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Culture war at Notre Dame

Stephen Bant | Thursday, February 21, 2008

Vagina Monologues being held amid controversy, Catholic Faculty issues dividing the alumni, faculty, students and administration, Catholic Bishops avoiding campus in protest; the list goes on and on. I find it surprising that few have tried to relate these internal campus struggles to the wider “culture war” being waged in America today. In it, conservatives support pro-life measures and protect traditional marriage and family norms, while liberals back pro-choice policies and sponsor gay marriages and adoptions. In my mind the two groups are strikingly similar, with many of the same people arguing these national issues taking corresponding positions on these Notre Dame concerns. I feel that our contemporary issues on campus are parallel to, perhaps even a microcosm of, the overall culture war in the United States today. However, unlike the national issues, ours can actually be solved.

You may think I’m over-generalizing on this whole “culture war” idea, but my personal experiences suggest it exists. Shockingly, I seem to find that my more liberal friends don’t care about a majority Catholic faculty and think that the Monologues are part of academic freedom and female expression, while my more conservative friends think having a preponderance of Catholic faculty is imperative to retaining our Catholic character and find the Monologues disgusting and an affront to women everywhere. The moderates seem either split, confused or apathetic on many of these issues, just as they are in the real political spectrum of the broader culture war. When I think about it, these unassuming and silent moderates appear to make up the plurality of students at Notre Dame … at least for now.

Perhaps unfortunately, widespread conversation and extremist proselytizing tends to polarize people to a point where nothing happens. Meanwhile, most Americans are actually everything but polarized. Here’s an example. Poll data shows that a vast majority of Americans support abortion in certain instances (ex. rape, incest, damage to mother’s health, etc.); while about the same vast majority strongly opposes unrestricted and late-term abortions (ex. partial-birth abortions and “I don’t want this baby” abortions). Very few people polled thought abortion should be legal or illegal in all circumstances. This may surprise you, as the media only portrays the extreme opposing sides of any issue; America is painted as chock full of rabid “baby-killers” and protesting religious “extremists”. Cautiously, I would dare to say that this data is fairly indicative of how most people feel about culture issues and I feel this moderate approach could be applied to our problems and issues.

For example, I think most would agree that women should be able to express themselves over the issues of female oppression and objectification, as the Monologues seek to do. However, I’m guessing many of these same people would agree that a woman rolling around on the stage faking an orgasm and the glorified raping of a 16-year-old girl by an older woman hardly qualifies as “healing academic expression.”

A more important issue for Notre Dame is perhaps that of Catholic faculty, something where some moderation could definitely be helpful. I think most people would agree that Catholic faculty is important at Notre Dame and is valuable to us in any discipline, and perhaps more so in certain Arts and Letters subjects (e.g. Theology), due to the Catholic background and perspectives they bring to our academic atmosphere. Further, I doubt anyone, even those who think a Catholic preponderance is important, wants the University to hire a Catholic professor over a better qualified non-Catholic professor to meet some quota. Still, there is nothing wrong with hiring practicing Catholics preferentially if we aren’t surrendering quality; the same argument applies and is used in defending the preferential hiring of minority faculty. And for you extremists out there, don’t try your whiney “but only 6% of [new] Ph.D.s are Catholics, so the applicant pool is insufficient when attempting to create a great research institution” argument on me. Only 9% of US Ph.D.s are granted to minorities, and they are in much greater demand than Catholic Ph.D.s as universities seek to diversify their faculty. Therefore, the challenge in seeking both targets is equally difficult, yet we should and are pursuing both.

If I were a doctor, I would write Notre Dame a prescription of judicious moderation and reasoned discussion. Nothing is inherently wrong with anyone’s ideas, but we need to be reasonable in our approach. Maybe we should present an altered version of the Vagina Monologues that doesn’t promote lesbianism and appear like soft-core pornography, so we can celebrate femininity instead of objectifying it. And perhaps we should dare to be bold and unique in our faculty hiring, as the Administration seeks to, by doing what’s necessary to hold onto our slight Catholic majority, attempting to expand to a representative minority faculty and becoming a premiere research institution all at the same time. While it sounds difficult and improbable, it is possible as none of our objectives are mutually exclusive. We can have it all. We can overcome extremism and partisanship to solve the problems we face in our lives, on our campus and in our nation. You just need to have faith and some moderation.

Stephen Bant is a sophomore accounting major. He can be contacted at sbant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.