Never approach a bull from the front, a donkey from the rear, or a fool from any direction

I’m about to ignore my own advice. Whenever I come across an controversial opinion that bothers me, I try to put this quote in action. I ask myself, “is it worth my time, cognitive ability, and emotional energy to engage with this situation right now?” Most of the time, the answer is no. I have other concerns: the veterans I work with, the programs I supervise, my family.

Newsletter: “Veterans Should Be Banned from Four-Year Colleges”

Other times, against my better judgement and the “fool” alert ringing in my head, I step in and engage anyway. That’s where I’m at today. I was going to respond to this event immediately, when I heard of it. Then I thought better of it. Do I want to give this garbage more publicity? Do I want to be part of spreading this message? After a few days have passed, however, I think I’m going to come at it from a different angle.

There was recently a controversy in which a group posted a newsletter on the campus of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. In this newsletter, the writer makes the argument that veterans…me, my father, my uncles, my brother, the brothers and sisters who I fought with and for…should be banned from all four-year colleges.

Yep. You heard me right. If the thought of that doesn’t get your blood boiling, read it here:

Click on picture to open in a new window. Warning: It’s going to piss you off

It’s getting a lot of press, as it should. There is controversy surrounding whether or not it should have been allowed to be posted on campus in the first place, but that doesn’t change the fact that someone wrote this. These thoughts came out of someone’s head. It’s obviously insulting and a slap in the face, but perhaps it was meant to be so.

Responding to Controversial Opinions

I’ve decided that I’m not going to address the points in the newsletter. Others have done so already, and did a pretty good job. Instead, I’d like to address the action, the world in which someone thought that it was permissible for them to say things like this. I’m a veteran. I served in the military for many reasons, but one of them was to ensure that the freedoms that my fellow citizens enjoy remain those freedoms. Whether it’s protesting something or spouting vile and distasteful thoughts about the very people protecting the right for you to do so, I’m all for you exercising free speech.

I would just prefer to see some personal restraint and accountability. That’s what seems to have gone missing in our interactions with each other.

Why Didn’t Someone Stop Me?

In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his team put together an experiment to determine the effect of situational forces and group dynamics on an individual’s behavior. You can read more about the Stanford Prison Experiment here, but essentially two equal groups of young college men were separated at random to guards and prisoners. As the days wore on, the guards became more abusive and the prisoners became more passive. Here is an excerpt from The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo’s book about how good people can do terrible things. This is from one of the guards who engaged in the worst acts of abuse:

…I wanted to see just what kind of verbal abuse that people can take before they start objecting, before they start lashing back, under the circumstances. And it surprised me that no one said anything to stop me. No one said, ‘Jeez, you can’t say those things to me, those things are sick.’ Nobody said that, they just accepted what I said…Why didn’t people say something when I started to abuse people? I started to get so profane, people didn’t say anything. Why?”

The guard in this story deliberately removed his personal restraint to see how far he could go, and was shocked at the boundaries he was able to cross. Others, such as the authors of the newsletter above, may be pleased that the boundaries of decency no longer exist.

We seem to live in a time in which everything is permissible. We can say what we want with no impunity or consequence. Instead of addressing the problem before us, we make the other person in front of us the problem, and attack them instead. Words have weight and meaning, and perhaps this incident, like the guard’s realization, is a wake up call to realize that we’ve gotten to the point where saying things like this is possible.

A few last thoughts about this incident:

  • Only cowards hide behind words written anonymously on walls. I’ve said it before, in other contexts. No one can seem to find the “author” of this passage, no one is certain that he even exists. No one has been able to talk to the person who wrote it or the group it portends to be from. In this anything goes environment, it appears as though there are still some thoughts so vile that people are afraid to attach their own name to it.
  • What if this is so controversial, so vile, that it is an attempt to inflame people’s emotions towards the “group” that this seems to come from? You can do a bit of research and find that there is an anti-War organization in Colorado that has a similar name, who clearly and quickly disavowed any responsibility for this piece. What if this was an attempt to stir up anger against them, or groups like them? If that is the case, it doesn’t matter where it came from. Wrong is wrong and evil is evil.

This has been an exercise in restraint, patience, and reflection for me. Maybe it has been for you, too. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.


Dave · September 7, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Very thoughtful response Duane. It is through action of the mind like this that the battle is won. I think our brave hyper connected digital world is rife with false flags meant to disrupt a traditional institutions.

Well Done!

Tamara Suttle · September 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm

Hi, Duane!

I hadn’t heard about the newsletter article that you are referencing.

I’m sorry that you and other veterans even read those words.

The author got so many things wrong – intentionally or not – about spaces for higher learning, about social justice, about veterans and safe spaces, about so many things.

I dare say that this article bent as many of your left-leaning, liberal friends out of shape as it did your right-leaning, conservative friends and most everyone else in between!

Like you, I pick and choose the controversial situations that I step into; not all are equal.

And, it would have been easy to move right past this one because the author had made such a poor case for his/her/their position; however, your point about seeing this as a wake-up all is spot on!

I don’t know about “evil,” but I do see the glaring lack of civility and decency in this article.

There is nothing that speaks to a spirit of generosity or a mindset of curiosity.

Instead there is an arrogance and misplaced sense of righteousness as if there is not space in Colorado Springs on university campuses for good-hearted veterans and brave queer people and heart-centered queer veterans, too.

And that, to me, would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad.

Duane, I appreciate your restraint, patience, and self-reflection, too, especially on this.

My wake-up call concerning the impact of words came in January of this year when I realized that anonymous speech can do serious damage – but our silence can do even more harm.

In 1987, 6 gay activists formed a group called ACT UP and began plastering signs all over New York that read “SILENCE = DEATH.”

Back then they were referencing the AIDS epidemic; but, today it’s more obvious than ever that our silence in the face of bigotry and hate or when any group of people are being painted with one broad brushstroke . . . that really does equal death – not just in eradicating the individual faces in that targeted group of people but also in preventing any possibility for understanding and connection between people.

You’re right – the article in the newsletter is a wake-up call.

We can all do better.

Allowing our Better Angels to Overcome our Worst Demons · September 7, 2017 at 5:48 am

[…] are more aware of it now, I think, because it’s in our face 24/7. There are times when I have made public statements against something in particular, and other times where I haven’t. Instead, this is an attempt to help others understand that […]

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