Incoming freshman at Duke University who identify as social conservatives are refusing to read Fun Home—the summer reading assignment—because it violates their Christian beliefs. These students' exceedingly silly mini-protest should serve as a reminder that hysterical offendedness is not solely the domain of the far-left, and should be resisted by all supporters of an open intellectual environment on campuses.
Fun Home is a memoir written by Alison Bechdel; the Broadway version won a Tony Award earlier this year. Gay themes figure prominently in the story, which explores Bechdel's lesbian identity, as well as her father's closeted homosexuality.
For those reasons, some socially conservative members of the Class of 2019 have opted not to read the book, even though Duke selected it as the summer reading assignment.
According to The Duke Chronicle:
Several incoming freshmen decided not to read "Fun Home" because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book "because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality," igniting conversation among students. The graphic novel, written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.
"I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it," Grasso wrote in the post. …
Grasso noted that he felt the book choice was insensitive to people with more conservative beliefs.
"Duke did not seem to have people like me in mind," he said. "It was like Duke didn't know we existed, which surprises me."
At least a few students share Grasso's view:
However, several freshmen agreed with Grasso that the novel's images conflicted with their beliefs. Freshman Bianca D'Souza said that while the novel discussed important topics, she did not find the sexual interactions appropriate and could not bring herself to view the images depicting nudity.
Freshman Jeffrey Wubbenhorst based his decision not to read the book on its graphic novel format.
"The nature of 'Fun Home' means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature," he wrote in an email.
Important disclaimer: Reading Fun Home isn't mandatory. Students aren't obligated to complete the summer reading assignment—at Duke or any other university. There's no penalty for refusing to do so. (Confession: I didn't read my college's assigned book, nor can I recall what it was.) A great many students, I presume, don't even know the reading assignment exists. Students who object to Fun Home aren't breaking any rules by refusing to read it. They have that right.
Even so, I question whether students whose first impulse is to shun a viewpoint with which they disagree are prepared for the intellectual challenges of attending college. Would they refuse to read Fun Home if it were assigned as mandatory reading in an introductory English or drama class? Will they avoid courses that might discuss gay themes, or criticize Christianity? If confronted with contrary opinions, will they refuse to engage them? Should a student enter college with the conviction that his ideas are not merely superior to all others but exempt from scrutiny?
Critics of Grasso—many of them left-leaning—let him have it on social media: a quick Twitter search produced several dozen iterations of the phrase get over it. And I agree with them wholeheartedly.
However, much of the outrage at Grasso seems stridently hypocritical. What if, instead of a summer reading list, students were given a summer viewing list? What if, instead of watching Fun Home, students were instructed to watch a film with a less overtly leftist political orientation? What if that the film was, say, American Sniper? What if a bunch of students refused to watch the film, citing religious objections? What if those students took their protest one step further—asserting that the university should have no relationship with the film whatsoever, and should not even provide a means of viewing it for students who actually wanted to do so? Would the same people currently unloading on Grasso be equally outraged at these hypothetical censorious students?
We already know the answer to that question.
There are forces on both the left and the right that would like to make college campuses less radically open to all kinds of discussion and expression. The conservative students' objections to Fun Home should remind us that avoiding offense and protecting feelings are unwise policies for university administrators to adopt, since they will quickly lead to prohibitions on a wide variety of things that absolutely belong on campus. But hyper-offended left-leaning students present an inarguably greater danger to free expression and academic freedom, given that these students have been much more successful at forcing schools to cater to their anxieties so far.
Bottom line: If you leap into outrage mode when students refuse to read Fun Home, but remain silent (or supportive!) when students try to prevent everybody from seeing American Sniper, you aren't actually defending intellectual freedom. You're just living in a partisan bubble.