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The Two Gears of Student Moral Discourse

The first time I tried to drive a golf cart, it seemed to have only two speeds. When I stepped down hard on the accelerator, I took off too fast. When I tried to push it down more gently, it barely moved. As with many such mechanisms, it takes experience and a little skill to find the “sweet spot” between jerking away at high speed, which throws people out of the cart or induces whiplash, and creeping along slower than you can walk.

I have noticed something analogous among many students when they address moral issues. They seem to have two gears. One is their “keeping-my-ironic-distance-I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone-and-I-am-not-judging-anyone-else-but-here-is-how-I-feel” gear. The wind-up to this pitch can be long and involved: “I was born in East Texas and my parents came to this country when I was very young, and I was raised in a fairly strict household ‘n stuff, but here is how I feel, but I’m not judging anyone else.” This is the “I-know-I’m-walking-on-eggshells-with-everything-I-say” gear. Students know they must never seem to be anything but utterly open and tolerant.

The other gear students have – this is the one you see in the news more often recently – is the “How-dare-you-say-that-or-hold-that-view-and-now-I-am-going-to-be-offended-and-scream-my-head-off-at-you-and-maybe-dive-over-the-table-and-choke-you” gear. Note, these aren’t two classes or categories of students; these two gears are normally found in one and the same student.

How, you wonder, could this be? How is it possible for a group of scrupulously non-judgmental students whose main goal in life is to be “open” and “tolerant” of other people’s views to be the same students screaming bloody murder at those whose views differ from theirs?

I wonder myself why the students who are the most dedicated moral relativists in my class – who insist there is nothing that is objectively right or wrong – also complain loudest about grades or treatment they are absolutely certain is “unfair.” “Unfair?” I always want to ask. “You mean objectively unfair? You may feel it is ‘unfair’ from your perspective, the way you were raised, and the way culture formed you, but what if I feel that doing this is not unfair from my perspective, the way was raised, and the way culture formed me?” But I have no desire to confirm them in their moral relativism.

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