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Spring 1998
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Bad Vibrations at New Paltz
Roger Kimball
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By now, the two sex conferences at the State University of New York at New Paltz last November have earned nationwide notoriety. The first, "Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom," included how-to workshops like "Sex Toys for Women" and "Safe, Sane & Consensual S/M: An Alternative Way of Loving." The second, "Subject to Desire: Refiguring the Body," featured such attractions as "Vulva's Morphia," an "installation" by the performance artist Carolee Schneemann, best known for an act in which she slowly unravels a scroll from her vagina and reads aloud from it to the audience.

State officials, from Governor George Pataki on down, expressed outrage when the story broke. John Ryan, SUNY's chancellor, issued a statement in late January describing parts of "Revolting Behavior" as "needlessly offensive to many people," castigating New Paltz president Roger Bowen for bad judgment, and warning that "there is no place on a university campus for displays that are devoid of intellectual, social, or academic merit."

President Bowen angrily responded that he was "shocked and dismayed" by the chancellor's statement. And the New York Times early on blasted critics of the conferences as "rigid conservatives." "Any university that explores intellectual frontiers," the Times sniffed, "will inevitably raise hackles from some part of the political or ideological spectrum."

Right. "Intellectual frontiers" like those explored by the workshop demonstrating the use of vibrators and "anal beads" to students. Or by freely distributed pamphlets like "Safer Sex Handbook for Lesbians," which included, among other delights, a section on "Blood-Letting Sexual Activities." The only "frontiers" explored at New Paltz were the frontiers of perversity.

Predictably, at the first sign of criticism, Bowen and his supporters began bleating about "free speech" and "academic freedom." It is, after all, standard liberal procedure today to use the First Amendment to crush disagreement by brandishing charges of intolerance without engaging the real merits of the question at hand. At a time when being thought "judgmental" terrifies many, such intellectual blackmail has proved enormously effective.

Of course, "Revolting Behavior" had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with a failure of intellectual leadership. After all, a state-operated university is not the same as an avant-garde performance space in TriBeCa. It is not censorship to refuse to provide a publicly financed showcase for anything the law permits you to say, just as it is not censorship to refuse government subsidies through the NEA to artists specializing in perversity. We have a right to expect that the people we employ as college presidents understand and act upon such distinctions. College presidents should also understand that the domain of what one has a right to do or say is usually far broader than the range of what one ought to do or say. We rely on manners, morals, and common sense to negotiate the difference. And we rely on our educational institutions—from the family and church to schools and universities—to instill the principles that govern manners and morals. At New Paltz, Bowen failed spectacularly on this score.

I'm not sure which is worse: his initial endorsement of politicized sexual rubbish on campus or his subsequent inability to understand the important moral and intellectual issues at stake.

 

 


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