“The question is,” posed diversity advocate Farentz Lafargue of Williams College, “do we prepare students to accept the world as it is, or do we prepare them to change it?” A better question might ask, do we prepare students to encounter other people and ideas different from (or even opposed to) themselves, or do we encourage them ‘be themselves’ at all costs and to demand change of anything uncomfortably foreign?
Modern culture is enamored with the idea that the self is the highest good, and that your identity, reality, and being are purely subjective qualities. This, as the Berkeley StudentCooperative’s health and safety page describes, is the “right to be human,” and derives from the notion that man is fundamentally “inconsistent, emotional, [and] triggered.” Inspired by these beliefs, modern culture has set out on a crusade against objective standards. It creates “safe spaces” where students can be free from disparity of opinion. It mollifies morality so that ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ become synonyms for naughty and nice. It even enthuses psychology, philosophy, and literature to eradicate all culpability from human actions and ways of life. The fault, it seems, can always be found in our stars, but never in our ‘selves.’
“This above all—to thine own self be true,” has become an obnoxiously (and inaccurately) used cliché taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A reading of King Lear, however, might provide a more fitting lesson for modern culture. Early in the play, the Duke of Gloucester opines that the troubles besetting his family must be the result of astrological signs and meteorological phenomena. Indeed, he is willing to blame anything at all—except for himself and his sons. “This is the excellent foppery of the world,” scoffs his treacherous son, Edmund, “that, when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeit of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains by necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion…”
In its effort to safeguard the human ‘right’ to self-define, modern culture adheres to the same “foppery” as did the unfortunate Duke. It desperately wants to believe that man is both autonomous and inculpable, but to do that it must claim he is both willfully independent and governed by conditions. It is the same thesis originally held by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: only you define who you are, and you should live only as you will—but your will is determined by your environment’s circumstances and by the pleasures and pains you experience.
The great tragedy of this worldview is that the ‘diversity efforts’ it summons to defend the self ultimately inspire an aversion to encountering the other. Nothing kills dialogue as efficiently as constant vigilance against discrimination through ‘micro-aggressions.’ Such oversensitivity creates a pathological mindset and a morbid paranoia of hatred that inevitably leads to the violent shunning of whatever may offend. In other words, it prepares people to change the world rather than themselves—and to do so by using whatever means seem necessary.
Michael Gonzalez is currently a third-year undergraduate student at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He enjoys reading and discussing a wide variety of works—especially Homer's epics and Willa Cather's novels—and hopes in the future to pursue graduate studies in legal and political philosophy.