The Emperor’s New Clothes: My Time in Ann Arbor

emperors-new-clothes

The morning of graduation, I found myself in 7/11 contemplating whether or not to buy a massive thermos version of the Big Gulp. My friend Hunter Swogger, who led the Michigan Review along with me in our senior year, had planned a light-hearted protest of Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas in New York. I had gift-wrapped my graduation cap in select pieces I had written for the Review, particularly Do the Left Thing.

I wrote this satire of political correctness two years ago, in November of 2014. I played on the idea that right-handed people are beneficiaries of privilege, and that the left-handyd community suffers from institutionalized and systematized suppression. It was my contention that to obsess about skin color is not a healthy way to live, and there is more to life than dialectics of social constructs. Moreover, on college campuses we should be focused on pursuing the truth, and the truth does not care about our feelings. I have never denied the reality of white privilege or the patriarchy, even making this clear on stage and on camera on The John Stossel Show right after I wrote the piece. As it happens, the piece might have been a crack in the dam holding back a torrent of frustration with the culture of microaggressions and safe spaces that we have come to see not only in Ann Arbor, but in universities across the West.

I must say that there is institutionalized and systematic suppression of left-handed people, by any objective measure. Left-handed people today have a hard time finding left-handed desks, scissors, notebooks, sports equipment. However, that is the least of their troubles in the context of a history of stigmatization all across the world. Left-handed people were considered sinister, that being the word for left in Latin. The Quran divides people up into the People of the Right, who go to Heaven, and the People of the Left, who burn in Hell. In certain tribal cultures in Mali, left-handed people were until recently sacrificed so that there would be rain.

The age-old biases have become institutionalized today. The stigmatization of left-handed people seeps into languages around the world, with idioms like “Do the left thing” and “Two wrongs don’t make a right” in English. In social justice terminology, this language should be violent toward those who identify as left-handyd. There is even a wage gap that discriminates against the community! Studies have shown that the median income for left-handed people is about 10% lower than right-handed people, as the Atlantic reports.

In light of such damning evidence for a conspiracy of right-handed oppressors, why is it that Do the Left Thing is still so obviously satire? The question should lead us, I hope, to an understanding that there are no grand conspiracies holding us back, that a mentality of victimhood will only program us to see oppression wherever we turn. It is a part of our biological human nature to remember those moments that hurt us. This predisposition for the positive heuristic leads people to believe that the world is pitted against them, that the world is becoming more violent. And yet we live in the safest era ever in world history, particularly for women and for minorities, a trend that Steven Pinker thoroughly demonstrates in his The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Mayor Bloomberg spoke to the deeply American idea that hard work will give us success. We need to take pride, as he said, in being the first in the office and the first out. Whining about our lot and being jealous of success is a mindset that quickly becomes self-fulfilling. Bloomberg spoke about how party politics, combined with social identity politics, have created an America that is more divided, more close-minded, less willing to engage in ideas that make them uncomfortable. We have turned to demonization of the other side, to demagoguery.

I have stood for freedom of expression, for open dialogue, for the unabashed assailment of our assumptions in the pursuit of truth, no matter how it might make us feel. Over the winters, I have had my assumptions shattered and rebuilt and shattered again. I do not know what I believe, but I question still, and I hope I never stop questioning.

I have found to my disappointment that people are intrinsically unwilling to question their own beliefs or to confront their own cognitive dissonances. It seems that, without understanding it, people do not care about the truth. They care about learning that which will make them happy, which will affirm them and validate them. I feel this must be an evolutionary mechanism – existential crises must not be adaptive. Such biases go beyond religion (“Islamophobia!”) and politics (“the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”) and seep even into biology. For instance, I saw in my seminars in Evolutionary Anthropology the adamant denial of the reams of evidence that the female orgasm is an evolutionary side-product of male ejaculation, analogous to male nipples. And for some weird feeling of sisterhood, the myth of female menstrual synchrony persists, as explained to me by my reproductive ecology professor, who happens to be a woman. Indeed, to say that there is a such thing as human nature at all, that not everything is a social construct, is heresy on a college campus today.

In a small way, I have tried on campus to challenge the pseudo-intellectualism and the cognitive dissonance all about us. This has made me an instigator, a provocateur. Some of the most thinking people in Ann Arbor have approached me and in no uncertain terms told me that they understand that people live in their own illusions. But they feel that I should let them be. Why do you have to rock the boat? But we should all question, we should all be exposed to ideas that make us think. Especially on a college campus, we should all be thinkers. The truth does not care about our feelings.

I hope that I can look back and read my college years as a reenactment of The Emperor’s New Clothes. This Danish parable has, over the centuries, come to be a jewel that captures humble the project of the social critic. Two supposed weavers promise the Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions. Of course, the ministers of the Emperor cannot see the thread at all as the weavers pretend to weave it, but they are unwilling to admit to their incompetence to the Emperor. At last, the Emperor puts on the new suit with much ado, complementing it on how lightly it falls over him. And when he parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to point out the obvious. He is met with cheers and with praise until a little boy cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

It has become my project to point the finger. I am humbled that Mayor Bloomberg has commended me for this project, and I invite my peers to heed him. Especially when pseudo-science has consumed the humanities, from ‘contemporary art’ to ‘social justice’, a straight-talker is worth more than the high-minded snobs and their discourse.

After all, it was only a stupid little boy that pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes.

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About Omar Mahmood

Omar was the Editor of the Michigan Review. He went on to be a Collegiate Network Fellow at USA Today. He is interested in better understanding human nature from various perspectives and disciplines. syedom@umich.edu