Everyone OK With Puppies?
By Patrick F. Cannon
You may wonder why I’m illustrating this week’s article with a photo of cute puppies. Well, I thought, who could object to seeing puppies? Then I remembered the more avid members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who would object to the “enslavement” of dogs, cats and other animals for the amusement of their human owners.
In any event, I thought a photo of inarguably cute puppies would be safer than, say, a painting of the prophet Muhammad. As it happens, some, but not all, Muslims object to the visual depiction of the founder of their religion. They think it smacks of idolatry, much as the early Christian protestants did during the Reformation when they painted over and otherwise obliterated the iconography in the cathedrals and churches of Northern Europe.
Erika Lopez Prater, an adjunct professor of art at Hamline University (St. Paul, MN), showed a 14th Century Persian painting of Mohammad receiving revelations from the Angel Gabriel, and got fired for her transgression. This, even though she warned Muslim students beforehand, giving them the choice of watching or not. Since a Muslim student complained anyway, the university saw no other possible remedy than denying Prater a new contract and apologizing to its Muslim students.
As it happens, Hamline is the oldest university in Minnesota. It has a student body of about 1,800, and prides itself on its high ranking among smaller universities. Its mission statement has the usual twaddle about diversity and inclusiveness. I saw nothing in its literature to suggest it has any religious affiliation. Yet, it has decided to give in to religious pressure and commit an afront to academic freedom, thus joining the increasing number of schools that have disgracefully done the same.
What Hamline has done is wrong in so many ways that one hardly knows where to begin. It has decided that the students, not the university and its faculty, are the best judges of what will be taught. As someone who knows something about the history of the visual arts, I can say with some conviction that artists have often tested the limits of toleration. In this case, the 14th Century Persian artist was not doing anything of the kind. What he did was perfectly acceptable for that time and place. But today’s students seem to think history started with them; and that their beliefs are the only ones that matter.
The Muslim students claimed that showing the image was clearly Islamophobic (I’m sure that would have been news to the Muslim artist who painted it). Hamline’s president, Faneese S. Miller, agreed, claiming that respect for Muslim students “should have superseded academic freedom.” Far too many university leaders seem to be of the same mind. The word “pandering” seems to fit.
The men who founded our republic – some of them religious themselves – understood that religion needed to be separated as much as possible from government and education. We have struggled with this from the beginning. We need to keep struggling. We need only look at countries like Iran and its enemy Israel to see how religion can distort rational public life. If we permit Muslim (or any religious) students to limit what can be taught, where does it end?
Copyright 2023, Patrick F. Cannon
6 thoughts on “Everyone OK With Puppies?”
Lunacy. Might as well object to a depiction of a supernatural being — that Gabriel creature. Not worthy of an academic institution. Hope the fired adjunct lands on her feet.
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So do I. As I recall, like so many adjuncts, she also had some other gigs.
Hard to believe American education has reduced itself to the proposition, “If you offend Mohammad [or any other group, symbol or person perceived to be victimized, including me], I’ll shoot your cuddly puppies.”
Such insanity is not limited, as we know, to education, though it seems that may be where it prospers, starting when college administrators began caving to outrageous and irrational student group demands back in the 1960s. Since those halcyon days colleges have become almost universally dependent on funding from the federal government, with its prohibitions of discrimination against selected groups. I doubt Dr Fayneese Miller is herself a Muslim, or cares much about it, but how would it look if she, the first African-American woman to be Hamline’s president, defended her faculty and as a consequence was called out for racism and religious discrimination? (I’ll exclude the possibility Dr Miller used the occasion to get rid of a faculty member she personally disliked.)
The Constitution prohibits Congress from legislating “an establishment of religion” but also from passing laws that restrict “the free exercise thereof.” Establishment of religion, like the Church of England or the Taliban, is a very different thing from allowing religious expression in government. The Declaration of Independence, after all, refers to “the Creator” as the source and basis of unalienable rights. The concept of “separation of church and state” was Jefferson’s shorthand in a letter he wrote. It is not law, and even if it were, it hardly defines practice. Religion has infused American government from the beginning. “God” is even printed on the money.
Ditto for education. Most of the first colleges in the US were founded as seminaries. It’s understood that public schools should not be proselytizing as sectarian institutions, but surely there should be no prohibition against expression of personal religious beliefs in them. My public schools in New York recognized the religious backgrounds of their students. They even closed on Jewish holidays!
The better aspects of human life aren’t cultivated in bureaucratic abstractions but in values, traditions and individual relationships. As for Hamline College, it let itself get tangled up in abstract technicalities. But it isn’t adopting Islam or religion in general by concealing Mohammad’s face; it’s just protecting its nether regions from Department of Education sanctions. And as it turned out, Muslim groups have petitioned Dr Miller to reinstate the admonished instructor.
Firing an instructor for showing a portrait was rash and unjustified. The student who filed the complaint just may have had a personal grudge or wanted attention (she got it). The teacher despite her precautions could have been more discreet. The teacher might have weighed how important a prophet’s portrait was in the class’s big picture. She might have shown it outside of class, or directed students to the Internet. Similar discretion might apply if one of Mapplethorpe’s more exquisite creations made its way into a classroom (although objections from a Christian would be readily dismissed). But teachers can get into no-win situations with willfully vengeful students and weak-kneed administrators.
I remember years ago a professor at Loyola was fired for using the dreaded n-word in class. Not long thereafter his wife divorced him. Surely he could have been more discreet. Isn’t that what the French call “savoir faire”?
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Remind me to tell you my “savoir faire” joke when next we meet.
I remember the joke and stand corrected on teachers using French-style savoir faire. It works best with consensual relationships, not adversarial ones!
Today, the French husband might have discreetly said , “Please continue!” but the wife’s lover would have shown true savoir faire and said, “Please join in!”
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