The thing about pendulums is this… eventually, they hit an extreme on each opposing side.
I read the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly. I enjoy the articles and the insight I receive into other parts of my world, the realm of post-secondary education. I think the Chronicle does a reasonable job of presenting fair assessments of some very difficult topics that are being worked through on college campuses around the world. I think they’ve done an admirable job of covering the racial issues at the University of Missouri, the gun control issue on university campuses, and the roles of women in academia, among other topics. Their writers present as much information as they possibly can, and information is what this sector of the world relies upon. In academia, facts are acceptable currency.
Today, however, I feel unsettled. A short article entitled “3 Colleges Wrestle With Iconic Leaders’ Racial Legacies” reports information and incidences from Princeton, Amherst, and William & Mary. These issues arose when someone, a student or faculty member, found something objectionable about one of each college’s most well-known historical figures. At each college, there have been protests and changes based on this objectionable information. To be fair, I agree that there are facts about each of the described public figures that are reprehensible and off-putting. Would I personally be pals with any of them or support them politically? Eh, not likely.
But it is all in the PAST.
I don’t mean that it happened in our parents’ generation, or our grandparents’ generation. The most recent of these offenses happened in the previous century, between 1902 and 1921, when Woodrow Wilson served as president of Princeton University, and later as president of the United States. For my math friends, that’s 94 to 113 years ago. (Let’s agree to call it approximately 100 years, ok? Thanks.) 100 YEARS, people. And that is the most recent of the offenses described in the Chronicle article.
How did someone from a century ago manage to infuriate people today?
100 years ago, our country was on the brink of World War I, women had not yet achieved the right to vote, and Alexander Graham Bell had just made the first long-distance telephone call. NASA did not exist. Typhoid Mary had just been identified. Air travel was a novelty. Silent films played in theaters. The Ottoman Empire was still in existence. The first stop sign was created.
And today, in 2015, people are offended by opinions held by someone of that time period. Offended to the point of desiring that this person’s name be stricken from buildings, endowments, honors, and colleges. People “feel marginalized” when they pass by buildings bearing the name of this person. Let’s examine that term, for a moment.
Marginalize: verb (used with object). To place in a position of marginal importance, influence, or power. To treat (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral.
So, people who pass by a building bearing the name of a long-deceased public figure, who championed the right of women to vote, who advocated for democracy and peace around the world, who was instrumental in forming the League of Nations, predecessor to our U.N., who supported our nation’s farmers and laborers… this person, who wrote numerous books and essays on the rights of humans to be free and at peace… his name on a building makes you feel unimportant because he was not as perceptive about equality between all races of people as you are, 100 years later?
Get over yourself.
The opinions of people from a century ago, before our grandparents were born, can have no hold on us, with our broadened understanding of humanity as a societal whole. Contemporary public outcry at being offended, injured, marginalized, and discriminated against has exploded in recent years to epidemic proportions. Yes, we should absolutely be fighting against those portions of society who seek to hold any group of individuals as more deserving than another group. Yes, we should be outraged at the physical harm caused when one individual interprets physical appearance as a reason for violence. Yes, we should strive to improve the moral, financial, and societal situation of all human beings, regardless of characteristics associated with any group of individuals. We should all work to be better than we are, and to make the world better for those around us. But our pendulum has swung too far, friends. We are upset over the smallest perceived offenses, we cry foul when we don’t get exactly what we think we need. We are a society of offended people, and by our actions we are forcing the next generation to learn that they deserve whatever they desire, that working together only benefits everyone as long as we’re each getting exactly what we want. We are the whining child who wants everyone to listen to what we have to say, and agree that we’re brilliant and wonderful and of course we’ll do things your way, dear.
Our pendulum will not stay here. There will come a point of excess, where we as a group cry “Too far!”, and begin to reconsider the actions which led to this. At that time, conversations will become fruitful, leading to sensible actions that benefit the whole of society. Reason and logic will return to our governing bodies. Things that offend us deeply now will be seen as laughable, a relic of bygone times, when we were not as well-informed, when our capacity for reason had yet to mature. I hope, dear friends, that the point at which we turn aside from these petty grievances is not too painful, and does not have too high a cost. I hope, for our collective sake, that we have not done more damage than we can resolve.