Art, Free Speech, Hypocrisy, Tightie-Whities, and Teenage Tantrums

Welcome to the culture wars’ latest opera buffa.

In recent weeks, Wellesley College has been embroiled in a raging controversy over …. a lifelike statue of a wimpy middle-aged man sleepwalking in his underpants.

The conflict between free expression and the right not to be distressed by art kicked into high gear when some irony-challenged students launched a petition demanding the “semi-nude” statue be moved indoors so as not to create any awkward, uncomfortable feelings among the progressive college’s all-female student body. The petition got a cool-as-a-cucumber response from the director of the campus museum. But that wasn’t the end of the matter.

The director’s response was met by a series of hysterical objections by students, faculty, and alumnae—every one worth reading. For a good look into the muddle and chaos that characterize today’s academic mind, you will find no better example.

It’s been a while since I’ve been on the Wellesley campus, so I haven’t seen “The Sleepwalker” up close, but there are plenty of photos on the web. It’s one of those hyper-realistic statues that could be easily mistaken for a real person, creating an illusion that lasts until it dawns on you that the thing isn’t moving. The natural reaction is surprise followed by laughter followed by a bemused shrug and rolling of the eyes.

The unnatural reaction is to work yourself into a lather, leap onto the nearest soapbox, and spew forth a torrent of made-up words from the vast synthetic vocabulary of politically correct newspeak designed to intimidate opponents and shut down debate. Take that you victimology deniers! You know what you can do with your patriarchy-derived false consciousness! Don’t mess with me, I trained at Wellesley.

Guess what, folks. It’s the provoking of that unnatural reaction that is the true work of art. Kudos to the artist for teeing up the shot, and many thanks to the museum director for taking the swing, even if unintentionally.

And most of all, congratulations to the petitioners and anti-statue activists of the Wellesley student body for winning this year’s Offendedness Sweepstakes.

Won the what?

That term, “offendedness sweepstakes,” was coined by free speech advocate and Brookings Institution Fellow Jonathan Rauch, whom I interviewed recently for the RealClear Radio Hour. (You can listen this Saturday on Bloomberg Boston at 10am and 6pm, or download the podcast Monday morning.) And no, you’re not about to hear another right-wing anti-PC screed.

Jonathan speaks from the vantage point of a tireless gay marriage activist who worked to see a maligned minority tip the culture over into tolerance and acceptance, with nary a trace of festering resentment for any past discrimination he endured.

His recipe is a simple one. Let a hundred debates bloom. If someone’s position offends you, suck it up. The antidote for offensive speech is not censorship, but more speech. May the best argument win, no matter how long it takes and despite any ugly thoughts or feelings along the way.

If photos of a naked woman rolling in pig excrement is celebrated in some quarters as the height of artistic boldness, how could a mannequin of some schlemiel in his underpants provoke such widespread condemnation on a campus that prides itself on being the training ground for the liberal intelligentsia?

We live in a complex and interconnected society, negotiating a marketplace of ideas and expressions that enrich our world. Some may baffle and others enrage. Proclaiming a college campus off limits to any of this based on the bullying whims of junior thought police is the exact opposite of a liberal education. Shielding students from ideas and images that might lead to unwanted thoughts does them no favors, much like raising children in antiseptic environments leaves them vulnerable to asthma and other auto-immune diseases.

So get over it, ladies. In a few short years, you will emerge from your leafy, idyllic campus and enter a world filled not just with outrageous art but real-life jerks who couldn’t care less about your petitions and protests. I’m not making excuses for the jerks—they will always be with us, along with racists and homophobes. But joining the adult community means recognizing that fact, and the fact that most people are not obliged to care what you think.

And of course, there are things even I find offensive. Like the idea that a museum director should seek pre-clearance from nascent pseudo-intellectuals before displaying a new installation.