“I knew from the beginning that this would be controversial,” Duke freshman Brian Grasso told Yahoo News and Finance Anchor Bianna Golodryga on Tuesday.
Grasso sparked one of the first controversies of the 2015-2016 school year with a post on the Duke Class of 2019 Facebook page explaining that he would not read Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” part of the school's recommended reading list for incoming freshmen, “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality.”
“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote of the graphic-novel-turned-Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical that depicts a young Bechdel’s struggles with her own homosexuality and that of her fathers. And Grasso wasn’t alone. According to an article in the Duke Chronicle—which was subsequently picked up by news outlets nationwide—several students similarly said the book’s sexual imagery conflicted with their religious and moral beliefs.
It wasn’t the first time “Fun Home” received a chilly welcome from a college campus. In 2008, English students at the University of Utah called for the book to be removed from their curriculum, and in 2013 a South Carolina conservative group protested the book’s inclusion on the College of Charleston’s freshman reading list. But the current backlash against Bechdel’s best seller seems to be the latest case of college students rejecting literature that deals with sexuality, violence, racism, and other themes that might make them uncomfortable.
“What we’re seeing here is a phenomena in which students are seeking not freedom of speech but freedom from speech they dislike,” said Greg Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer and president of the Foundation for Individual Rights on Campus, or FIRE, which advocates for free speech on college campuses.
Lukianoff recently teamed up with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to write The Atlantic’s September 2015 cover story about this very phenomenon. The story included among its examples calls from students at a number of universities around the country for professors to issue “trigger warnings” for books that portray racial violence, sexual abuse, or other scenarios that might elicit an emotional reaction.
“It’s disappointing that so many students would opt out from reading a book that they think they won’t agree with,” Lukianoff said. “By the time they go into college you would hope they would have cultivated the kind of curiosity to want to read something that goes against their worldview.”
While there are relatively low stakes involved in opting out of reading a book on a recommended summer reading list, Lukianoff said the ensuing controversy is “a reminder of why universities need to be cultivating curiosity, fear of confirmation bias, and a desire for students to read things with which they might disagree.”
“Hopefully that will happen by the time they graduate, but who knows,” he said.
In a statement to CNN, Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said, "Like many universities and community, Duke has had a summer reading list for many years to give incoming students a shared intellectual experience with other members of the class." "'Fun Home' was ultimately chosen because it is a unique and moving book that transcends genres and explores issues that students are likely to confront."
Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, said Schoenfeld’s statement indicated why books like “Fun Home” are exactly what college kids should be reading.
“It exemplifies the fact that one person’s comforting literature is another person’s challenging literature,” said Coyne, who warned that trigger warnings would lead to literary fascism at The New Republic earlier this year.
“My first reaction was, it’s great that Duke is trying to challenge student viewpoints by giving them controversial books,” Coyne told Yahoo News. “There’s no way to find a book that at the same time inspires discussion and does not challenge students’ viewpoints.”
But by refusing to take accept these challenges, Coyne said, students “are doing themselves a great disservice.”
“College is the time when kids are supposed to get out of their bubble, the first time they’re thrown into a diverse group of people who can open their minds or challenge their minds,” Coyne said. “When these students say, ‘We’re not going to read this book,’ they’re closing themselves off from what college is supposed to be, the one time in your life when you can freely challenge people’s opinions.”
Coyne echoed Lukianoff’s sentiment that the Duke case is an illustration of “a growing movement among students who take offense too easily to things that challenge them intellectually and socially.” This movement, he said, is “bad for our country.”
“To progress in society, we have to hear other viewpoints,” Coyne said. “We may object to them, but we have to hear them. These kids are plugging their ears.”
In his interview with Yahoo News, Grasso argued that recent news coverage has inaccurately portrayed his stance against “Fun Home” as ignorant and homophobic.
“I do consider myself a Christian and I do consider homosexuality immoral, but I also consider harassing homosexuals immoral,” Grasso said, insisting that “my decision to not read the book was not because I found the material offensive,” but because the book “contains images of women engaging in oral sex, cartoon images that I consider somewhat pornographic and contradictory to my high standards of Christian sexual purity.”
If the book were simply words without images, Grasso said, “I would absolutely read it and I would engage in hearty discussion.”
Reverend Harry Knox, a former faith adviser to President Obama and the president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said that since the book was not required, Grasso and the other students “certainly have the right” not to read it. “I just think it’s short-sighted and not necessarily a sign of faithfulness.”
Knox has spoken out against recent efforts to use religious liberty as a cover for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or provide employees with health insurance plans that cover contraception. He told Yahoo News that “the problem with religious liberty in this country is not that students are given the opportunity to read books, it’s that information and access to resources are denied to people.”
“As a faith leaders, I have to call for greater access to information about sexuality; that’s what we need in society is more conversation, more exposure to other people’s experience, not less,” Knox said.
As for whether the book’s graphic illustrations justified a moral protest, Knox said: “Our faith does not call us to be ignorant. It calls us to really engage people of other cultures and of other understandings and it seems to me that these students are missing out on an opportunity to learn about other people that is not required by their faith.”
The academic community “thinks it’s an important piece of literature that they should know about,” Knox added. “Ignorance doesn’t serve them or their faith well.”