Dangerous Thinking on Today’s Campus

“There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking it-self is dangerous.”

—Hannah Arendt

I’ve always taken Hannah Arendt’s liberties as moral rapprochement though never as protective coloration. If the purest lesson of the twentieth century is the victory of alienation, bravery is an ethical concern.

Thinking is dangerous in prejudicial times and as Arendt made clear the present is always prejudicial.

“Who am I,” you might ask, “to hold this nearly insipid generalization up for scrutiny?”

I am one who, like the poet Marvin Bell tries to visualize the umbrella outside and inside, both views at the same time.

Now recently a friend (whose identity must be protected) an academic day laborer (whose university shall be withheld) someone who as an instructor is about as low on the totem pole as possible—this well meaning soul endeavored to moderate a discussion turned fight between students. I can’t tell you about the argument, only that it involved art and race and the issue of cultural appropriation: who’s black enough to make black art? Could anyone, regardless of race, conceivably be, even modestly, part of the discussion? It turned out the answer, was no—in the minds of two students a white adjunct, older, a woman, a veteran thinker, was not entitled to an opinion—in fact, her effort to uphold the view that art is inclusive and a place for discussion was twisted into a narrative of harassment.

These days taking offense substitutes for imperturbability on college campuses. Emotions replace sagaciousness. Students know that history affords scads of dangerous thinkers but mistakenly think debate is perilous and a step toward surrender.


Fearing risk some students think whatever is beneath engagement must be the solution. What’s “below” is mere feeling–stripped, beseeching moods.

Yes, Plato feared the crowd incited.

“Plato,” today’s students might say, “was privileged.”

The lessons of Socrates are lost.

I believe anyone, of any race, gender, sexual orientation, ability-disability, should be able to make art about anything.

As a writer who’s blind I hate portrayals of blindness by sighted writers. I’m not fond of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, because he metaphorizes blindness even as he attempts to demonstrate it’s potential—his blind character is a kind of seer. I wish he’d studied more about disability before he wrote the book. I wish plenty of abled artists would bother to study more about disablement.

The trouble with privilege as a delineation or marker of acceptable ideas is that it devolves into Stalinism before you can say William Styron.

Now pain is pain. All historically marginalized people know a good deal about the cruelties of discrimination and the abjections of erasure. No one should be confused about the dreadful, enervating, daily struggle for autonomy people across the globe must contend with: colonialism, racism, homo-phobia, sexism, ableism, God Almighty the list is long.

And cultural appropriation exists. Most of Disney…

Within disability studies we call able bodied writing that utilizes disabled characters “narrative prosthesis” and let’s be clear, most of the time, disability is subjected to cultural appropriation. See JoJo Mayes.

But I believe anyone should be able to write, paint, draw, compose, sculpt, photograph, dance what she or he or they want.

I think this, not because I don’t believe in cultural appropriation but because thinking itself is dangerous and we better celebrate it, be discomfited but argumentative, listen to others, defend the right of our opponents to hold opinions we may dislike—we do this or face a contemporary Counter-Reformation.

In 1945 Isaiah Berlin wrote a report for British intelligence on the literary scene in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The entire paper is worth reading but I like this passage in particular:

Writers are generally considered as persons who need a good deal of watching, since they deal in the dangerous commodity of ideas, and are therefore fended off from private, individual contact with foreigners with greater care than the less intellectual professionals, such as actors, dancers, and musicians, who are regarded as less susceptible to the power of ideas, and to that extent better insulated against disturbing influences from abroad.   

Who shall watch? Who shall bear watching? Who shall be denied contact with ideas? Who must be insulated against disturbing influences?

More of Berlin:

Having protected himself adequately against suspicion of any desire to follow after alien gods, the Soviet writer, whether imaginative or critical, must also make certain of the correct literary targets at any given moment. The Soviet government cannot be accused of leaving him in any uncertainty in this matter. 

Let’s end with Stalin:

“Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”