“I’ll give you an A,” I say. “All you have to do is designate someone to get an F.”
The other students laugh nervously while Forrest considers the deal.
I’ve asked this question at the beginning of every semester for over 20 years, mostly to liberal northeasterners at Harvard and the City University of New York. It’s a good starting point because it tends to show commonality. The beginning of ethical thinking is to accept that other people’s interests matter. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had anyone take me up on my offer.
But I’ve come here seeking difference, not similarity. The 2016 election exposed a national rift so deep that it feels as if even reasonable conversation is impossible. I’m a liberal New Yorker, but I know that plenty of people on both sides of the political spectrum worry that this divide poses an existential threat to the American democratic project. On the most controversial issues—race and immigration, to name just two—we’ve lost the capacity for compromise because we presume the most sinister motives about our opponents. I’ve arrived here in the fall of 2018, hoping to find a wider range of views—not to change anyone’s opinions but rather to see whether there remain principles and a shared language of ethics that bind us together.
Like all Cletus safaris this one manages to both coddle and condescend to conservative white people. Like all Cletus safaris, the unspoken message is that it is the job of coastal liberals to center their feelings, to understand them better.
I’m here to translate the translator, because, wow is he full of shit. On the surface, App possesses all the hallmarks of the American academy—a grassy quad framed by a student union, dining hall and library. Kiosks beckon students to concerts and club meetings. But underground run a pair of pedestrian tunnels, connecting the east and west campuses, that have been designated as free speech havens. These dank passageways are filled with graffiti—most of the messages are positive, but the students tell me that a swastika was painted there last October and then quickly painted over by other students. When I visit, the space feels sinister, but also strangely healthy—a messy marketplace of ideas that I like to think portends open-mindedness.
TRANSLATION: As a middle-aged white man, I am not overly bothered by overt racism.
But Boone is a little blue island in a sea of red.
TRANSLATION: I sabotaged this experiment so it would give me the results I wanted.
“You kill the one person,” he says without hesitation.
Jackson is wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a Carhartt shirt. His baseball cap, which he got on a trip to Yellowstone, displays the outline of a bison and mountains. In the discussion of grades, Jackson was the one who said that everyone deserved equal opportunity. I remind him of this, but he’s ready with a distinction: “In this situation you don’t have a choice—somebody has to die, so it goes beyond equal opportunity and becomes what this outcome is going to be.” It’s clear that Jackson will be a force. The distinction he’s drawing is smart—no one had to get an F in my first example, but, more importantly, it’s clear that he likes this kind of intellectual jousting.
TRANSLATION: I really like Jackson–his cowboy boots, his jaunty baseball cap, his strong jawline…I’m sorry, where were we?
But Jackson once again stands out. He says he’d kill his mom or even a baby if it meant saving more lives. “I mean, someone has to die either way and I’m fine putting my life—even if I had to spend the rest of my life in prison or whatever it is—to save the five versus the one.”
I haven’t known Jackson for long, but I believe that he would sacrifice himself for the greater good, and I can see that his classmates believe it too. Even if they don’t share his willingness to throw the switch on a family member, they see him as principled, not cruel.
TRANSLATION: OMFG JACKSON IS SO COOL!
It’s a type of selflessness and consistency that seems lacking in contemporary discourse, in which people are too willing to prioritize what’s politically expedient over fundamental values. It’s what feels wrong, for example, about liberal intolerance of dissenting speech, especially on campus, or the rush to punish alleged sexual predators without due process.
TRANSLATION: I’m not really liberal.
Graham explains that the libertarian cognitive style is cerebral rather than emotional.
Hi, it’s just me here. This is bullshit of the first order, since we all informed by emotions all the time.
But as is becoming increasingly apparent, the cool-headed libertarian in my classroom who’s willing to sacrifice his mother for the greater good doesn’t fit neatly into any of these circles.
It occurs to me that if America is going to come together, it’s going to have to reckon with Jackson Cooter.
TRANSLATION: I LOVE JACKSON.
Strikingly, Jackson’s defense of gun ownership never once mentions a love of guns. He’s a “little-d” democrat who wants a super-process in place in case democracy, as his classmate Cole puts it, “fails to work or provide any meaningful benefits.” Resolving the ambiguity of for whom it’s supposed to work and who’s supposed to decide when change within the system is futile might be impossible, but it’s important to recognize the argument for what it is. It’s not about guns for the sake of guns, it’s about protecting civil liberties, and it’s deeply ethical.
TRANSLATION: What is disingenuousness? Should I be teaching?
Imagine if care were taken to frame the discussion not as outsiders trying to impose their will on people whose culture they did not understand, but rather as one among people with a shared interest in protecting the safety of their children.
Just me here: OMG OMG OMG how does this man continue to survive outside of his home?
“I do understand the quality of life argument, and the mother and father’s ability to raise a child from an economic standpoint.” Jackson’s focus is on paternal responsibility—“if I had a child, my father would slit my throat if I ever jokingly said that I was going to leave that child”—and reducing abortions—“I’m interested in seeing free birth control. There’s not enough emphasis on that.” He has no interest in punishing women.
Almost no one does.
TRANSLATION: I have forgotten how to breathe bye-bye