Sally Mason, President of the University of Iowa, has been reprimanded by the Regents of said institution for remarks relating to the prevention of sexual assaults. She had recently declared that ending sexual assault probably was not realistic “just given human nature.” Board members were concerned that students found the remark to be “hurtful.”
It is not entirely clear from the article whether students deemed the remark hurtful because President Mason’s believes human nature to be somewhat depraved or because she believes there is such a thing as human nature. Certainly, in the current climate, the latter is a distinct possibility. Forty years of critical theory have taken a heavy toll on the whole notion of universal essences in a way which would have made even late medieval English nominalists cry out “I say! Steady on there, old chap!”
If it is the former, the fact that she appears to believe human nature to be depraved, then perhaps some are frightened that Mason is excusing sex crimes. If she is, then that is truly appalling (though not primarily because it is hurtful, as I will argue below). Yet this does not seem a necessary logical inference of her claim. That we believe crime is inevitable is surely a large part of why we do not simply have laws but also have law enforcement agencies. The existence of neither implies any excusing of criminal behavior. Indeed, any robust and ongoing anti-sex crime policy must surely be predicated on the assumption that such crimes do happen and will continue to happen and that victims will therefore continue to need protection and justice.
More significant than specific interpretations of the meaning of Mason’s statements, however, is the language being used to pursue this moral discourse. Whether a comment such as that of Mason is “hurtful” should surely be neither here nor there. I find it hurtful that Americans insist on reminding the British of our defeat in the revolutionary war every July 4th, that all Hollywood evil masterminds have English accents, and that my wife’s favorite dish from home haggis is illegal in its original form over here on the grounds that the government considers it to be “unfit for human consumption.” Yet my emotional reaction to all of these things is irrelevant.
Morality based upon aesthetics is doomed to descend into incoherent subjectivism where notions of right and wrong become little more than functions of the most powerful lobby group, the most touching story, the most tasteful sentimentalism. It is the flip-side of what would have been on display on the Oscar red carpet last night: lifestyles of moral and personal disarray sanctified to sinless perfection by the possession of physical beauty, money and questionable fashion sense. We no longer think in terms of the good and the true but rather the beautiful and the tasteful.
Mason might well be wrong in her claim (though I suspect she is not, original sin surely being one of the easiest Christian doctrines to establish on an empirical basis). But if she is, she is wrong either because there is no such thing as human nature, or because human nature is fundamentally perfectible given the right social conditions. Her statement was not a personal attack on anyone; it was intended as a statement of fact. As such, it should not be dismissed because it is hurtful; far less should she be reprimanded on that basis. If it is to be dismissed, it should be so because it can be shown to be wrong unless “right” and “wrong” have now been reduced in practice to taste.
Some years ago, I raised the question of whether using the language of “hurt” was simply a way of putting on a veneer of Uriah Heepish piety to force someone into silence without having to address the coherence of their arguments. The piety has now apparently become less Heepish and more strident. Indeed, the potential rise of the “hurt crime” seems likely to take this arbitrary ethical aestheticism to a whole new level of orchestrated restrictions on free speech by the bien pensant guardians of public taste.