Lost on Campus: Civility, Rational Debate

When religious sensitivities don't count

IMAGINE a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. altered so that he now sports a handkerchief on his head and an Aunt Jemima apron around his waist. Then imagine that the resulting ''art work'' is permanently mounted to the wall of a campus organization's meeting room. Impossible? You bet, because colleges know how to act when insults are hurled against protected groups.

But what if the offset poster were Mary Beth Edelson's 1977 ''Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper'' and it was Eastern Orthodox students, among others, who were offended by a work of art that appropriates Da Vinci's ''The Last Supper'' by substituting the head of Georgia O' Keefe for that of Christ and those of other less famous women artists for the disciples? And what if this poster were permanently mounted to the wall of a campus Women's Center? Would the same measuring rods of caring and tolerance still apply? Apparently not, because at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., efforts to censure - as distinct from ''censor'' - fell upon largely deaf ears, including those of the dean and the campus chaplain. Christian sensitivities simply do not count.

Campus paper urges: Blow up church

Nor is insensitivity limited to squabbles about what is, or is not, good art. At the University of Buffalo, pro-choice students tore down a display of 14,400 tiny crosses, representing abortions performed daily in the United States, which pro-life students had erected on campus. Nobody weighed in with arguments about First Amendment rights or especially worried about the ultimate censorship that is destruction. But even that was apparently not sufficient, for the campus newspaper counseled those who spotted pro-life students to ''Do your part and spit on them. Kick them in the head,'' while Michelle Goldberg, a staff writer, raised the ante by editorializing as follows: ''just once I'd like to see someone blow up one of their churches.''

One can argue, of course, that Christians are a majority and therefore do not deserve special consideration, just as one can argue there can only be white racists because only they have the power to act on bigoted beliefs. But none of this really washes.

Faculty suspicions of religion

The fact of the matter is not only that there are unprotected, free-fire zones on our campuses or even that suspicions about the resulting double standards are often all too true, but also that Christians make an especially appealing campus target. Why so? Partly because many faculty members harbor deep suspicions about religion in general (try to imagine how embarrassed such folks would be if Scripture were cited during a debate at a faculty meeting), and partly because the fanaticism of some on the Christian right is a handy source for generalized contempt. Give Christian students an inch, they argue, and their fundamentalist ministers will demand a country mile.

Unfortunately, what get lost in the heated rhetoric and self-righteous posturing are precisely the things that make a college campus different from the hate-mongering of talk radio: evidence, rational argument, and civility. To take the positions of the other side seriously does not mean - much less require - that one agree with them. But the richest discussions happen when people share their doubts rather than their certitudes; the most important conflicts are also likely to be the most complicated ones.

''Demonizing'' Christians (a phrase at once oxymoronic and, alas, accurate) is one of multiculturalism's darker sides. The implications are not limited to colleges, not restricted to Christians. I, for example, happen to be Jewish, and if history has taught us anything, it is that when one group suffers injustice, the Jews are not likely to be far behind. Anyone who cares about the words we hear on campuses - diversity, caring, and tolerance - should be equally concerned. Unless, of course, Christian sensitivities don't matter. I count myself among the believers, and, as such, simply can't believe such an unworthy position could be true.

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