Writers like me get a lot of mileage out of poking fun at college students making big deals out of fairly minor ethical transgressions. Doing that with integrity, however, requires retaining the ability to tell the difference.
The delivery of racialized threats to a number of black freshmen was no minor transgression.
In the new digital age, Its astonishingly easy to deliver fear-inducing material to huge numbers of people with near-guaranteed impunity. Much like a military-style firearm makes life easier for a lunatic or terrorist intending to kill in great numbers, a laptop and an internet connection make it far simpler than ever before to threaten, abuse and terrify massive numbers of individuals.
The law and its enforcement can offer only limited relief from this reality, although threats and intimidation rightly fall outside the protections guaranteed to speech under the Constitution. A free society can neither extend those concepts so far as to encompass every immoral communication, nor enforce their prohibition comprehensively. To do either would mean sacrificing crucial facets of the very liberties from fear and harm that those laws seek to preserve.
This inevitability leaves decent people facing a conundrum of sorts. We do not, I think, wish to live in a world where any lone bigot or provocateur with Wi-Fi can wreak serious disruption upon our lives and institutions at will. Yet neither do we wish to live in a society which is so morally numbed and empathetically vacant that it fails to recoil in a serious way at the real evil that racialized threats and their ilk represent.
It’s easy to say that ethical people will just have to be “resilient,” but I don’t think that suggestion gets it quite right. A resilient object, when damaged, simply returns to its original state. The damage repaired, it only endures, ever as it was before. We should not wish to live in a resilient society. It would be cold and callous, uncaring and eventually unnoticing of the genuine and deep disorder and injustice which exist within it.
It would intuitively seem that the alternative to resilience is fragility, and that to avoid the moral perils of a resilient society, we should aim for a fragile one. A fragile society would react maximally to assaults and stresses, altering its form constantly and dramatically to diffuse their energy.
But I suspect we do not wish to live in a fragile society either. Our institutions and associations have forms which facilitate the accomplishment of goals we wish for ourselves and those around us. Our school has a certain form and function that is meant to facilitate education and enlightenment. If we radically alter its form to whatever extent is needed to diffuse the shock of every stress from within or without, it will in time lose the ability to do these things. There reaches a point, that is, when by granting evil the power to dictate our actions and to alter the shapes of our societies, we end up facilitating and magnifying its power in the world. Walking out of class once may be a powerful gesture, but if we abandon learning whenever we cross paths with hatred, we’ll only wind up uneducated.
It is lucky, therefore, that fragility is not the only alternative to resilience. Materials scientists speak of a few, uncommon materials which are “antifragile;” that is, they react to damage by becoming less susceptible to future damage. Human bone is the classic example. When subjected to a certain stress, it microfractures in ways which require attention and care. Tended to correctly, however, the bone will regrow with the ability to withstand a future stress of the same magnitude.
When we think about how our campus community should respond to the future stresses which will indubitably come, we should look to antifragility. When we are hurt, we should seek to reform our structures in subtle ways which maintain our form and function while leaving us better prepared for the crises we know will come. We cannot forever roll with punches which will not cease.
But human spirit is not like human bone; it is not antifragile by default. We have the capability to become antifragile only if we choose to address our hurts in ways which make us stronger. I wasn’t threatened and it’s not my place to tell those who were what they should do. I offer only a suggestion of a guiding principle. It’s hard to know exactly what an antifragile campus or society would look like. But if we’re ever going to attain it, we’ll have to start with the recognition that it’s what we want.