There’s a lot of discussion on campus this year about the annual “chalkings” that coincide with Coming Out week. They’ve been controversial before (as one student puts it in the campus newspaper, it’s a “predictable moment” in the calendar). If I had a rankings scale, I’d put this year’s controversy near the top of the scale, however. The drawings and messages were a significant shade more explicit and intense than in past years.
There’s a heavily ritualized aspect to the objections and counter-objections to the chalkings. The critics try to make clear that their objections are not in any way intended to be anti-gay or homophobic (this year, in fact, several of the letters objecting to the chalkings in the campus newspaper are from gay or lesbian students). But the chalkings themselves propose a kind of Catch-22 in their language and form, namely, that to feel discomfort with explicit images of sexuality is a diagnostic of hidden or latent homophobia, and to object publically is a kind of revealed preference, homophobia unveiled. Or, as some of the activists behind the chalkings put it this year and past years, to feel discomfort at the images is to experience for one brief moment the discomfort that GLBT people are compelled to feel all the time. Then there’s the point, made this year by a defender of the chalkings, that you don’t have to look at the chalkings if you don’t want to. And of course, the perennial favorite, that anything which provokes conversation and dialogue is a good thing.
I’ve noted before that the longer you’re at a place like Swarthmore, the more that the ritual repetition of some of these debates is vaguely frustrating. It’s part of a learning experience, though. The students who object learn some things, the students who do the chalkings learn some things. Or so one hopes. Among the things I hope that the students who did the chalking learn is to stop believing that the efficacy of activism is measured by the degree of antagonism or discomfort it produces. If there’s a bad idea that I’d like to see worked out of people’s systems by the time they graduate from a place like this, it is the old saw that objections to activism are proof of the claims of activism. That’s a bad bit of Freudian or Marxist intellectual judo, a classic sign of shallowness (lately common among many conservatives).
Other points that some of the student critics raise this year strike me as equally important lessons. For example, that the equation of GLBT identities with hypersexuality is often one of the central tropes of homophobic discourse, that it reduces GLBT people to a single legitimate mode or type of sexuality.
Another insight I’d love to see come out of the annual ritual: stop saying that any action or intervention that produces conversation and dialogue is definitionally positive. First, because that’s demonstrably not true: a public act of racism produces dialogue, but none of us applaud the racist for it. Second, because if you blow off the objections by saying “Well, at least we’re having a dialogue, and isn’t it a good thing to be uncomfortable for a day, and you don’t need to look at the chalkings in public space even though the whole point of putting them in public space is for them to be looked at”, you’re not having much of a dialogue. This particular part of the ritual strikes me as being Official Multiculturalism at its worst, a kind of management of community that actually underscores how limited or constrained the range of acceptable opinion and thought is within that community.
The one point that I’m not sure gets made as often in response to the chalkings, perhaps because it’s something that is harder to appreciate when you’re 20 whether you’re gay or straight, promiscuous or virginal, sexually open or sexually uptight, is that the demystification of sex is not necessarily an emanicipatory or erotic act. I suppose that’s an argument I’d apply to more than just sex. I think all of the humanities require the mysterious and sublime as much as they require explanation and clarity. But nothing more so than the experience of desire and the achievement of pleasure and happiness. I don’t see it as bold or revealing to proclaim in public space the alpha and omega of sexual experience in the name of freedom from discrimination or oppression. I’m not saying that we don’t need explicit writing about sexuality, or that erotic and pornographic culture is a bad thing. Put me down as being in favor of both. I am saying that while the truth may make you free, the truth of sex (either experience or identity) is not necessarily found in the stripping away of its ambiguities, uncertainties and mysteries.