Before I turned 40 and did anything very serious with my life, I misspent my salad years in academia. As a history professor at the American University of Beirut, then merely a troubled institution that now seems to be in free fall, I was drafted into teaching in an interdisciplinary humanities program, a sad simulacrum of the "great books" sequences now ever less in vogue.
I disliked the prescribed courses, which were painfully devised over decades by committees of not so bright colleagues, so I made up my own, grouping selections of classics into themed courses with provocative titles like "Decadence," "Absurdity," and "Folly."
A dozen years ago, in "Absurdity," I met one of my brightest students, Stephanie (not her real name). Stephanie was, and still is, highly intelligent, creative and artistic, sporty and clever, pleasant and polite — all the qualities our students used to need to succeed before they had to confess to their privilege, apologize for unearned advantages, offer hollow praise for "equity" and "inclusion," and repeat other inane woke shibboleths.
Stephanie and I became good friends and have kept in touch ever since.
She tracked toward business, but retained a refreshingly independent streak and had ambitions to be a writer. We talked about her writing for many years after she graduated and joked around quite a lot about it on Facebook.
One day she posted a fairly sophisticated quote about the nature of human consciousness.
I innocently commented "You think too much," ironically mocking the quote, which was written by someone else, and certainly not Stephanie, who, bored at work that day, had merely posted it as a reflection of her boredom. As a bright individual well trained in abstract thought (she got the best grade in Absurdity class), Stephanie immediately grasped the irony and we had one of our many fun and flippant exchanges.
Our conversation proved too much for one of Stephanie’s Facebook "friends," however.
"Excuse me," groused an unsolicited private message from this individual, a law student and Ivy League graduate whom I did not know and have thankfully never met, "but I think you may be silencing [Stephanie] and her writing."
"I most certainly am not," I replied, before asking why it was any of her business.
"Well, it just seemed that way," she presumed to admonish me.
"So what?," I replied to my unwanted new correspondent, "Did anyone ask your opinion?"
"No, but I’m telling you anyway," she reminded me.
"And why should I care? No one was talking to you. Why do you think your opinion matters?," I was curious to know.
"Are you saying it doesn’t?," she asked with what I imagined was a shrill screech.
"Yes," was my one-word reply.
"That’s a regressive attitude," she shot back.
"What is? Not caring about your unsolicited opinion in a conversation you’re not part of? I don’t know you and don’t want to. Your intrusion into my conversation with [Stephanie] is rude and unwelcome. Frankly, I don’t care what you think."
"OK, then, have a good day," was the only retort she could muster.
Was I denounced to Facebook for wrongthink?
Did I have to go to sensitivity training?
Did an online mob appear?
No. I never heard anything more from the aggrieved interloper who, I soon discovered, had blocked me. I was elated. As any millennial will tell you, being blocked on social media by someone with whom you have had a dispute is a clear and unambiguous sign that you won.
Fundamentally, this outcome concedes that the one taking the trouble to unfriend or block you is so powerless in the situation that all she can do is eliminate your presence from her online life so that she is not reminded of her powerlessness.
As cancel culture ravages our public life, my strange flap with this presumptuous correspondent suggests a solution: fighting back works. Could I have straightened my proverbial bowtie and just ignored her?
Certainly, but she might have entertained the delusion that she had "spoken her truth," successfully stunned me into silence, and then proceeded in life believing that she had done a right good thing and thereby felt encouraged to engage in greater confrontations.
Recently, we have seen Ivy-educated lawyers firebomb police cars.
Could it be that their younger selves were never told off at crucial moments when they asserted their "truths" in ways that were merely obnoxious virtue signaling?
Did liberal educators fail them by too patiently taking a passive "high road" that had no facility for correcting poor manners, shelving hypersensitivity, and shutting down emotional outbursts?
Could I have tried to reason with Stephanie’s friend?
Perhaps, but it would have been a fool’s errand. People like her quite seriously believe that the concept of "reason" is nothing more than a tool of white male supremacy.
To her mind, being asked to engage on a rational basis would have been tantamount to asking her to accept the same oppression she was seeking to police in a conversation that did not include her.
As so many university administrators and media types haplessly professing Enlightenment principles have learned lately, appealing to reasoned dialogues with such people only invites more abuse and louder accusations of "violence" against their subjectively redefined concept of "safety." For all practical purposes, this is now understood to be a "socially just" entitlement that may never be opposed or contradicted.
Instead, I stood up to online bullying — admittedly a weak and maladroit form of it — and got the bully to disappear, yielding with an empty pleasantry. I have no idea of her subsequent fate.
Stephanie was understandably embarrassed by the incident and we never discussed it again. But I rather doubt her annoying friend has hurled any Molotov cocktails lately.
Paul du Quenoy is President of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University. Read more here.
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