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Letter: A contribution to recent discussions in The Review

By John Smetanka, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Academic Dean

This semester there have been several outstanding opinion articles in The Review. The writers and editors have done a commendable job discussing difficult issues in a civil and dignified fashion, too often lacking in contemporary discourse. Thank you! I would like to briefly respond to three of these fine contributions.

First, Kevin Jackson’s essay in the September 23 issue, “Blending in and Standing Out”, provides a genuine and thought-provoking window on the challenges of being a student of color at Saint Vincent. Mr. Jackson’s honesty and courage as well as his talent as a writer were on full display in that most memorable essay. Thank you, Mr. Jackson! Your experiences invite each of us to look in the mirror to see the steps we can personally take to improve our campus and create the “One Bearcat Community” that Fr. Paul has put forward as our goal.

Next, Dr. Jerome Foss’s article in the September 30 issue, “Flannery O’Connor and the new Puritanism”, warns of too quick reactions to disavow or “cancel” artists, celebrities, historical figures, and scholars whose work, beliefs, or discourse we find offensive today. Dr. Foss takes exception to Dr. Paul Elie’s June 15, 2020 essay in The New Yorker, “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?”

I agree that every artist, scientist, teacher, and leader is human, fallible, and in the end a product of a fallen world. As such, we need to approach all with empathy as we analyze, critique, and seek truth. However, I find Dr. Foss’s dismissal of the most problematic passages in Ms. O’Connor’s letters to her friend Ms. Lee as “They were teasing each other” to be perhaps too quickly forgiving. Using the racially charged language Ms. O’Connor chose belied not just an identification with but indeed a pride in the segregationist culture she was defending. Ignorance or joking does not excuse injustice of any kind. As the summative line in the great song by They Might be Giants shares: “Can't shake the devil's hand and say you're only kidding.”

The shortcomings of those we study must be acknowledged and processed along with their triumphs. To simply gloss over failings or to chalk them up to the times and places in which those we study lived leaves us blind to our own flaws. We must not mythologize those we study and even those we deeply admire. Instead we need to confront them as humans – warts and all. In some cases that might mean reconsidering honors awarded or statues erected.

Finally, “On Confronting Evil,” Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Meilaender’s opinion piece in the October 7 issue, raises concerns about possible threats to academic freedom that might result from reporting of bigotry, hatred, harassment, or discrimination. Mr. Meilaender quotes a portion of an email I sent to faculty urging a broader discussion within our departments on the efficacy of vocalizing racial slurs in a pedagogical setting. Obviously, I disagree with Mr. Meilaender’s opinion that behaviors such as the reckless or willful use of the most derogatory language “. . . do not ‘disrupt’ the learning environment, except in the very healthy sense that they teach students to discern good from evil.”

Manners and customs play an essential role in all civil discourse. There are boundaries that must be respected if trust is to be maintained between teacher and student. One of those boundaries is that harm should never be inflicted. Because the vocalization of a hurtful slur does not harm everyone equally does not mean it cannot do irreparable harm to some.

Certainly, in the search for truth, challenging works of art, literature, history, philosophy, and theology must be examined. Texts that use difficult and offensive language are occasionally the most influential antiracist works – for example, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These texts are worthy of study. In fact, our search for truth demands it. I am confident in our faculty’s ability to engage these texts without crossing the boundaries of civility and breaking the sacred trust between student and teacher. Mr. Meilaender is correct that we should encounter challenging opinions and engage with even those ideas we consider evil. However, we cannot do evil in confronting evil; we cannot cause harm in the name of learning.

Opinions expressed by outside contributors do not necessarily represent the views of The Review or any of its employees.

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