Art, Underwear, and Taking Offense

Females at Wellesley College apparently got their panties in a twist over some art depicting a man in his underwear. The issue appears to be that it makes some people “uncomfortable.” To be fair, it may not have been all females who signed the petition to have it removed. I am sure some males are rendered uncomfortable as well, much as I am when I see those ridiculously cut-up UnderArmour models.

Just kidding. I am perfectly comfortable with being past the age where people want to sculpt me in my underwear.* I am also comfortable with art that depicts things I don’t like, don’t understand, or disagree with. In fact, I cannot imagine feeling threatened by art, unless it’s a performance piece with machine guns spraying real bullets into the crowd at the end.

These days, however, it is not good enough to talk about a piece of art that disturbs some people; we must get rid of art that evokes discomfort. Thus the petition to rid the campus of Underwear Man** now, well before he is scheduled to depart anyway this summer.

Just where along the line we supposedly acquired the right not to be made uncomfortable is a mystery to me. Art confronts, pleases, aggravates, provokes and inspires. It is rarely benign, though Underwear Man comes close to qualifying. (The vapid nature of contemporary art is another subject entirely.) And the fact that it is art is, well, beside the point.

Sleepwalker statue

Any society that flourishes does so because its inhabitants are free. Tyrannies come and tyrannies go, but the reason is always the same–human beings require freedom to prosper, both materially and spiritually. Take away the most fundamental of those freedoms, expressing what one thinks, and collapse is sure to follow. I have to wonder if the current petition-signers will feel the same way when their speech gets squashed by right-wing fundamentalists. No doubt some of them feel threatened by godless heathen who want reproductive rights.

And who is teaching these young people that life is supposed to be insult-free? Is that a point of view? I mean a real one? I suppose I should not ask. Years ago, I attended a workshop on effective teaching, part of which dealt with gender and racial bias. A perfectly legitimate subject, by the way. At least it can be when the point is to recognize when we may be unconscious of our own unfairness. In this case, though, one of the attendees noted that she felt uncomfortable–borderline threatened–by the presence of males in general anywhere.

Now, I don’t know if you have ever seen a room full of male graduate students, but they aren’t exactly savage biker-types bent on snorting coke and shooting up the place. Most wouldn’t know a spur from a spittoon. One of us (another guy beat me to it) asked incredulously if she felt threatened by…us. Yes was the answer, and it was then that I understood just how far out in the weeds feminism had strayed.

At least some campuses get it, like the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After dubious attacks on student-published material a faculty member deemed “sexually harassing,” the system President Mark R. Hamilton made it clear that the First Amendment protected speech is not subject to investigation. Kudos to Hamilton, a rare commodity in academia.

The lesson here is plain, but some people are refusing to get it. Susie’s feelings do not define the limits of Jane’s speech. State-supported campuses run afoul of the First Amendment when they act as the state and enforce speech codes. The only people who are never confronted with uncomfortable ideas are those who do not allow others to say anything without their approval. As Philosopher Stephen Hicks notes, this is not feminism, it is Learned Infantilism.

Higher education is about growth, not regression. Growth requires psychological and intellectual disruption–pain, actually–and our institutions of higher learning should be the last place on Earth where the value of free speech is questioned as a means to that end. May the authorities at Wellesley summon some of the University of Alaska’s courage and let the Sleepwalker wake some people up.


*But if you do, contact me at Modeling fees reasonable. Serious inquiries only.

**The piece is actually entitled “Sleepwalker,” but I like my title better.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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