Friday, October 12, 2007

Paul Lauritzen's Door/The Limits of Language, the Limits of My World?

My colleague Paul Lauritzen, a renowned ethicist and the director of Applied Ethics at John Carroll University, has never been one to hide his political views. As long as I've been at the university (I began just weeks before September 11th, 2001), Lauritzen employed his office window and door as a political palette, an alternative news wall that would extend and project itself into the spaces of the academy so frequently denuded of such viewpoints. One of my favorite extensions of language into the academic space was when he used a LCD projection screen to cast upon the white wall in the hallway just across from his office the cost of the war in dollars--a dizzying number forever spiralling that the passerby literally would have to step through as s/he walked down the hall.

(Apropos of denudations--I've almost given up flyering for poetry readings, because the clean-up crew apparently has been instructed to tear down flyers (even those who have received proper stamps for posting) unless they appear on seven sanctioned postboards, which, as far as I can tell, exist only in the corners of buildings. In an age of information bombardment, it is increasingly difficult to penetrate the defended consciousness of the average college student, who is so bedraggled by coursework, jobs, love troubles, text messages, and the like, that they are lucky to remember their own names.)

In any case, Lauritzen's door became the object of controversy when an anonymous tip was called into "Ethics Point," reporting that Lauritzen had something inflammatory on his door. It was a sign that said, IMPEACH BUSH. Human Resources stepped in, and removed the sign, then emailed him to say why it happened--they interpreted a university policy in such a way that would make such signage forbidden.

Faculty Council intervened on his behalf, and Lauritzen met with John Carroll's in-house council, Maria Alfaro-Lopez, to gain clarification about the policy, and some indication in writing that he was not violating policy and that the party who reported it would be informed of the university's support of his free speech. In Lauritzen's words,

The current situation is fairly Orwellian. I have been told that the original email [from Human Resources] was in error. I have asked to receive in writing a statement to that effect, but have been told that there is a university policy, but no agreed upon interpretation of it that would either permit or forbid me to post a sign. The upshot is that Maria would not put in writing that no university policy prevented me from posting my "Impeach Bush" sign. She agreed to put something in writing to the effect that there is no agreed upon interpretation of university policy, but she has not yet sent that to me.

There was some effort to suggest that the individual faculty member's door was theirs to use as they saw fit, but that the door of an "institution" such as Applied Ethics might be inappropriate. This seems like hair-splitting, yet the questions that arise regarding a faculty member's rights to express viewpoints that may be inflammatory--the very rights upon which academic freedom is based--are in question.

One might say that the "IMPEACH BUSH" did exactly what it was meant to do--to shake someone into doing something about it. Calling Ethics Point was not the intended action, but it compelled someone to respond, to attempt to use institutional power against this voice within the institution. So frequently, those who dissent become the object, ad hominem, of the ire of those their language disturbs. There is indeed a place for language that disturbs, that unsettles.

Lauritzen's new sign, posted above, is a poem from Miguel de Unamuno, and offers a subtler but no less defiant stance against those who attempt to bully people into silence. The message, now, extends not only to the President, but to those who wish to silence Lauritzen. It is a political language that might perplex rather than inflame, yet one which seems as necessary as ever.

If and when Lauritzen returns to more fact-based rhetorical means, we at John Carroll will be none the poorer. It is possible that our arguments benefit from a kind of oscillation between the interpellative invitation of the Martin Luther Kings, and the threatening fist-shaking of the Malcolm Xs--a kind of Hegelian dialectic of protest. We need to be unsettled and we need to be invited, in order to shake ourselves from the trance of this war, and all the arguments summoned to continue it.


RazRocks said...

Hey Dr. Metres,

I believe U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel once said “To question your government is not unpatriotic — to not question your government is unpatriotic,” I think our University needs to re-think some of its values.


Philip Metres said...

Hey Raz, thanks for the quote--I think it's right...hope you're enjoying Columbus!

Dr. Metres