Back in the early 1980’s when people began to understand that there were such things as gay people in the world, but most gay people were still in the closet and understandably so, an androgynous, or more of a borderline transvestite, man who called himself Boy George splashed onto the music scene with his face conspicuously covered in eye-shadow and lipstick. When the perplexed intellectuals of the era pondered his popularity and seriously discussed the nature of manhood in the new era, an essayist for the TIME magazine quipped “It is certainly difficult to be a plain old weirdo these days”.
This sounds so quaint in the era of Caitlyn Jenner. Now that Bruce-to-Caitlyn transformation is last year’s news, what else can you do to provoke perplexed response?
This is not a joke, actually. On the one hand, all minorities, including sexual minorities, have been mounting a serious battle for acceptance into greater society. On the other hand avant garde artists need to stretch the envelope further in order to be ground breaking. Minorities must have the rest of society un-offended at what they are. Avant garde artists must push the boundaries of good taste or acceptable behavior. While both want main stream acceptance, one challenges you not to treat them as weirdos, while the other craves your cringing curiosity. They are allies and opponents at the same time.
Are we seeing the death of the avant garde? It looks as if we might be. University professors and students, particularly literature majors, used to seek ever more offensive material. They sought abrasive observations and counter-intuitive viewpoints that challenged their own opinions and world views. Now students are seeking trigger warnings and safe places and avoiding material that might confound their entrenched positions. Why is this so?
Somewhere in the transition from Boy George to Caitlyn Jenner, people seem to have come to the realization that everything has been done before, and the only way to mark your place in the world is by rejecting the work that has already been done. In the ’90s, students only rejected the works of Dead White Males. Today, they also reject the works of women, gays, and minorities that came before them for the flimsiest excuses about how it offends their thin skins. The days when George Carlin performed “Seven Words You Cannot Hear on the Radio” in college campuses are long past. Instead of taking on taboo topics, students are drawing their own taboo lines and retreating into their safe spaces. Comedians are abandoning their tradition of performing on campuses.
Intellectual thought in the liberal arts can only thrive in an environment where people dare to offend and be offended. But since nobody is supposed to be offended by heretofore conventional boundary lines of sexuality, race, and class, people who pretend to be liberal are marking their positions by closing themselves off; an easier way out for those too lazy to find new ways to push the envelope.
The pivotal question is, have everything already been done? Is there no story that has never been written? Is there no new ground that needs to be broken? Is it really a time to close oneself off in anchorholds? If history is any guide, isolationist asceticism has proven itself premature before, it will be proven premature again. In fact, there lies the irony. The current safe-space movement, although it is clearly a product of the perception that avant garde progressiveness has run its course, is in fact a replay of the ages old tradition of isolationist ascenticism. People have been blocking themselves off from bad thoughts, bad words, and the general corruption of the world since the beginning of time. The ancient Hindu scripture Rigveda describes the Munis – the silent ones. They not only refused to hear bad words and bad thoughts, they did not speak at all. Bodhidharma, a Buddhist sage and the founder of the Shaolin monastery, isolated himself in a cave. The word “hermit” comes from the Latin word “eremita” – “of the desert” – which refers to the Old Testament practice of isolating oneself in the desert to escape worldly corruption. In England in the middle ages, anchorites sealed themselves up in stone chambers.
People screaming at the sight of a wrong Halloween costume may seem like they are taking political correctness to new levels, but what they are practicing is only a secular rendition of 17th century Puritanism in which people objected just as hysterically to what they viewed as sinful dress. The Puritans also sought safe places where they would not be offended by such transgressions.
I would like to inform the safe place seekers of the world that I have no apologies for my continuing quest for the avant garde. The world has not run out of boundaries to challenge. There is nothing novel about seeking isolation from offensive stimuli. True intellectualism is a relentless confrontation with conventional thinking. If you are offended by my efforts to push the boundaries of good taste and acceptable behavior through my writing, then it only means that I have done my job right.