I have noticed a new “culture of fragility” among my fellow academics in recent years. There is an aversion to confrontation and divisive discussions. Increasingly, professors avoid any situations that could lead to disagreement, and everyone is expected to praise one another, even when faced with an objective failure. This culture of fragility stifles open dialogue and hinders collective decision-making. Collegiality has been reinterpreted as “avoiding causing discomfort to others,” rather than as a norm of respect governing genuine debate and intellectual disagreement. This culture concerns me a great deal, for it threatens our ability as educators to prepare students to navigate the complexities of reality.
Many associate this problem with a specific political orientation. However, I believe the roots of it go deeper, to a form of philosophical anti-realism. While realism asserts the existence of objective truths in an external, independent reality, anti-realism maintains that truth is dependent on human cognition, language, and social practices. Certain academic fields tend toward anti-realism thanks to postmodernism, which emphasizes the role of language and social constructs in shaping reality and questions the existence of objective truth. Another reason for the rise of anti-realism is the decline in belief in God, which has been supplanted by sentimentalism. As traditional religious frameworks wane, new paradigms emerge, often emphasizing human agency in constructing reality. But if we construct our own realities—meaning reality is dependent on us, in a world where we believe we are all independent of one another—this can lead to profound feelings of impotence, fear, and frustration when we encounter disagreement or alternative opinions.
For believers, reason's primary role is to discover external reality rather than create it. Realists, whether religious or not, reject the idea that humans can create mind-dependent realities and emphasize discerning the objective world independent of human perception and construction. For believers, there is a more fundamental conviction: We are not alone in this world.
Anti-realists see no objective grounding for beliefs and values. Rather, individuals construct ethical systems based on their feelings, aiming ultimately for personal well-being. This murky moral landscape complicates how we address disagreements, injustices, and ethical dilemmas that transcend cultural or individual differences. This sentimentalist anti-realist view may also promote a distinct form of individualism, which I call “fake demiurgism.” It is the false idea that we can change reality as much as necessary to improve our emotional state. However, our inability to control the laws of physics leaves us ill-prepared to handle uncertainty, and this is one of the sources of our frustration and fear.
Benedict XVI once offered a simple piece of ethical advice, which is relevant here: If you don't believe in God, behave as if God existed. In other words, he encouraged people to commit to realism. Only when we see reality as objective and external can we truly exchange ideas with one another, respect one another, and, ultimately, be less obsessed by our demiurgical frustration.
Today, on campuses across America, administrators and faculty members promote the culture of fragility. They attempt to guide themselves and their students through a complex world using reason, but without committing to realism. Ratzinger's advice goes unheeded. They are not openly anti-religious; however, religion, like everything else, is seen as one of the possible options in a demiurgic strategy to make others feel better. Although their intentions might be good, they are not preparing students to face “evil.” Evil exists in every reality, be it internal or external, and is the cost of our freedom. Evil will encroach upon our safe spaces, and we must be prepared to confront it.
We find ourselves in a disheartening situation. We are opting to live less than fully, in the reality we've constructed—a false Eden of safe spaces. We promote the good only if it is compatible with our feelings. We refrain from ever saying “no” or “you are wrong.” The notion that our “no” can trigger discomfort in others becomes our own discomfort. We call it moral to reject uncomfortable truths. This is particularly concerning in a context where we are supposed to be guided by the scientific method in its various forms.
What I write as a Christian dedicated to the truth may likely upset some of my colleagues and friends, and make them uncomfortable. However, if comfort is the only thing that truly matters, how can we change anything? Even when we are uncertain about the facts or we interpret them differently, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge our disagreement and either attempt to reconcile or defend our respective positions? And looking ahead, how can we put an end to this trend that renders both us and our students too vulnerable to truly live? What is to be done? I bear a moral responsibility to uphold the truth and potentially disturb the comfort of those around me. I will do so because I respect and love them.
Simone M. Sepe is Chester H. Smith Professor of Law and Finance at the University of Arizona.
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Images by Andrea Piacquadio licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.