, he will need to launch an assault on his opponent. All the things that happened during the GOP nomination are largely neutralized by the fact it was the GOP nomination process, just as much of what Mr. Obama said about Mrs. Clinton was neutralized when he was nominated. It doesn’t go away of course, and Mr. Trump’s opponent will drag up the past, but the past is rarely effective in these campaigns, unless it is the far distant past, and Mrs. Clinton has her own fair share of that.
Mr. Trump’s Communication Coup
Mr. Trump, with this strategy, will get the nomination and you should not underestimate him for getting the presidency, and if he wins it will be a modern communications coup. This is not my hope, nor is it an endorsement; it’s just a reading of his communications strategy and our media age. This is how a communicator wheels and deals, and yet again Mr. Trump is showing us the art of the deal, the communication way.