Knowing Better

My most embarrassing memory of college is of something that didn’t embarrass me at all while it was happening. Which is the worst kind of embarrassing memory, in my opinion. When you feel some degree of shame or self-consciousness while the thing is happening, you’re probably exercising at least little self-control. It’s much, much worse when you’re completely confident that you’re right, because then there’s no check whatsoever on your obnoxious behavior.

Neither of my parents went to college. Neither did any of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, or older cousins. My going to college occasioned both pride and suspicion among the adults in my family. While my friends’ parents were giving advice (or making demands) concerning what they should major in and what classes they should take, the only piece of advice my family gave me was to be on my guard against those well known liberal predators harbored by every institution of higher learning, whose goal in life is to brainwash well brought up students from conservative homes into turning their backs on everything that is right and decent. “Don’t let anyone change your thinking” was what my family told me, unaware that when it came to things like abortion, homosexuality, and the unquestioned wisdom of the Republican agenda, I had changed my own mind already.

I was pretty young when I first began to realize that the ideas being handed down to me by my parents, teachers, and church leaders were suspect. I had good reason not to trust adults in general, so it was probably easier for me to see flaws and inconsistencies than it would have been if my childhood had been happier. Less easy was articulating why certain ideas were flawed. I couldn’t discuss my doubts with my parents or teachers, since I knew I’d either be patronized or punished, so I wasn’t able to develop the strength of conviction that comes from subjecting an idea to rational discourse. I became very, very good at compartmentalizing my dissenting opinions, never admitting doubt to anyone but myself.

Then, the summer before I left for college, I lost my belief in God, and effectively renounced everything I’d been taught to believe by my family and my church—or at least, I thought I did. Losing my faith was tantamount to losing my entire conceptual framework for existence, and I can scarcely over-emphasize how painful and difficult it was. My beliefs were my only source of stability when I was growing up, my only hope for self-worth, dignity, or validation. But the same internal system I had to used to reconcile inconsistencies and make my faith tenable had, in the end, pronounced it untenable; to ignore that verdict was to invalidate everything I’d ever believed anyway.

Proving myself capable of throwing out the core concepts that shaped my world view, despite devastating emotional cost, made me arrogant, in a peculiar way, regarding any beliefs that happened to survive the purge. I became convinced that I was so self-aware, so ruthlessly honest with myself, that I was incapable of harboring any lesser flawed convictions after I’d rid myself of the major ones.

What I failed to realize at that age was that the beliefs we’re raised with in childhood cannot be completely uprooted in a single revolution of consciousness. Not every flawed, bigoted, insupportable idea that was instilled in me became logically inconsistent once the condition of religion was removed. I had absolutely no idea just how many unpleasant beliefs I had unwittingly retained, and it embarrasses me to think of how long it took before I grew the least bit suspicious of them.

One reason why that realization was a long time coming is that very few people ever challenged me when I said things like “there’s no reason for rape to be any more upsetting than getting mugged and beaten up”—or when I asserted that sexual harassment laws and affirmative action undermined the personal autonomy of women and minorities. Of all the English classes I took, only my literary theory professor ever invoked consciousness of issues related to privilege into her lessons. Looking back, the entirety of my literary theory class was a virtual theater of opportunities for me to make an ass out of myself. My professor’s academic specialty was African-American literature, and, if I remember correctly, she was the first person with that specialty to be hired by my university’s English department. Her whole perspective on the relevance of feminist, Marxist, and post-colonial literary theory was brand new to me, and I resented the hell out it. I viewed theory in general as a distraction from the things I was most interested in about literature—the old fashioned formalist analysis of story, character, language, imagery, symbolism, etc. I was quick to assume that because my professor’s undergraduate degree was in a STEM field, she couldn’t really understand what was truly important about literature anyway. Despite the fact that I liked her personally, I was so snide on that particular subject that I ended up being rather rude to her one day when she didn’t recognize a quote from Hamlet. I got high grades on the papers I wrote in her class, but I was always conscious of the fact that I seemed to be disappointing her in some way, and I didn’t understand why.

In her position, I don’t have the faintest idea what I would have done with a student like me—well read, confrontational, and very good at articulating bullshit in a way that is difficult for a teacher to respond to without making the student feel singled out and attacked by a person in authority over them. I can hardly blame her for not putting me on the spot by making me unpack my opinions more thoroughly; I probably would only have been angry and hurt, which is hardly the frame of mind a student needs to be in to accept new concepts. But at the same time, my resistance to what she was teaching was only reinforced by the fact that I sometimes caught her exchanging commiserating looks with other students after I’d said something stupid. I was too assured of my literary prowess, and too distracted from academic concerns by my growing mental health issues, to worry about it very much at the time. But the memory lingered, and only after college, when I became immersed in online communities that forced me to confront concepts like privilege and social justice, did I understand where those long-suffering looks were coming from.

Retrospective awareness is a humbling thing. I recall a conversation I had with another professor that I was good friends with about a student in one of his classes who wasn’t very well liked. My professor said he couldn’t help having a sort of weary fondness for them, because they reminded him of himself when he was younger—baffled by other people’s reactions, not understanding where the eye-rolling and weird looks came from. Having always prided myself on being able to read body language and facial expressions to the most minute detail, I never thought I would fail to notice when someone was only politely tolerating my conversation. Now, thinking back on all the cues I failed to pick up on in that theory class, I comfort myself with the idea that it must happen in some degree to everyone who’s ever been immature and fearless and far less sophisticated than they thought they were.

Looking back at the person I was in college is painful for a lot of reasons. I think we always judge our younger selves far less forgivingly than we would judge any other person the same age; it’s perversely self-flattering to think, yes, but I should have known better! Being mindful of the fact that I wasn’t born knowing everything I know now makes me gentler with other people who display their ignorance unselfconsciously. While I believe in challenging bad ideas and holding members of my community accountable for the opinions they expression, I remember that I have always learned best when I felt safe from personal reproach or attack. And I try not to be too terribly embarrassed by the memory of who I was before I’d learned much of anything at all. Hopefully, in ten more years, I’ll have plenty of embarrassment over who I was in my thirties to keep me humble for the future.

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