Thursday, November 20, 2014

Could your typical Ivy League student stand hearing a performance of The Wall?

I was on a Pink Floyd binge at work yesterday, getting through Meddle, DSOTM and Wish You Were Here, and finally, The Wall (apologies if I skipped your favorite album).  Music is an important way for me to shield myself from distractions, and their music is usually pretty contemplative.

But listening to The Wall (aside: not my favorite album of theirs), I had a strange thought: could this album be handled maturely by today's hyper-sensitive campus activist type?  Maybe it's unfair to call them the "typical" Ivy League student, though their thinking seems to pervade the Very Serious Universities, Ivy or not (links on links on links on links).

If you don't know, the pseudo-autobiographical concept album tells the story of a musician named Pink, who having been battered by a lifetime of failed relationships, pressures of the music industry, and the failings of all authorities in his life, retreats into himself and erects emotional barriers between himself and all loved ones (hence: The Wall).  While in retreat, a new, ghastly version of his personality emerges.  One that uses his platform to argue a horrendous, racist, homophobic, jack-booted crackdown on all the freaks he identifies around him.  This character's cringe-inducing outbursts are presented plainly, and without apology, until the time of his eventual emotional recovery.

It's quite clear, in the context of the album, that neither Roger Waters (lead singer and main songwriter of the album) nor the band are presenting this view as correct or laudable.  Whether it's a believable transformation or not hardly matters.  It is clear that the band is not promoting stormtroopers rounding up all the undesirables.

And yet, handling this kind of context seems increasingly challenging.  Trigger warnings are placed on works of classic literature for their period-realistic use of racist language, even when the racism is cast in a negative light.  Discussions of controversial topics spawn alternative events and safe-spaces, because students just can't handle hearing discomfiting things said.

I mean, could you imagine the reaction upon hearing the following from the song "In the Flesh"?
So you thought you might like to go to the show
To feel the warm thrill of confusion, that space cadet glow
I've got some bad news for you, Sunshine,
Pink isn't well, he stayed back at the hotel
And he's sent us along as a surrogate band
We're gonna find out where you fans really stand
Are there any queers in the theatre tonight?
Get 'em up against the wall!
Now there's one in the spotlight, he don't look right to me!
Get 'em up against the wall!
Now that one looks Jewish!  And that one's a coon!
Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
There's one smoking a joint!
And another with spots!
If I had my way, I'd have all of you shot!
There'd be protests and vigils and concerned reflection by craven administrators.  Not because someone performed a song advocating these views.  But because someone presented these views as views that exist.  And that's one of the more frightening implications of this new climate on campus.  How do you deal with the world as it is, if you can't even discuss the horrors that are there?  There's not a topic of any controversy (and so, hardly any topic at all) that will not cause someone some offense, and maybe extreme discomfort.

Of course, when the state and its agents (as would be the case in public universities, not the Ivy League) are empowered to protect people from speech, it will eventually be the political majority that decides what speech is protected and what's speech from which people should be protected.  And that doesn't sound like a very liberal solution.  In the unchallenged enclave of academia, they are insulated from having their own views silenced, because the powers have found their views legitimate.  But they may not like it if this approach to free speech "balancing" were adopted more broadly (as is happening across the world in purportedly liberal democracies).

In the end, Pink tears down his wall after painful reflection.  And we hear the story of the people who were trying to reach him.  They're identified as the "bleeding hearts and artists", which are the people whom the campus left would seem to identify with.  Instead of cracking down on Pink in his worst moments, they try to reach him through the Wall, with their love:

All alone, or in two's,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.
And when they've given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it's not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.

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