FUNT: Overcoming A Bumper Sticker Ethos
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 09:02
Many of us have had bouts of price-tag sickness while studying at Georgetown. No matter how exhilarating the experience or how promising the post-graduation prospects, some guilt and uneasiness accompany any indulgence valued at nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
The antidote for guilt is conviction, and students perform a civic service of sorts if education informs action. But when we fail to live up to that promise, a troubling disconnect emerges between how we behave in the real world and what we espouse from the comfort of our academic armchairs.
Higher education is more than cerebral gymnastics. Rather than take courses on sudoku puzzles and Rubik’s cubes, the content of our studies matters — not only for vocational training, but also for moral maturation. Our heavy coursework often involves weighty matters, and ideologies on these subjects should not be formed purely in the abstract.
To some extent, this disconnect is a basic human tendency. I drive a car knowing the severity of climate change, walk past the homeless knowing the injustice of their situation and eat Ben & Jerry’s knowing its detriment to my health. Although some people define humans as rational beings, failure to act on one’s better judgment is an almost equally defining human characterization.
My concern, however, is not for those aware of such shortcomings, but for people who attempt to rationalize them, often molding beliefs to justify actions. We ought to ask ourselves whether failure to act according to certain principles results from mental weakness or from the fact that we don’t truly hold those principles to begin with. If so, many of our supposed beliefs are a farce.
That moral malleability is evident among the practitioners of the bumper sticker philosophy found at Georgetown. Concepts such as “women and men for others” and “care for the whole person” have great depth and virtue, but they’re also easily perverted. In the case of Frank McCourt Jr. (C ’75), writing a check to Georgetown for $100 million is sufficient to qualify as a man for others and become the toast of the town, even if such wealth was acquired with alarmingly suspect ethics. When money in particular is on the line, intellectual and moral integrity can be reduced to bargaining chips. Georgetown, at least nowadays, can’t claim much high ground on that subject.
A side effect of ideological apathy is that we tolerate others for holding views that we otherwise find abhorrent. Homophobes get a pass when they’re not all in your face about it; we turn a blind eye to sexist or racist remarks from colleagues who are effective on the job. But, as Malcolm X said, “You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.”
Some might defend those examples as pluralism in action. But should civility be extended to viewpoints that are inherently uncivil? Partisan pettiness aside, Congress is known as an exemplar of respect for diverse opinions — “the gentleman from South Carolina,” “my friend from Massachusetts.” But while watching the State of the Union last week, I couldn’t help but wonder if such politeness and decorum obscure the gravity of issues being discussed. Should you smile and shake hands with someone you hold responsible for the financial peril of millions of Americans or the deaths of thousands of soldiers? Sure, there is plenty of hostility in politics, but that appears more reflective of a power struggle than a spirited commitment to the lives and livelihoods at stake.
I wrote an op-ed in The Hoya last year about my experience at President Obama’s second inauguration, when an anti-abortion protester screamed from a treetop for six hours to the torment of hundreds in attendance. I utterly reject his views, but I also hesitate to call him crazy. In a strange way, that protester is worthy of respect for acting exactly as his beliefs compelled. After all, if you really believe that millions of babies are lawfully being massacred every year, could a sane person do anything less?
Passion can be ignorant and impulsive, but it can also be drawn from knowledge. Georgetown offers an outstanding education — ideally one that inspires us to go out and stand for something.
Danny Funt is a senior in the College. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Hoya. CALLING MY SHOT appears every other Friday.