The Journal of Applied Impossibility
Originally Written March 21, 2018. Away, cowardice!
On March fifth (2018), Bruce Pardy and Jordan Peterson participated in the inaugural discussion of the Liberty Lecture series at Queen’s University. Variations on the next lines have become so commonplace that they now bore rather than shock us. Protesters interrupted a civil discussion with profanity, bringing a sign on stage, and spraying something onto people in the audience as they left. This time, the room quieted down, and the conversation resumed. When the protesters, now outside, began pounding on the windows
to further disturb the talk, Peterson observed, “These people are not your friends... And mark my words, that’s the sound of the barbarians pounding at the gates.” This statement was quite literally true for a barbarian is one who makes only noise. Finally, the end of the video on Peterson’s YouTube channel shows people barricading the doors with garbage cans, and someone remarks on the remains of a shattered stained-glass window.
The image of destruction culminating in this shattered window is, to my lights, a profound metaphor for our milieu. The protesters might agree, as evidenced by their sign, which bore a drawing of a hammer and the words “FREEDOM TO SMASH BIGOTRY.” A moment’s honest attention to the discussion between Pardy and Peterson would reveal that bigotry was absent. The conversation -- not merely in name but in substance as well -- was about the freedom of speech. But the protests seemed far more concerned with smashing than with paying attention.
Rather than dwell upon the performative contradiction in protesting against free speech -- an irony which will be obvious to some, and (one hopes) will become obvious to the rest -- I would like to reflect on the shattered window. I suggest that it was not merely an accident but a logical consequence of a commitment to smashing something. So, why the interest in smashing? Why not refutation, persuasion, disagreement? I suggest that this too is a logical consequence of a commitment that has been allowed in large part to escape notice. But Peterson has noticed, and this accounts for a resonance with audiences that baffles his critics -- because his critics often share in the assumption he criticizes.
I became aware of this assumption in my students four years ago, when a handful of them came to my office. They were baffled because, “you were speaking about something being morally wrong as though it were true. But isn’t it all morality just a matter of opinion?” Having lived much of my life in the buckle of the Bible belt, I had never encountered a real relativist. But when I questioned the class about this, I discovered it to be an almost (though not quite) universal assumption. When pressed, two of my black students even said that they thought slavery was not really evil, because there is no such thing. Rather, it was something against which they felt their opinions very strongly. I was, and to an extent remain at a loss -- horrified at the ability to equate an atrocity with a disagreement.
This is an unsung danger of relativism. Equations must be balanced on both sides. Where there can be no argument appealing to an objective truth, not only will atrocities become disagreements, but disagreements will become atrocities. With no standard by which we might judge a position, we must accept all positions as equally “true” (which is to say, not true at all). When anyone states their view, you must accept it as equal in worth to your own. But some views are repugnant. Absent a standard against which to measure them, what is one to do with such views? The only way to deal with what they cannot accept is to smash it. John Bowlin said, “Resentment is easy. Theology is hard.”* It should be noted that philosophy is also hard. Smashing has the benefit of ease, as there is no need to philosophize when you have a hammer.
But Socrates reminds us that fine things are difficult. It is more desirable to philosophize than to smash -- because it is lovelier. Peterson noted that the hall where the discussion took place resembled a church. As anyone familiar with the history of universities will tell you, that the resemblance is not merely accidental or metaphorical, but quite deliberate and literal. Universities began as institutions for training clergy in theology. Like cathedrals, university buildings were made to be beautiful in order to remind their occupants that what they are doing is a worthy thing. The life of the mind, like the soul, is a worthy thing because it is (or should be) concerned with transcendentals. Since ancient times, a connection between beauty and truth has always been held dear.
Is is any surprise that barbarians who are reckless with the truth would be just as reckless with the beautiful? The ability to have intelligent, peaceful discussion is a precious thing. It is also beautiful, and perhaps fragile. One must be careful around beautiful things and fragile things -- and so the image of the hammer is salient, though perhaps not as the barbarians would have intended it. As they held up the image of the hammer, I thought of the old saw: to someone holding a hammer, the whole world comes to look like a nail. Alas, those were the days of sanity! One who intends to drive a nail intends to create, and so to be useful. One who intends to smash something -- such as a stained glass window -- intends only to desecrate a thing of beauty. In mobbing the stage and drowning out discussions, they showed not merely disregard, but active contempt for the pursuit of truth. In this they most resemble the iconoclasts who destroyed the beautiful windows in monasteries and cathedrals. They would erase the faces of saints and litter the ground with shards of glass. Such a one does something that is worse than useless. But what more could we expect? If you will not speak the language of Athens, you are left to make only that noise: “Bar! Bar! Bar!”
This image stuck so firmly in my mind because on the day I saw this video, I had just read these lines in Chesterton:
“I felt and feel that life itself is as bright as the diamond, but as brittle as the window pane...Strike a glass, and it will not endure an instant… Such, it seemed, was the joy of man... happiness depended on not doing something which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.” †
It may not always be obvious why we should not do something. But it is sometimes obvious. We should not smash beautiful things because we are not barbarians. We should not smash beautiful things because they were passed on to us, and we wish to pass them on to the future. What ruinous monotony we work upon ourselves when we destroy the beauty our forebears gave us. There is one woeful dwelling place for people which we intentionally build without glass. That is the jail cell. I think that it is no coincidence that the mullions of a cathedral whose windows have been shattered come to more closely resemble the bars of a prison. This is what barbarians make of civilization. Every window they smash is a window our posterity will not see. Every discussion they mob and overwhelm with noise is one which our students will not hear. They came, by their own admission, with the intent to smash something. And they succeeded. When what they found was not bigotry, but the pursuit of truth, they went outside. There, instead they smashed a thing of physical beauty. Thankfully they seem not to have smashed the thing of intellectual beauty.
* Jeff Stout: Democracy and Tradition, p. 92.
† Orthodoxy, pp. 61-62
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