A thousand years ago, when the poet, Egil Skallagrimson lost his son to the sea, he wrote this:
Most woeful the breach,
Where the wave in-brake
On the fenced hold
Of my father’s kin.
Unfilled, as I wot,
And open doth stand
The gap of son rent
By the greedy surge.
Of course, he didn’t write it in English, and we aren’t obliged to treat the translation available in the public domain as inviolate. We might, instead, rephrase it like this: The breach the wave made in the fence of my father’s kin, is unfilled–I know–and a son-shaped hole, torn by the greedy sea, stands open.
I find that imagery both beautiful and heartbreaking: the gap of son in his family’s kin fence. To see your family as your first line of protection against the world, that web of relationships keeping you from harm, coupled with the grief at losing a son, it’s pretty moving.
Let’s come back to this.
One of the unexpected things that’s been sticking in my craw from my exchange with the Legal Eagle is the issue of the role of the university. Is the university a forum for the free exchange of ideas? Is the university’s primary role that of the shaper of young minds? If I believed those things, I think I’d have to rethink my position on Ann Coulter.
But I don’t think the university’s first obligation is to ideas or students.
I had to go digging around in the attic of the English language to find a word that gets at what I think the university’s first obligation is, but I finally found it, in a box marked “Common Teutonic,” the word Frith.
I think the university’s first obligation is to maintain the frith of the community.
Frith is in the OED, and Oxford defines it as “peace, freedom from molestation, protection; safety, security,” and as a verb, “to keep in peace, make peace with; to secure from disturbance, help, preserve, protect.”
In its Anglo Saxon form–freod–it has to do with peace, friendship, good will and affection. In Old English, the word was “freo,” which means “free.”
It comes from the Indo-European root “pri,” which means to love. In another Germanic form, it is *frijaz–beloved and, interestingly, “belonging to the loved ones.”
As well as free, it’s related to filibuster, afraid, and Friday (from the Germanic compound *frije-dagaz or “day of Frigg,” who is, of course, Odin’s beloved.)
Here we get a sense of the true scope of Egil’s grief. Freedom for him is not an absence of responsibility to anyone but himself. Freedom–his peace, safety, and security–is bound up in his belonging to the people who love him and who he loves. The loss of his son to the sea, leaving no body to put in the family grave, is a personal loss and a loss to everyone in frith with him.
To circle back to the university and maintaining the frith of the university community, I’m not arguing that everyone at the university has to love each other. In fact, I’d argue that it’s precisely because the opposite is true–that you have all different kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds who all aren’t going to get along under normal circumstances–that the university has an obligation to establish and maintain frith.
Under this paradigm, everyone who is a member of the university community–faculty, staff, and students–has a right and an obligation to expect maintained peace and safety and to contribute to that atmosphere.
With the maintenance of frith as the goal, a student has a right and obligation to sit in the classroom and learn what his or her instructor has to teach. An instructor has a right and an obligation to teach his or her students the intended materials. Discussions and even disagreements are to be encouraged, because they further the goal of learning and teaching the materials, but personal attacks, disruptive and disrespectful behavior, and idiocy that wastes the class’s time don’t have to be tolerated, because they break frith.
Staff members have a right and an obligation to insist on respectful behavior from the administration and faculty. And though academia is full of rugged individuals and their oversized egos, for the sake of the university community, these egos are kept in check. And, if they’re not, for the health of the community, the egos are encouraged to be someone else’s problem.
The lively exchange of ideas among members of the university community is exceedingly important to the well-being of the community, but also fraught with danger, because attacks on ideas so quickly become attacks on people. Establishing and maintaining frith allows for disagreements, even raucous ones, because everyone involved has the assurance that everyone is working towards the same goal–right relationship with each other.
True enough that no one in the university as it is right now gives a shit about establishing and maintaining frith. And so it’s probably true that my objection to inviting Ann Coulter to campus is not only antique, it’s beside the point.
But, I think giving her a forum breaks frith. It doesn’t put the health and well-being of the community first, because she doesn’t merely disagree with ideas, she viciously attacks people. It doesn’t encourage thoughtful discussion, because she’s a sloppy thinker. And though I’m sure some campus conservatives feel that her speaking on campus will give voice to their concerns in a way that cannot be ignored, I don’t believe she’s in right-relation with other conservatives, so I have my doubts about whether their concerns are her concerns.
Discussions had in frith, such as the Legal Eagle’s and my longwinded argument, can change people’s minds–in some cases, though not ours–or they can provide a useful tool for helping each person understand the shape and contour of her beliefs. Both are important potential outcomes.
It’s rare, on the other hand, that any good comes from any activity which deliberate breaks frith.