The Vice Column: Frannies don’t talk to each other

Clement Harrold

Student Government Vice President

I love Franciscan. I love the campus, the faculty, the friars, the authentically Catholic culture. I love the fact that there’s a positive peer pressure here, that there’s a strange but beautiful synthesis between charismatic and traditional, that you can become the person God wants you to be in an environment that constantly seeks to support you, not tear you down.

Like anywhere, however, we have our blind spots, and without a doubt one of the biggest disappointments of my time here has been to see how we’ve become almost incapable of talking to each other about issues that matter.

Time and again I’ve been struck by the number of Frannies who’ve explicitly or implicitly subscribed to the prevailing cultural mindset that says that to debate ideas is dangerous, that to criticize your opinions is to attack you as a person and that ultimately you have no right to tell me how to live my life.

This attitude has become all too commonplace on our campus, and it’s time we began calling it for what it is: socially dangerous, intellectually narrow-minded and inherently un-Christian.

It was the great Nicholas Belt, former residence director in Austria, who made the point once that “Franciscan students have a peer-to-peer confrontation problem.” A perfect example of this came for me a couple of weeks ago with what is now being affectionately referred to as Spandexgate 2.0. (If you aren’t sure what that means, ask any senior.)

For the blissfully uninformed, I should begin by confessing that I was the offender who committed not one but two cardinal sins. First, I raised modesty as a topic for discussion. And secondly, I shared an article on Facebook.

The fact that the article I shared was written from a secular perspective by a female New York Times columnist didn’t make any difference in the eyes of the critics. Nor did the fact that my original post explicitly stated that I simply wanted to hear people’s perspectives, rather than enter into arguments.

Of course, both these details were deemed irrelevant since the majority of commenters knew better than to waste time actually reading (that old-fashioned academic practice) either the article or the original post.

Little did I know that in an intellectual and faith community like ours, modesty is one of those impenetrable topics on which neither our intellects nor our faith is allowed any say. Even at Franciscan, it seems, many of us are content with the much more straightforward “My body, my choice” approach to clothing, and any kind of authentic dialogue on the subject is deemed “divisive,” “offensive,” and ultimately impossible.

Among the various overreactions to my Facebook post, attitudes ranged from the indignant to the shrill to the apoplectic. In each case, however, the thrust of the argument was the same: how dare you bring this up; this is so unbefitting; take it down immediately.

On every occasion, moreover, the commentator made the immediate assumption that it is impossible to even think about sharing constructive feedback on an online article. This quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Can’t you see that social media is prone to over-reaction, you moron?” One might ask whether their actions really contributed to a more constructive dialogue.

(They seemingly missed the irony, moreover, of their criticizing me via the very platform they were blaming me for using; not a single critic took the time to approach me in person, call me or even just DM to constructively share their concerns.)

In a droll display of hypocrisy, oftentimes the very commenters who thought I was so wrong to “stoke division” in making my original post were the same people who trawled through all 300 comments in order to put their Facebook heart reaction on every point which contributed to their social media echo chamber. An interesting double standard.

Ultimately, if some Frannies want to stay off Facebook (and that includes the comments, by the way), more power to them. But for many of these reactionaries, my sense is that their reluctance to see the topic of modesty even so much as mentioned betrays a deeper unwillingness on their part to see the topic discussed at all. Therein lies the problem.
What, then, to take away from this? Very simply: We need to be better, Franciscan, because this just isn’t good enough.

If we’re uncomfortable with peer-to-peer confrontation, we would do well to read the Scriptures and see how fraternal correction is something not just permitted but actively required in the Christian life (see Matt. 18:1 and Cor. 5). We need to get past this flawed mindset which idolizes unity even at the expense of truth.

The mantra which says “Your Facebook post was too divisive” is as lazy as it is simplistic. Did my post cause division? Sure it did. But any university that lacks division on important issues is one not worthy of the name.

During my three years at Franciscan, I’ve worked incredibly hard to promote authentic conversation and debate on campus. And despite the more disappointing aspects of this latest Facebook drama, I know for a fact that it has led to dozens if not hundreds of productive conversations across campus in the past couple of weeks.

You disagree? Excellent. I welcome your disagreement. Now, go one step further: Don’t just complain about it, but instead take the time to actually tell me (either online or, preferably, in person) why it is that you disagree with me.

And then, maybe — just maybe — we can have a respectful conversation about it. Seems like a good goal.