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Rational Animals
December 05, 2015
What to make of the current craze of student activists who seek explicit institutional enforcement of “safe spaces” on campus?
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Traditional logic is famous for classifying human beings as “rational animals.” What would traditional logicians make of the current craze of student activists who seek explicit institutional enforcement of “safe spaces” on campus?

Student protests have erupted in recent weeks, most notably at Yale University and the University of Missouri. As fascinating demands are made, much tumult has ensued. The president of the University of Missouri has even resigned.

The wave of activism has spread to many campuses besides Yale and Mizzou. Student temperament is perhaps best illustrated by the first demand made by the uprising at Amherst College:

President Martin must issue a statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism. Also include that marginalized communities and their allies should feel safe at Amherst College.

If you are wondering where this sort of thing will wind up, perhaps the student leaders at the University of Ottawa, who recently voted to shut down a yoga class, have given us a glimpse of the politically correct reductio ad absurdum. Since Canadians like to congratulate themselves on being more forward thinking and liberally enlightened than their southern neighbors, it might be the shape of progressive things to come in America.

The Ottawa yoga class was to be offered to about 60 students through the university’s Centre for Students with Disabilities. Although apparently no one had complained, the university’s Student Federation president Romeo Ahimakin said the yoga program was suspended in order that students could be consulted about how “to make it better, more accessible and more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces.”

Yoga instructor Jennifer Scharf had been offering the course since 2008 through the Centre. On its website, the Centre for Students with Disabilities describes its commitment to “challenge all forms of oppression”, and professes that while “working to dismantle ableism, we also work to challenge all forms of oppression including, but not limited to, heterosexism, cissexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, queerphobia, HIV-phobia, sex negativity, fatphobia, femme-phobia, misogyny, transmisogyny, racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, sexism, and linguistic discrimination.”

In an email, explaining their new challenge aimed at yoga’s oppressiveness, staff at the Centre said that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students ... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice... Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced”; that is, the practice of yoga is apparently an oppressive form of cultural appropriation, since yoga comes from cultures that “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy ... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

However, the yoga instructor, who was rebuffed when she had offered to change the name of the class (from “yoga” to something perhaps more palatable to political correctness: “mindful stretching”), summed up her view of the situation by commenting, “People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find.”

What I find most interesting about this risible episode is the fact that rational animals are the only animals that go looking for reasons. What then has happened with student rationality, bringing it to where it is in this yoga case?

If the student activists’ reasoning is in any way defective, perhaps a remedy for what is ailing contemporary universities will become clearer if we first name the logical fallacy at work in the students’ minds.

If we consult Peter Kreeft’s fine logic text, Socratic Logic, we have a cornucopia of forty-nine different fallacies to choose from. If we were to pick a name from there, perhaps “ad ignominiam” (a fallacious appeal “to shame”) would be our most suitable candidate.

Yet it seems our contemporary situation is somewhat novel, in that the shame-based accusations are deliberately and rationally conceived as being valid indictments of social injustices. This phenomenon has been described by two sociologists as a “victimization culture,” meaning we live in a culture in which “individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”

A third researcher, observing this widespread generational lack of an “ability to engage in group problem solving and settle disputes without the intervention of outsiders,” has attributed it to overprotective childrearing on the part of parents. Parents who have failed to permit adequate levels of “unsupervised childhood play” are thereby allegedly complicit in their children’s inability to achieve any satisfactory dispute resolution without third-party coercion.

Given this novel situation, perhaps we could christen the victimization culture’s contagious form of reasoning the “Helicopter Fallacy.” The name would allude to the “helicopter parents” who gave us a generation of children who cannot cope with any friction in everyday life without recourse to external authorities, upon whom they depend for the policing of permissible social conduct.

Even better, we could shorten it with a slang term for helicopters, since “Chopper Fallacy” could suggest, in addition, that every social encounter with an aggrieved millennial is as perilous as strolling into the midst of whirling helicopter blades.

However, if we were to adopt such a name for the current generation’s favorite fallacy, we ourselves might be accused of committing the “Genetic Fallacy”: fallacious reasoning that makes a logically irrelevant appeal to the origin of an argument (i.e., those overprotective parents), rather than a logical engagement with the argument itself (i.e., the students’ deliberately rational claim that we ought to be ashamed for being complicit in any form of oppression).

For this reason, I offer a different name for the current campus fallacy: “The Flood-Drinker’s Fallacy.” I derive my name from Aesop’s fable about the wolves and the cowhides, which I translate here from the Greek version:

“Some wolves, when they saw tasty cow skins submerged in a river, were filled with an urgent desire to pull them out. However, because of the strong pull of the flood-tide, they were each unable to risk going in after them with their teeth. Therefore, the wolves plotted to work together instead. First, they would drink up all the water, and then they would be able to retrieve the exposed cow skins. But a man interrupted them with this advice: ‘If you try to drink up such a vast quantity of water in its entirety, eventually you will suddenly lose your own lives when you burst into pieces.’ This story refutes unaccomplished people who insist on setting up for themselves foolish tasks. [1]

A Latin version of the same fable changes the “wolves” into “dogs”; it also changes the ending, so that the flood-tide drinkers actually do burst into pieces. An English translation by Christopher Smart was made of that version in 1913, which I adapt here: [2]

The Hungry Dogs

A stupid plan that fools project,
not only will not take effect,
it proves destructive in the end
to those that bungle and pretend.

Some hungry dogs beheld a hide
deep sunk beneath the crystal tide,
which, that they might extract for food,
they strove to drink up all the flood;
but bursting in the desperate deed,
they perished before they could succeed.

If there is any similarity between this story and today’s victimization culture, perhaps it lies in the analogy that compares the cost of drinking up a river’s flood-tide with the benefit of being able to lay one’s teeth into a hide.

Further, the university itself is like a “crystal tide” that affords students a tantalizing glimpse, through its translucent lens, of what justice might be. But should any attempt to attain perfect justice itself involve a plan that would in effect “drink up” that imperfect lens, then we can designate that utopian mode of thought for what it is: “The Flood-Drinker’s Fallacy”; namely, the utopian use of reason that devours reason.

The ancient author Plutarch observed how reason itself is like a flood-tide. As he intimates in his essay On Common Conceptions (1067.19), it seems that no small part of education involves learning how to drink responsibly from that mighty river of reason:

“Reason intoxicates us and fills us full of confusion and delirium no less than the dogs which, Aesop says, started to drink up the sea in their craving for some hides in it, and burst before they lay hold of the hides,” writes Plutarch. [3]

“For we too, expecting by means of reason to attain virtue and be happy, before we arrive at virtue, are ruined and undone by reason, overloaded as we have been by much intemperate and bitter vice,” observes Plutarch. “Not only that, as the Stoics say, even those at the summit of progress have no alleviation or abatement or respite in their stupidity and unhappiness.”

One can only hope that a sober appreciation for moderation will be the eventual outcome of the current round of student protests. That self-imposed task would be a much more likely outcome if only student demands could include a retooling of the curriculum with much more extensive Plutarch Studies. I myself have always found ancient Greek to be a most congenial safe space.

Endnotes:

[1] Syntipas 61: Λύκοι τινὲς ἔν τινι ποταμῷ δέρματα βοῶν ἑωρακότες, καὶ ταῦτα σπουδάζοντες ἐκεῖθεν ἀνελκύσαι, τῆς τοῦ ποταμοῦ πλημμύρας βαθείας οὔσης κατατολμῆσαι οὐκ ἠδύναντο· ὅθεν ἐβουλεύσαντο καθ’ ἑαυτοὺς πρότερον τὰ ὕδατα καταπιεῖν, καὶ εἶθ’ οὕτω τὰ δέρματα φθάσαι ἀναλαβεῖν. ἀνὴρ δέ τις ὑπολαβὼν ἔφη πρὸς αὐτούς “εἰ ὅλως πειραθῆτε τὰ τοσαῦτα καταπιεῖν ὕδατα, εὐθὺς διασπασθέντες καὶ τῆς ζωῆς στερηθήσεσθε.” Ὁ μῦθος οὗτος ἐλέγχει τοὺς τοῖς ἀνηνύτοις ἐξ ἀφροσύνης ἐπιχειροῦντας.

[2] Phaedrus I.20 (Perry 135): Canes Famelici

Stultum consilium non modo effectu caret, / sed ad perniciem quoque mortalis devocat. / Corium depressum in fluvio viderunt canes. / Id ut comesse extractum possent facilius, / aquam coepere ebibere: sed rupti prius / periere quam quod petierant contingerent.

[3] I adapt here the 1997 Loeb translation of Plutarch’s De communibus notitiis adversus Stoicos by Harold Cherniss.

 
About the Author
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Christopher S. Morrissey 

Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at the Benedictine monastery of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and a Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. His book of Hesiod’s poetry, Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.
 

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