I don’t take the daily paper anymore, so I’m not up on the comic page controversies.  Apparently there was a mild kerfuffle when Scott Adams introduced a new character named Jesus (pronounced “Hay-Soos) in his Dilbert strip the week before the Holy Week.  I say “mild kerfuffle” because it was apparently a genuine controversy among a certain segment of the population, but I would never have known about it if I hadn’t followed a link on a sidebar of a Mormon blog that told me that the Daily Universe, BYU’s student newspaper, had opted not to run the strips.  Apparently some students were horrified that the Daily Universe would censor a comic strip.  Personally, I was horrified at some of the grammar in the DU’s editorial explaining its position, but that’s neither here nor there.  All of this reminds me of a story.

I didn’t get my higher education at BYU.  I went to a small Baptist college in southern Virginia that no one has ever heard of unless they live in that town and/or attended that school themselves.  (Don’t bother guessing which school it is, because you’ll only guess some school somebody’s heard of, and you’ll be wrong.)  It’s a good little school, and I enjoyed my four years there.  It was not Baptist school in the same sense that BYU is a Mormon school.  It was affiliated with the Virginia Baptist General Board, which I believe gave it some of its funding, or at least provided scholarships, or something–really, I didn’t and don’t know the particulars, but it sufficeth me to say that the affiliation was mostly a historical one.  Baptists being what Baptists are, the school enjoyed much more sovereignty than BYU ever has. 

However, the trappings of its religious affiliation were still present.  They held (non-compulsory) chapel services and six credits of religion classes (including one on the Old or New Testament–quelle horreur!) were required for graduation.  All dorms were single-sex, and no one of the opposite sex was allowed in the dorm after 11:30 p.m. (2 a.m. on weekends).  It was also a dry campus (absolutely no alcohol allowed on the premises).  Lots of students, unfamiliar with the meaning of the term “private school,” complained about the religion requirement and the draconian visiting hours (hey, they never said you couldn’t have sex in your dorm room, just not after 11:30 p.m., 2 a.m. on weekends).  But mostly they complained about the no-alcohol policy.  Ostensibly there was this Puritan vibe emanating from the trustees’ office or something, but in practice, aside from the alcohol thing, the students had the freedom to engage in a fair amount of debauchery, so long as the old ladies from the alumni association didn’t find out about it.  And there was academic freedom on a scale that BYU professors can only dream of.  But more on that later.

I think it was my sophomore year that Residence Life began sponsoring Movie Night on Fridays (maybe to make up for the fact that there was nothing to do in town and also no alcohol to drink).  Among the first movies they decided to show was Henry & June, which you might recall was a NC-17-rated romp for people who wanted to pretend they’d read Anais Nin (or Henry Miller, for that matter).  Anyway, they had posters for it up all over campus and the dorms, until one student, who happened to be majoring in religion so she could go on to study at a seminary, complained that this film didn’t strike her as consistent with the school’s Christian mission.   Bottom line:  Henry & June was summarily cancelled.  I think they replaced it with The Lion King.  I don’t really recall.

This was a disappointing turn of events.  (Damn straight my friends and I were planning on going–what did you think?)  But oh well, what are you going to do, right?  Wrong.  A bunch of students rose up and swore they were not going to take it.  They put up posters about free speech and censorship and blah blah de blah, and there was a story in the student newspaper, which quoted some English professors saying it was really so silly, as they discussed things in classes that were much more shocking and revolutionary than Henry & June and that this whole incident made the school look like a Mickey Mouse organization–or something.  One professor–the History department chair, actually–was so distressed by the school’s Gestapo tactics that he walked into class with a TV and VCR and showed the offending movie to his Western Civ class, just to “prove a point.”

When I heard about this, I thought a couple things.  First, it wasn’t really fair to those students who paid their tuition on the assumption that they would be learning about Western Civ in their Western Civ class.  Sure, a bunch of them probably thought, “Excellent!  No Greeks and Romans today!”  But others may not have been pleased that they hauled themselves down to the lecture hall just to get an eyeful of Anais Nin’s goodies.  (And not even the real Anais Nin, but someone pretending to be Anais Nin.  And who was Anais Nin, anyway?)  The second thing I thought was, if we regularly discussed shocking and revolutionary things in class, why was it such a big deal that we show Henry & June, which was, after all, so much less consequential than the shocking and revolutionary things we ordinarily preoccupied ourselves with?  It wasn’t as though Henry Miller or Anais Nin appeared anywhere on any of our professors’ syllabi, so how important could it have been for us to know them intimately? 

In other words, I thought it was a whole bunch of silly.  And the silliest part was that these kids were crying “censorship!” when they had no idea how easy they had it.  I confess I waxed a little Grumpy Old Man and told them that this was nothing compared to the oppression my people suffered at BYU, where watching Henry & June in the privacy of your own apartment (which must be university-approved) would probably get you called up on an Honor Code violation–and I never even got to the part where BYU students weren’t allowed to drink ANYWHERE, EVER.  Their heads might have exploded. 

See, I think censorship sucks and all, but what frosts my cupcakes is when people waste moral outrage on issues that are essentially trivial.  If you wanted to go to a college where Residence Life would sponsor screenings of arty sex flicks, maybe you should have gone to a non-religious school.  That you are entitled to watch a particular movie–any movie–as part of your educational experience makes about as much sense as being entitled to play ice hockey in P.E.  Nothing against ice hockey, but did your college have ice hockey and if not, did you protest?  Even if you went to school in Florida?

Moreover, it was not possible to escape the irony of the fact that cancelling Henry & June–which, I reiterate, was a movie sponsored by Residence Life as a recreational activity–at the request of a student (on the basis of it being an inappropriate event for a nice Baptist college to sponsor) resulted in this huge uproar, but when the college incurred the wrath of the VBGB for sponsoring a female minister’s lecture on God and gender, there were crickets chirping.  Probably because she didn’t use any pictures in her presentation.  But also because academic freedom doesn’t inspire the same passion as recreational license. 

Now, probably the BYU students who were upset about missing their Dilbert that week also get upset about some other, consequential stuff that goes on at BYU–stuff actually related to the quality of their educations.  At the same time, lots of people go to BYU so they can live and learn in a Mormon environment and not be bombarded with stuff that offends their religious sensibilities.  These students have a hard enough time with Nietzche and Faulkner.  How crucial is it that they pick up a paper to relax with the news of the day and have their eyeballs seared by a Dilbert Jesus cartoon? 

Perhaps I’m just sympathetic to the editors of the Daily Universe, as I used to work for a newspaper, where my job description entailed fielding calls from readers irate about something they’d read in the funnies.  Those calls were unpleasant and frustrating.  People have strong feelings about the comics.  Also crossword puzzles.  And don’t you dare take away their bridge column.  Oh, no–but I digress.  My point is that I understand why the DU folks decided to just pre-empt the whole controversy, even if they did follow up with a self-serving editorial justifying their decision.  (Hey, I do self-serving stuff myself all the time, so who am I to throw stones?) 

On the other hand, talking about my newspaper experience reminds me that we had a janitor there named Jesus.  Yes, it was pronounced “Hay-Soos,” but let’s be honest–who doesn’t see the name Jesus and read it as “Jesus (not Hay-Soos)”?  Not me.  Which is why it used to amuse me to no end when we’d get messages on the network computers telling us that Jesus would be cleaning the bathrooms between 4 and 5 p.m.  Because that was comedy gold.  I like to think Jesus himself would have appreciated it.  (Either of them.)  But then, I look at these Dilbert comics and I don’t see what the big deal is.  I imagine if Jesus were to pick up the Daily Universe and see these comics, he wouldn’t just stand there somberly with a tear rolling down his face.  He might chuckle at a couple of them, even–in a “heh heh, very well, Scott Adams, touche” kind of way.  But no outright guffawing because eh, they’re just not that funny.  Definitely not worth protesting over, in any respect.