Is there a principled distinction between refusing to watch American Sniper and refusing to read Fun Home?

Here is my own summary of an argument I saw today that seems well worth considering:

It is hypocrisy for liberals to laugh at and criticize the Duke students who have objected to their summer reading book due to its sexual and homosexual themes. They didn’t seem to react similarly when students at other universities tried to get screenings of American Sniper cancelled. If you say the Duke students should open their minds and consume things they disagree with, you should say the same thing about the students who boycotted American Sniper. Otherwise, you do not really have a principled belief that people should respect and take in other opinions, you just believe they should respect and take in your own opinions. How can you think in one case the students are close-minded and sheltered, but in the other think they are open-minded and tolerant? What principled distinction is there that allows you to condemn one and praise the other, other than believing people who agree with you are better? 

I think that is an important and difficult question, and that anyone who does condemn the Duke students but is fine with the American Sniper ones should take it very seriously. I also disapprove of both the attempts to cancel the film screenings and the refusals to read a lesbian-themed graphic novel.

But I want to address the question of whether a principled distinction can be drawn between the two; i.e. whethere it is possible to be consistent in your beliefs if you oppose one and support the other. Whether or not such a distinction ought to be drawn, I believe it can be drawn.

If a person says “I think people should take in all kinds of material, even if they disagree with it” and then says “I also think students should refuse to attend screenings of American Sniper because it is offensive,” that person’s second proposition appears to contradict their first. If we should take in material we disagree with, but we shouldn’t take in American Sniper because we disagree with it, we’re hypocrites.

But that’s not quite what a person who holds both positions is saying. What they are actually saying is: “Generally I think we should take in lots of material, even that with which we disagree, but I also believe we shouldn’t financially support things that are racist or valorize mass murder.” Those two propositions are technically consistent.

Let’s first leave aside the question of whether American Sniper is in fact racist or a valorization of mass murder. Clint Eastwood has said he intended the film to be anti-war, and there has been much suggestion that those who are critical of it do not understand its complexities, and speak ignorantly based on what they’ve heard about it. I can’t weigh in on that because I haven’t seen it, but I’m not interested in that question. (I do, however, think Chris Kyle himself was a racist mass murderer, which is a position you do not have to have seen the film in order to believe.)

In response to my assertion that the two principles are consistent, someone might say: “Yes, but you’ve just restated the central problem: you have a general principle that people should take in a diverse array of viewpoints, but you specifically exclude from that the viewpoints that you disagree with. So the principle is worthless. It means ‘I take in and appreciate all views except those I do not hold,’ which just means ‘I only appreciate my own views.'”

I don’t believe that’s quite the case. While it is possible that “I take in a wide variety of things, except for X” draws the category of X to exactly correspond to the things one dislikes, it is also possible to have a category of X where one’s exceptions are narrowly limited to a set of true extremes.

I think this can be illustrated well by adding a few more items to a hypothetical list of things students are being asked to consume, and then evaluating what we would think of a student who refused to watch or read the item:

  1. A graphic novel with explicit depictions of homosexuality
  2. A film about the life of a soldier, which many think is racist and militaristic
  3. A memoir by a Holocaust denier
  4. A children’s book about an adorable kitten
  5. An ISIS beheading video

This opens up the analysis somewhat from a simple right-left issue. Now, I think nearly all of us would be willing to allow a student to opt out of watching an ISIS beheading video. A professor in our class on “The Nature of Evil” might insist that without seeing the video, it is impossible to comprehend the nature of evil, or even discuss the question intelligibly. Yet the video would be disturbing and horrible and might cause a person lasting nightmares and torment. Even if it would help understanding, nobody should be required to watch such a thing. But that means that our principle is not “Students should take in anything that is assigned, in order to diversify their viewpoints and experiences,” but is rather: “Students should take in many things, but things that are truly traumatic and disturbing should be subject to refusal.” It’s an exception, but it’s not a contradiction. We believe there is a sphere of things that are legitimate and debatable and should be viewed in order to understand them, and a sphere of things that one does not need to view in order to understand and have opinions about.

Now, take the kitten book. Say I am in a class on children’s literature, which I have taken because it seems an easy way to pick up some credits without having to exert my mental faculties. We are supposed to read The Very Adorable Kitten, a children’s book about a kitten, each page of which depicts a different passerby going “Awww.” I object to being assigned this book, because I do not like kittens. “They revolt me,” I inform the professor. “I cannot in good conscience read anything with a kitten in it.”

Am I being ridiculous? I am. I think the professor would be fair in failing me on my Adorable Kitten book-report assignment. Because it’s not the case that no possible distinction can be drawn between those things that might legitimately cause trauma (such as the ISIS video) and those things that cannot (such as a cartoon of a kitten). We can say that we feel exactly as traumatized by the kitten. But we are almost certainly lying.

What about a memoir by a Holocaust denier? This seems to be a more difficult case, because there is a strong argument to be made that reading such things, critically, helps us evaluate and defend against propaganda. Just like reading John C. Calhoun’s defenses of slavery helps us understand the mind of the slave-owner, and strengthens us against future similar arguments. But it is also obvious why a descendent of Holocaust survivors would be disgusted by being asked to read, say, Ernst Zündel’s Did Six Million Really Die? To even debate the question appears an outrage.

I bring up these examples to show that holding a blanket view that “students ought to have a right to refuse to take in material that offends them” and “students ought to have to take in material that contradicts their sensibilities” is very difficult. Evaluating the balance requires adopting a substantive view of the merits of the material presented, and a view of the zone of legitimate refusal.

One point here is worth clarifying, because it’s easy to get lost. The two incidents in question, the American Sniper screening and the Fun Home refusal, are not actually exact parallels. In the case of American Sniper, students wanted to shut down a voluntary screening on the campus. In the case of Fun Home, students were assigned the book and refused to do their assignment. A good case could be made that the former behavior is far less defensible than the latter. In the case of a screening, we have an option whether to go or not. For an assignment, we do not.

So there are a couple of questions:

(1) Is it legitimate for a university to require students to take in material they find disagreeable?

(2) Is it legitimate for students to block others from taking in material those students find disagreeable?

(3) Should students themselves feel obliged to take in material they find disagreeable?

(There’s also a sense in which these issues could be seen as not being distinct: in each, to take in the opposing view means financially supporting it. So if a school pays to have American Sniper screened, a sum of money is given to the studio, a portion of which goes to Chris Kyle’s estate, presumably. Similarly, the Christians who must purchase Fun Home are being asked to give Alison Bechdel money. In that sense, students could argue that stopping the American Sniper screening means that they do not want Chris Kyle (whatever, assume he’s alive) benefitting financially, and the Christians could make the same argument.)

But one of the problems here is that everything is being reduced to the vague phrase “material they find disagreeable.” As I’ve mentioned, this covers a wide set of things, and I do not think any of those questions can be answered affirmatively or negatively without further specifying the nature of the “material” we’re talking about. For each, the answer is “it depends.” After all, there is a distinction that could be drawn between a book about lesbianism and a (again, for the sake of argument) racist propaganda film. Racist propaganda hurts people, while lesbianism does not. There. A principled distinction.

“But,” comes the immediate reply, “that’s just, like, your opinion, man. The Christians see it in precisely the opposite way. To countenance lesbianism would be in violation of their moral code, just as the portrayal of Muslims in American Sniper might be in violation of yours. Thus, we must adopt a general principle that can be applied in both cases, or else you’re back to “things you agree with.” ”

Now, I think this perspective is quite radical in its relativism. It’s radical in its relativism because it believes that neither liberal nor conservative values are superior. Liberalism is just “the stuff I agree with” and conservatism is just “the stuff you agree with.” Neither is better or worse, they are just two competing factions, the red team and the blue team.

Nobody who is either a liberal or a conservative can agree to this perspective. To accept either liberal or conservative values means believing they are something more than arbitrary. I don’t think radical relativism is a tenable position, because to accept the position “Racism is bad and should be stopped” and “All views on racism are equal” seems flatly contradictory. Unless, of course, you’re saying “I don’t personally like racism, but that has no more justification than my liking chocolate ice cream, and someone who does like racism is not any worse than me. The difference between being a racist and not being one is the difference between liking different ice creams.”

In practice, hardly anyone is a true radical relativist, who believes that none of their moral values should be imposed on other people. The condemnation of murder and torture are moral values. To stop them is to believe our morality should apply beyond ourselves. Many people say they are value-pluralists, who think every kind of values ought to be allowed to blossom. But when it comes down to it, here in reality, everyone has a finite spectrum of values that they think ought to be allowed to vary, and some things they are absolute on. Even the person who thinks that there is no principled distinction between liberalism and conservatism, that the anti-racist views of the liberals and the anti-lust views of the conservatives are simply all things under the general category of “beliefs,” will find it hard to maintain their relativism absolutely. If they think a general right of refusal for belief should be permitted, they will struggle with the kitten scenario, and if they think there should be no right of refusal on grounds of belief, then students cannot be exempted from having to watch Salò.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to say that the difference between liberals’ anti-racism and conservatives anti-lustism is not great enough to alter the calculus of whether refusal is permitted. Both are the sort of beliefs that should be debated. I believe that myself, really. I think American Sniper should be shown, even assigned, and then discussed. And I think Fun Home should be assigned and discussed too. My own conscience exceptions to material are quite narrow; just the stuff whose consumption causes a real risk of being harmful and disturbing. (Though I think students shouldn’t have to pay for stuff they hate, so I’d pirate some copies of the film and the book for the objectors.)

But look how vague I’m being! “Real risk”? Who am I to say what’s real, what’s legitimate? How can I possibly claim the right to make that judgment for myself? Well, I can’t. Nobody can, really. There is no “right” set of values determined from on high. But equally, there is no neutral set of values that avoids making distinctions. We can say we allow everything, but we can’t really allow everything. If Seung-Hui Cho performs his disturbing, violent plays for our class, you can bet he’s getting removed. Political decision-making cannot respect all values, because at some point certain values are going to need to be implemented that trample other people’s values. The kid who believes he shouldn’t have to read any books for college will not have his values respected.

But what of slippery slopes? Once we admit that we have to impose some of our values (even if it’s just the value of pluralism and open debate!), how do we keep from just imposing all of our values? This is what people are afraid “political correctness” does. First, liberals decide that speech calling for murder is their one exception to their general rule that speech should be free. Then, they reason that spewing racial invective is not really any better than calling for murder, so outright racism becomes an exception to the rule and is not permitted on campus. Then, saying things that are coded racism doesn’t really seem to be any better than saying things that are overtly racist, so things that are intended as coded racism are banned. Then, we realize that it’s effect more than intent that matters. If we’re interested in harmful speech, surely we should be concerned with how the listener takes something rather than how the speaker meant it. And thus can a free-speech liberal find themselves producing a speech code prohibiting any speech that could be construed as racist.

Because I fear this, too, I agree that the liberal objection to American Sniper and the conservative objection to Fun Home should be treated equally when we consider whether to either ban the thing or allow students to opt-out. But I actually disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t impose all of our values on other people, that we should only impose the essential ones that most enable the proliferation of values. Instead, I believe we should impose all of our values, but that those should just be better values. Thus, I believe there is a principled distinction between American Sniper and Fun Home, because I am a leftist, and I believe that there are good reasons why racism is worse than lesbianism. I think people who disagree with me don’t “just disagree,” but have a set of beliefs that hurt people in ways I find objectionable. And yet I have more than one moral value. I also believe that debate is good, and that the best way to deal with opposing perspectives is to hear them out, and that when we encounter different things we learn from each other. And that value is superior in my personal hierarchy when it comes to deciding what to do about American Sniper and Fun Home. By saying both should be treated equally, I’m still imposing all of my values, but I have a set of values that values freedom and anti-racism, as compared with someone whose values are limited solely to anti-racism. People shouldn’t refrain from imposing their values on others, they should just get some better values that don’t countenance totalitarian speech-policing.

So, to go back to the opposing argument I summarized at the beginning: I think the arguer is wrong to say that we cannot draw any distinctions between the two cases. We can. One thing that is correct is that we cannot draw a distinction and be a radical relativist, which is what causes some liberal hypocrisy on this issue. I have seen it said that because liberals have made so many things off-limits for discussion, they have cleared the ground for conservatives now to do the same. If everyone is entitled to personally decide what’s offensive, then liberals have no argument when conservatives say they personally find liberalism offensive. But that’s a function not of liberals “imposing their values” but of their imposing their values on a pseudo-relativist framework, and refusing to defend the superiority of those values. If I say “Racist speech is banned because I find it offensive,” and then you say “Well, now LGBT speech is banned because I find that offensive,” then I am stuck. But if I say “Racist speech is banned because racism is harmful,”  then I do have a response to you, since LGBT speech isn’t harmful.

Of course, I don’t personally believe in banning racist speech either. But I do believe in fighting for and imposing my values, one of which is free speech and open debate. I do not falsely pretend that I am neutral. I do not pretend that I find there to be no difference between liberalism and conservatism, and that nobody can make any real moral claims because all values are arbitrary. I believe some values create human well-being, and others create human misery. I believe many moral questions are up for debate and cannot be resolved, but I believe some beliefs are self-contradictory or premised on falsehoods and misunderstandings. That doesn’t mean those beliefs should be banned, or that we should cancel screenings. On the contrary, we should allow as much as possible. But we can believe open debate should occur while still believing that our values are worth holding.