Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Don't romanticize the past regarding how students dealt with threats of violence and disagreeable speech.

I am responding to the article linked above, particularly to the paragraph that's been excerpted, especially the line - those were hardier souls.  I doubt that very much.  Certainly, I was not.

In tenth grade, I was mugged along with a friend of mine while we were on the stairwell at Cardozo H.S.  The school was on split session and in tenth grade we started our classes at 11:40 AM.  This happened before that first class.  The incident caused me a great deal of distress emotionally in its aftermath and was a contributing factor to having a depression later that year.

Subsequently I had a meeting with my mom and some Associate Principals who handled that sort of thing.  They asked me why I didn't fight back.  I was 6'1" and about 240 lbs.  So they seemed surprised, though I've never been in a real fight in my life and couldn't punch my way out of a paper bag. Rationally, I lost 3 dollars, not much in the grand scheme of things.  Who knows what would have happened had I tried to resist. 

I really have no sense of how common it was to get mugged at school, but I was panhandled waiting outside of school quite regularly and gym class was something of a nightmare as well.  So the feeling of being afraid in one's environment was fairly frequent, though I want to make it clear that most of the time I felt perfectly safe.  Had there been a way to feel safe 100% of the time, I surely would have embraced it, even if I didn't learn to tough it out.

For some reason, reading the piece linked above triggered some memory of the Bernie Goetz shooting and that much of the public reaction to this was enthusiastic endorsement

Harvard Professor of Government James Q. Wilson explained the broad sentiment by saying, "It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law-and-order issue in New York, because they've all been mugged."

My point here is that what you regard as sensible behavior versus being completely over the top depends on perception of the risk.  Vigilante justice isn't. But it might seem otherwise when no other deterrent manifests.

I also want to take on the argument that somehow we all learned to argue vigorously with people whom we have fundamental disagreement.  My first year at MIT I sometimes would go to the Union for socializing.  Quite frequently, some Christian Fundamentalists would come over to proselytize.  I had absolutely no desire to engage with them then and on that things haven't changed at all since, except that now I will walk away at the start while then I thought that rude and initially I didn't want to be rude.  I didn't learn anything constructive from these encounters.  To assume otherwise seems to me idealistic beyond belief.

Where I learned about collegiality and disagreement was at 509 Wyckoff Road, after I transferred to Cornell and I argued with housemates about politics (but not about religion).   This happened with people I liked and respected, even if I disagreed with them now and then.  You can disagree if a spirit of trust has been established.  That's as hardy as I ever got.

But maybe Judith Shulevitz, author of the piece, isn't referring to me and my generation but rather to my parents and their cohort, coming of age during the Great Depression and surviving the Holocaust.  My parents probably were tougher than I am, though when they retired they moved to Century Village, a gated community seemingly full of displaced New Yorkers, located in Boca Raton Florida.  So much for learning to deal with the riff raff. 

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