In a recent feature story for The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan, journalist and author of two books, examined the issue of what is currently acceptable to say on college campuses, and our society in general, through the lens of who colleges invite – and don't invite – to perform or speak. Flanagan claims that most college campuses practice a “code” which prohibits speech, even jokes from comics, that is seen as inflammatory, offensive, or too stereotypical when it comes to groups that society has historically “marginalized”, such as people of color, women, gays, those who are transgender, and those of religions other than our nation’s dominant one, Christianity.
While Flanagan is convinced that the large majority of students and administrators are genuinely open-minded and motivated by kindness and inclusivity, there are critical negative aspects to this newer form of “censorship”. One is that reputations and careers are frequently savaged and even ruined by a single comment that may very well have been misinterpreted or meant to be funny – but which violates the code. Another is related to Freud’s psychological theories about repression. The more we insist that a feeling, or thought must be repressed, the harder it will work to come out in other, and usually more unacceptable ways. Flanagan believes it is no accident that as certain types of speech have become more and more repressed, there has appeared to be an increase in corresponding incidents which “push back” in disturbing ways, such as the video of a noxious racist chant by members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity last spring.
Now let’s be clear. I am in no way suggesting that intentionally inflammatory speech should be applauded or is in any way admirable. At the same time though, it must be remembered that to truly be people of faith, and to have any hope of bringing real acceptance and inclusivity into God’s world, we must be willing to engage – not suppress – even the speech and attitudes we find the most opposed to that vision – the speech and attitudes we find the least faithful. We must not force it into the shadows, where it then becomes the kind of covert, “dog whistle” racism, sexism, etc. that the light of God’s call for equality, justice and inclusion has an even harder time penetrating. That is why we constantly insist on addressing our societies most sensitive issues on Sundays and in our Adult Studies program.
This year, my hope is that we will work to become an even more intentional faith community when it comes to our culture’s most “difficult conversations” – ones about race, gender, sexual identity, immigration, and more. Let us open our ears, minds and hearts to all voices, especially the ones we find most difficult to let in.
As the Gospels remind us, Jesus engaged even those whose speech he found the most objectionable and the least faithful. He did not suppress or censor it, or them.
We can do the same. We must. For our society’s sake. For God’s sake.