February 28, 2010

No Dogs Allowed

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One of my favorite movies growing up was the Peanuts special Snoopy, Come Home. Snoopy and Woodstock go off in search of Snoopy’s original owner — Lila, who is hospitalized and in need of company. During their misadventures en route, Snoopy faces the hard realities of being a hyper-intelligent puppy in a world run by men. America’s favorite beagle is forced from a beach, thrown off a bus, banned from a train, kicked out of a library and ultimately barred from entering the hospital where Lila awaits his company. Each time someone catches Snoopy where he’s not supposed to be, a disembodied voice sings in a deep bass filled with vibrato: “No dogs allowed!”

Many folks claim their morality comes from religion. My upbringing was devoid of religion until age 10, so for me it comes from interactions with my parents, books, songs, playground buddies and yes, The Peanuts (along with Madeline, Pooh Bear, The Berenstein Bears, Dr. Seuss and countless others). And if you’re an atheist like me, you believe the Bible is just another man-made work of literature to add to the vast collection of history, art, culture and science that informs our ever-changing moral zeitgeist.

Tolerance and inclusiveness was a major theme of my moral education. And though I was never an expert on this concept, I always knew it was pretty fundamental.

American history’s greatest theme is (arguably) a battle against those who disagree with this principal. When our country began, men went to college and voted, women raised the children and black people served their masters obediently. The United States grew out of this infantile version of a republic, eventually adopting explicit statements of equality and protections for the victims of discrimination. Along the way, Snoopy wasn’t the only person kicked off a bus.

So imagine my surprise when, in 2010, Cornell University — the only Ivy founded as a co-ed, secular institution — has decided to play host to a battle between “free speech” and diversity.

Last Tuesday, in a full-page double-feature, Mike Wacker and Andrew Daines wrote twin columns pitting individual freedom against touchy-feely (read: liberal) social engineering. Daines’ critique began with the obvious: “If the perfect university anti-discrimination statute had been devised, Cornell would have adopted it already (and not by a single tie-breaking vote).” Glad to see the boy’s ambitious.

But this defeatist approach to morality quickly transforms into a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed manifesto that can only be described as unadulterated, blue-blooded revelry in exclusion. “To be blunt,” Daines begins, “I cherish my ability to discriminate — to choose who will become my next editor-in-chief, my next pastor, my next dance partner or dinner guest — based on my own criteria.” He presses beyond these obviously permissible forms of discrimination into more controversial territory, attacking Resolution 44’s “forced universal tolerance coming to dominate a group of well-meaning black students who would exclude whites in order to promote solidarity or the band of Christians who don’t want a gay student to be their club president out of biblical conviction.” Finally, Daines describes a world of “macroscopic diversity” where insular, segregated groups dot the landscape, each featuring their own brand of hateful exclusion. I imagine, in Daines’ version of our university, a white supremacy group meeting in Hollis Auditorium, while down the hall in Kaufman, the black supremacy group, equally strong in numbers, calls their meeting into order.

Cute.

I agree that certain forms of discrimination are fine: discrimination based on athletic ability, intelligence, character, moral values, etc. And absolutely every form of discrimination ought to be permissible both at Cornell and in the world beyond. And if some racist pricks were expelled from Cornell for forming a whites-only club, I’d be the first to complain. The trouble comes when that group receives support from my wallet. The first amendment protects citizens’ right to freedom of expression and assembly. But my deep convictions tell me no just governing body has the right to take my money and throw it to a hateful cause without my consent. In that case, my free speech hasn’t been denied — it’s been hijacked.

Let’s ground this lofty discussion in a concrete example: homophobia. Isn’t discriminating against gays (for a Christian group) the same as discriminating against alcoholics, atheists and others who challenge their faith? Isn’t religion something protected from governmental infringement?

Absolutely not. While the other examples include choices and beliefs, sexual orientation represents an immutable trait: something you’re born with, not something you choose. I never chose to be gay, and I’ve never met a gay who said they did. So any group that attempts to exclude me, tell me I’m a bad person, or force me to deny my sexuality is wrong.

Further, religion is not above the elected government. As I alluded to before, I treat religion like any other institution: a man made construct, occasionally flawed in its reasoning and not the source of all things moral. Unfortunately, The Sun at large seems to disagree with this statement. In an editorial denouncing Resolution 44, the Sun asks: “For religious groups, will this [resolution] place the University in the position of judging religious doctrine?”

Does anyone else consider this A-OK? Are we to exempt a segment of the population from adhering to anti-discrimination laws that otherwise bar injustice, simply on the grounds that there book was written a really really really long time ago? If corporations can’t bar women from CEO positions, why can the Catholic Church exclude women from the priesthood?

For the record, I don’t think it’s adorable that campus groups can preach gay exclusion. Homophobia, unchecked by anti-discrimination statutes, fosters an environment of intimidation and hatred that has spurred political assassinations, lynchings, suicides, chemical castrations and teenage homelessness. And that’s limiting the discussion to just the United States and Britain. These acts of violence, catalyzed by a frothing sea of unchecked hatred, cause many gay Americans to hide in the closet and suppress their beliefs. In short, this brand of discrimination seems to suppress more free speech than it supports.

If, through exclusion, you wish to promote the concept that racism is okay, or women are inferior to men, or God deems gay men as lesser human beings, so be it. But don’t do it with my student activity fee. It’s the best way to personally insult my dignity, on my dime.

Munier Salem is a former Sun Assistant Design Editor and founded the Science section. He is a senior in the College of Engineering. He may be reached at msalem@cornellsun.com. Critical Mass appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Munier Salem