Monday, April 16, 2007

Academic Violence

I see that the President of Virginia Tech has declared the massacre on his campus an "incomprehensible, heinous act."

Now, one can certainly understand that people don't always perform at their best in times of crisis, but this is simple pabulum. If the President of a major university is unacquainted with the bloody stain of violence which permeates human history from its primaeval origins to the current day he is simply not suitable for exposure to the media in times of crisis. On the other hand, if, in view of his presumed familiarity with the human proclivity towards violence and the dehumanisation of others, he has no purchase to analyse it, then his moral immaturity makes him unfit to guide the mental development of young adults.

In fact, every one of us can imagine envy, jealousy or rage sufficient to will the deaths of others; this is an unavoidable part of the human condition. In former times, people were able to speak of this human stain through the mediating institutions of religion and moral convention. The deracinated modernism of today's public university, though, seems to quail before unreconstructed savagery, as though its history department did not have faculty versed in the banal details of the evil of Treblinka, S-21, Nyarubuye and Darfur, even if most such universities have jettisoned the moral ballast to orient their communities to the significance of such evil generally, or this monstrosity in particular. It would be one thing to say the violence shocked the conscience, or that the suffering caused by the violence is incalculable, but to pretend the violence itself is is "incomprehensible" is to hide in mendacious cliche. A nonjudgmental, "I'm o.k.; you're o.k." worldview is exposed in its pathetic desperation in such dishonesty as this flight to the notion of "incomprehensible violence." Monsters of the id exist within all of us; the surprise is that, in some favoured corners of the Earth, the savagery has over the past few centuries been kept on such a short leash. It is this remarkable containment of evil which is far more incomprehensible than the evil unleashed in Blacksburg, which was until today one of those favoured corners.

But the hiding from unpleasant facts about human nature seems to be a significant commitment, not only of the modern university, but of modern mass culture's immature flight from moral seriousness generally. American media (and the global media, as well, which loves to run a story on the violence inherent in the American system) will spend the next week bathing in a tepid pool of similar banal, dishonest cliches. Only hints of detail have escaped the university concerning the identity and motivations of the shooter, but one can confidently predict that the focus of the media investigations will be building a safe distance between the killer and post-industrial, consumerist society which buys the soap which pays for the commercials between the breathless interviews of the witnesses and soft-focus obituaries of the victims. A university or society which cannot explain evil or come to grips with it in general terms is powerless to prevent it in the particular.

But grief counselors will be standing by...

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