Life is Inherently Uncomfortable
Monday Notes
Life is Inherently Uncomfortable
Muslim students may have been offended by a painting of the Prophet. That's a feature, not a bug.
Published on: Jan 9, 2023  |  

Islam hasn’t been in the news lately, which is generally a good thing. It’s better for us to stay under the radar, I think. Consider my surprise, then, when I heard about the dust-up at a small, private school named Hamline University. A lecturer showed a painting of the Prophet Mohamed to her art history class. After some Muslim students objected, Erika Lopez Prater, an adjunct professor, was thrown under the bus and lost her job.

The university sent out an email calling the incident “Islamophobic.” The president of the institution, a certain Dr. Miller, also offered the following statement, which struck me as a bit odd:

To look upon an image of the Prophet Muhammad, for many Muslims, is against their faith. It was important that our Muslim students, as well as all other students, feel safe, supported and respected both in and out of our classrooms.

Strong coddling of the American mind vibes. I’m not even going to try to make the argument that images of the Prophet Mohamed are permissible under Islamic law, as some scholars have argued. (Clearly, the fact that some Muslims painted the Prophet over the course of Islamic history would suggest that there wasn’t as clear a consensus on the matter as we’re often led to believe). But as far as global art history courses are concerned, I’m not sure that’s the most relevant issue. After all, non-Muslim university administrators shouldn’t make judgments about whether  particular behaviors or actions fall under Islamic orthodoxy. They don’t do this for other things: alcohol consumption is much more clearly prohibited in Islam, but to my knowledge Muslim students aren’t complaining to Hamline University for having fraternities on campus, or insisting that the very presence of alcohol is offensive to them.

To extend the alcohol analogy, if a professor in an art history course had required Muslim students to paint the Prophet themselves rather than just looking at a painting that already existed, that would be a different matter.

I’d take it one step further, though. Even if showing the painting was “Islamophobic” and was legitimately offensive to Muslims, it’s not clear to me that dismissing Lopez Prater would have been any more justified.

It just so happened that as I was reading about the Hamline hullabaloo, I came across the tech entrepreneur Sam Altman’s tweet about the failure of universities to prepare students for the world as it is, not as we might want it to be.

The presumption of “safety” on campus isn’t just annoying in the way that a lot of “woke” stuff might be. It actually has potentially serious implications for how a new generation thinks about risk. Needless to say, if you’re in tech, then you probably have more reason to worry, since real innovation depends on a minimal degree of intellectual curiosity, individual resilience, and comfort with discomfort, as well as a willingness to put yourself in compromising positions when it comes to work-life balance.

To put it a little bit more starkly, I can understand why a tech start-up founder wouldn’t want a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department to run amok internally, just as I can understand not wanting to hire Gen-Zers who say they need regular mental health breaks and the like.

In other words, there is some use in learning how to be offended without freaking out and complaining to an administrator. (I work hard, but I’m also lazy enough to find myself utterly amazed at the level of effort and dedication required to sustain the level of indignation that would lead someone to submit a formal complaint about a professor sharing a painting from the 14th century). Universities should make it their mission to make students feel at least a little bit uncomfortable.

I mean, I remember when I was an undergraduate organizing a tent-in in Georgetown’s appropriately named Red Square for the entire duration of the Iraq War (until the mission was “accomplished”) and some students threw eggs at us. Back then, which wasn’t that long ago, I took this to be a character building exercise. There was a war, after all, one that was stupid, unjust, and legitimately scary in a way that helped put things into perspective. It could have been better. But it also could have been worse—and, for a while, it was.