When Duke University freshman Brian Grasso learned that the book assigned for his summer reading project grappled with themes of sexual identity, parenthood and finding the courage to be the person you know yourself to be, he did what we would expect any decent, 18-year-old kid in the US of A to do: He refused to read it, and he took to Facebook to call foul, naturally.
In his post on Duke’s Class of 2019’s Facebook page, Grasso wrote, “I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” due to the book’s “graphic visual depictions of sexuality.”
The book in question was “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir written by Alison Bechdel; “Fun Home” details Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania, her gradual awareness of her homosexuality and eventual coming out and her complicated relationship with her closeted father.
The book, far from being the tawdry pornographic rag that Grasso, the Duke freshman, made it out to be, has been lauded by critics, spending two weeks at the top of the New York Times’ best seller list and selected as one of the paper’s top books of 2006.
However, the validity of Grasso’s claim that the book is “immoral,” as he went on to state in an opinion piece for the Washington Post in the wake of the controversy, is beside the point.
Christian moralizing does not disturb me. Attempts at censorship — “Fun Home” was removed from a city library in Missouri, the University of Utah and the College of Charlestown — do not disturb me either: In the digital age, so long as people want to read a particular book, they’ll be able to get their hands on it.
What disturbs me about the Grasso case is that it’s the perfect distillation of an attitude so pervasive among my generation — an attitude of absolute self-assurance, marked by the total absence of that quivering question: What if I might be wrong? This self-certainty reigns unchecked because, as Grasso so aptly demonstrated, we refuse to read anything that might tell us we are.
It would be one thing if Grasso had read “Fun Home” before objecting to its depiction of a lifestyle that he considers immoral — only Grasso didn’t even read the book. Grasso claims he looked up a summary of the book online, which is where he learned of, in his own words, the memoir’s “pornographic nature.” And so rather than actually opening up his own copy of “Fun Home” and determining the morality or immorality of Bechdel’s memoir for himself, he kept it shut — and his mind shut, too.
I’m going after Grasso, but I’m guilty of the same crime, in a way. We all are.
We look for sources of information that tell us that we’re right — articles, essays, the dialogues of particular politicians — because we can’t stand being wrong. And in some ways, the diversification of the media has pandered to our self-certainty.
Most news agencies now cater to a particular clientele. Comprehensive newspapers and news stations that count both the religious and the areligious, both conservatives and liberals alike among their ranks, the kind of institutions that can hold contrasting points of view simultaneously without imploding are few and far between.
So now, many of us patronize bookmarked news sites that slant decidedly in our favor; we turn the TV off when a politician we don’t like is speaking; we scroll through our Twitter feeds for news, which contain only the thoughts of people whom we made a conscious decision to follow.
When we try to shield ourselves from ideas or opinions that differ from our own, we run the risk of cementing personal suspicion into certainty, and inkling into fact. How Grasso expects to learn anything in the next four years at a university as elite and demanding as Duke is beyond me.
The ability to take points of view not necessarily aligned, or even totally misaligned, with your own into consideration is crucial to existing in a fluctuating, complicated world. How can we ever grow intellectually without being exposed to new ideas that challenge or displace our existing ones?
Grasso’s case is not an isolated incident — just a few weeks after the Duke controversy, a student at another North Carolina university — this time the University of North Carolina — indicted his school’s administration for its choice of readings in a course on the Sept. 11 attacks.
Freshman Alec Dent (note, a freshman, again) claimed that the course’s booklist was “sympathetic towards terrorists.” Yet once again, Dent had neither read the books in question, nor taken the course.
But in an article written for the news website The College Fix, Dent assured us that “you don’t have to read ‘Poems From Guantanamo’ to realize they’re sympathetic to the prisoners there.” This intransigence would be laughable if it wasn’t so pervasive.
Reading “Fun Home” won’t turn you into a lesbian any more than reading “Poems From Guantanamo” will turn you into a terrorist. What reading “Fun Home” might do though is reveal the difficulty, but also the necessity, of no longer repudiating who you truly are, a struggle not unique to the LGBT community but rather one that all of us — gay, straight, what have you — can relate to and learn from.
Reading “Poems From Guantanamo” might show us that no matter what you’ve been accused of, or who you’ve been made out to be, everyone deserves to be treated as a human being and that injustice committed for justice’s sake is still injustice.
Worst of all, reading “Fun Home” and “Poems From Guantanamo” might show us that we’re wrong. Imagine that.
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.