Come on, stomp on Jesus! Do it!

Posted on 03/26/13 37 Comments

Bilbo sent me a link for a  news article titled “Professor Makes Students ‘Stomp on Jesus’“. For those of you not sufficiently motivated to click the hyperlink I provided here’s the quick scoop: a prof at a university in Florida asked his students to write the word Jesus on a piece of paper in an communications class. He then instructed them to place it on the floor and stomp on it as a catalyst for a thoughtful discussion on the meaning of symbols. One Mormon student respectfully refused and was penalized. The student then went to the media and here we are talking about it.

I offered two responses which I shall quote here:

My declasse response is to say for the next assignment the professor and administration should lie on the floor in front of the students and the students should then be asked to stomp on them. Afterwards we can have a good discussion about why some students hesitated and others stomped.

Okay, this assignment should probably be in an ethics class rather than a communications class, but it still seems like a great idea. After all, you’re challenging people in a powerful and thought-provoking manner to consider the origin of their own moral intuitions.

Admittedly there is a downside: the administrators and faculty member could be injured. So perhaps we better shelve that idea. It’s okay to stomp a person’s beliefs but not their body.

But how about this idea for the psychology class: new Milgram experiments. You remember the Milgram experiments, don’t you? They were psychological tests to see to what extent people would capitulate to the directions of authority figures. So here’s what you do. Put a student in a room with a dial that says “Voltage” and tell them that another person is hooked up to a chair in the next room where they will receive electric shocks if the dial is turned. Then have an authority figure in a nice white lab coat with a clip board and a stern expression walk in and instruct the student to begin turning the dial higher and higher while screams and yowls erupt from the next room. It’s a great experiment because nobody actually gets hurt. There’s an actor in the next room, you see. Yeah, the student is traumatized, and some fuddy duddies once declared this kind of experiment “unethical”. But nobody really gets hurt, just like in the “stomp on Jesus” scenario. And it definitely is a great way to explore our tendency to submit to authority by following directions to do what we think is wrong, just like the stomp on Jesus exercise. So if stomp on Jesus gets the green light, the Milgram experiments should too.

Now for my second response:

My highbrow response would ask why the professor doesn’t try doing that assignment with the American flag. Because some symbols are still sacred apparently.

But perhaps the professor would direct the students to stomp on the flag. In that case I say we go all out. Have the students dress up like hippies, play Country Joe’s Woodstock classic “Feel like I’m fixin’ to die” (I’m sure one of the grey haired leftie administrators has a copy of the record in their collection) and have a good ole’ flag burning in the quad. And be sure to include a full page article on the day’s events in the next edition of the alumni magazine.

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  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    The problem with using an American flag is that just putting it on the floor is considered a desecration, before we even get to the stomping and burning stages. The university has a statement:

    http://www.fau.edu/explore/homepage-stories/2013_03message.php

    Personally, I like the experiment, as well as the Milgram experiments. I think it has a beneficial affect on the people who are being experimented upon, making them consider how seriously they take their beliefs. What I found objectionable was that the student who refused to do it was reportedly suspended from the class. The university is denying that, now.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Perhaps the prof could have led the way by spitting on a picture of his mother and then reflecting to the class on how he analyzed his own moral qualms about the action.

      • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

        Or we could ask the prof to write the name of his mother on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. Okay, what is it about symbol that makes it so meaningful to us? And is it related to idolatry? Was the prohibition to make images related to how we treat symbols? This is becoming more and more fascinating to me.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          It looks like the professor’s ill-begotten pegadogical exercise is bearing fruit he could never have imagined!

  • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

    Hah — my dad just mentioned this story.

    It’s an exercise with a great deal of potential for effective illustration. “Why do we have no qualms stepping on a plain piece of paper, or stepping on a paper with the word TRAIN or BOAT or JOHN, but we immediately balk when JESUS is written on the paper? How does symbolism affect our perception of reality and our associated behavior?” In this case, the immediate presentation “Stomp on this” rather than building up gradually may have been part of the problem.
    It’s controversial because of the possibility that someone might actually follow through with the stomping action, thus really dramatically offending the sensibilities of people in the audience. And the suggestion of stomping could conceivably do the same, though those people probably should toughen up.
    I wonder how different it would have been if it used Islam instead of Christianity.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      The logic (and potential value) of this kind of exercise is clear. What really irritates me is that professors will choose what they discern to be “soft” targets. They won’t stomp on their mom’s photo or the American flag (or the name “Mohammad”) because of (i) personal reservations and (ii) anticipated blowback. But Jesus is an easy target.

      I do think there is an ethical dimension here that parallels the Milgram experiments. If those experiments were unethical, as is widely conceded today, then the acquiescence to authority to engage in an act that the student perceives as blasphemous by their religious beliefs would seem to have serious ethical problems as well.

      • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

        Clearly, “Jesus” wasn’t as soft a target as the professor (well, the curriculum-writer) had anticipated.
        I can intuitively tell how the Milgram experiment could be seen as unethical, but I’m not sure how it really plays out. Is revealing the evil in someone’s own heart automatically unethical?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          No, the objection is not to “revealing the evil in someone’s heart”. The intuitive objection seems to be rooted in a principle like this:

          “It is wrong to attempt to coerce people into violating their ethical beliefs on serious ethical issues unless you have an overriding reason to do so (i.e. the conviction that their ethical beliefs are both wrong and harmful)”.

          So imagine asking a white segregationist to drink from the “Negro fountain”. The racist might believe this constitutes a violation of his beliefs on a serious ethical issue because he is convinced that whites ought not drink from black fountains (and vice versa). But because you believe his conviction is both wrong and harmful you would not violate an internal ethical obligation by asking him to do this.

          (And assuming that you are correct that his belief is both wrong and harmful, you would also not be violating an external, objective ethical norm that stands apart from your internal, personal convictions.)

          But we recognize that it is wrong to torture people (e.g. by applying electricity to them to test their tolerance levels for electrocution). So we affirm the individual’s aversion to inflicting such torture on another individual. And this means it is wrong to ask them to do this, even if they do not in fact do it.

          Likewise (to take another example), it would be wrong to ask an individual to help bury the dismembered body of a murdered victim, even if there was no murder and the “victim” was in fact large chunks of bloody meat from the butcher wrapped up in cloth to look like a dismembered human body.

          Well for that young Mormon, stomping on the name Jesus was an immoral, blasphemous act. Unless the prof believed that this Mormon’s conviction was itself wrong and harmful (and unless the prof was correct in this belief) it was wrong for him to attempt to coerce the student into engaging in this action.

          • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

            Okay, I see where this is coming from. But I’m not sure I buy it.

            Why exactly is it morally wrong to ask someone to violate their internal convictions? Even if those convictions are good, questioning them and identifying the circumstances under which you would suspend those convictions can be a healthy and revealing exercise. Certainly any sort of coercion would absolutely be unethical, but simply offering someone the opportunity isn’t immoral, I don’t think.

            Telling someone “here, help me bury the dismembered body of a murdered victim” would be a very revealing exercise. Unless there’s coercion involved, I don’t see a problem with it.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              “Certainly any sort of coercion would absolutely be unethical….”

              An authority figure instructing that you do something (with implied repercussions if you don’t, like blacklisting and a failed grade) is very quickly a form of coercion. That was the whole basis of the Milgram experiments: the coercive nature of authority figures to bring people to act in ways counter to their convictions.

              As for your view that there is nothing wrong with requesting that an individual help you bury a dismembered human body wrapped up in bloody cloth, you defnitely have different intuitions on that point.

              Are there any experiments where requests could be made on an individual that are perceived as non-coercive but highly immoral which you would object to?

              • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

                In the case of the Milgram experiment, I don’t think the presence of an authority figure rose to the level of coercion, except inasmuch as authority figures are inherently coercive, which I suppose could have been the point of the experiment. The participants were under no duress.

                If the duress were the threat of a failing grade, that would clearly be different.

                Asking people to help me bury a dismembered human body would be largely the same as asking them to help me steal a car, or sneak through airport security with a gun, or any number of other unethical actions. As a human experiment, I don’t see how it’s immoral. Unwise, perhaps, but not immoral.

          • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

            I don’t think the Milgram experiment is wrong, because the experimenter knows that he is not really asking the subject to do something unethical. The problem with the “stomp on Jesus” experiment is that this becomes more fuzzy. Is it really wrong to stomp on a piece of paper with Jesus’s or anybody else’s name on it?

            Whoops. Just saw that there was more to Randal’s response to P&W. I still don’t think the Milgram experiment is wrong. And I think it has the beneficial effect of confronting the subject with who they really are.

            • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

              I think it’s offensive to signify extreme and derisive disrespect for an individual who other people sincerely believe should be held in the highest esteem. And purposefully and inflammatorily offending other people is wrong.

              • J_Riv

                So it would have been wrong to signify extreme and derisive disrespect for Hitler in the early 1930s?

                (I’m not suggesting you would think that, just pointing out that the general case doesn’t always hold.)

                • Kerk

                  Well, first of all, he didn’t say “wrong”, he said “offensive.”
                  Second, in the early 1930s Hitler hasn’t yet committed his crimes against humanity, so at that point he was not at all a major villain. And what the hell, yes it is always “offensive” to signify extreme and derisive disrespect for an individual who other people sincerely believe should be held in the highest esteem. Whether it’s “wrong” or not, is a different story.

                • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

                  Oh, good point. I guess I’d have to add “without just cause” to the “purposefully offending is wrong” statement.

    • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

      Even though I’m not a Muslim, if asked to stomp on a Mohammed’s name, I don’t think I would. This is interesting. I hadn’t thought very much about the relation between an object (or person), its symbol, and us. Or even how our actions are symbols.

      • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

        For one thing, using “step” rather than “stomp” would probably have been a good idea. “Walk along this path, stepping on the paper as you go” is quite different from “Stomp on this name with (implied) vigor and malice,” but would accomplish the same effect.

        I wouldn’t want to step on “Mohammed” simply because I wouldn’t want to offend other people’s sincere religious sensibilities. But I wouldn’t want to step on “Jesus” due to strong personal reservations….reservations I didn’t realize I had until I thought about it.

        • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

          Wouldn’t you agree that the more we think about this, the more interesting the topic becomes?

          • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

            It does indeed. The way the topic is raised provokes different responses. For example, if asked to “step on Mohammed” (as stated above), I’d refuse on the grounds that I wouldn’t want to offend sincere sensibilities. If asked to “stomp on Mohammed”, I’d refuse on the grounds that it is an offensive and inflammatory idea.

            • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

              Yes, same feelings.

              • AdamHazzard

                It has a social component, too. Stomping on a symbol isn’t something you do when you’re alone at home. Usually it’s a way of publicly demonstrating contempt or repugnance for whatever the word or image represents.

                Which is why I wouldn’t step on an image of Jesus or of Mohammed or on an American or Canadian flag — that’s not how I want to begin a dialogue about Christianity, Islam, or patriotism; it wouldn’t represent my feelings about those ideas or those who hold them.

                But, you know, I would happily step on a KKK flag, a Nazi flag, or a piece of paper with the word “Taliban” or “Inquisition” written on it.

                • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

                  Good point about the social component.

                • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

                  That’s another point. I think I would happily step on a Koran in front of a murdering jihadist, but only if I knew that no rank-and-file Muslim would be made aware of it.

  • AdamHazzard

    It might have worked better as a thought experiment, in which students could discuss their possible objections, than as a physical experiment, in which students are forced to enact their actual objections. Or it could be made non-denominational, if the prof really wants to make a point about semiotics and representation: “Write down a name or description of something you care about deeply. Fold in half and put it on the floor. Would you be willing to step on it? If so, why? If not, why not?”

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Or the prof could simply show images or short films of particular images being desecrated — perhaps footage of an actual flag burning, or showing a copy of one of the infamous Mohammad cartoons — and using that to faciliated class discussion.

      • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

        Eh, I think the agency of the students was the most important factor here.

    • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

      The way it was presented definitely seemed forced. Building up to it, where the professor starts with a blank piece of paper (everyone steps on it) then a piece of paper with the word TRAIN (everyone still steps on it) then a piece of paper with the word JESUS (the first person, hopefully, balks), seems like it would be a better approach.

  • SevenT

    No one has touched on the University’s responsibility in this. Surely any thinking person could foresee that there might be unexpected volatile reactions to an exercise such as this?

    Personally, I think the university dropped the ball big time in the way they handled the situation. Create a “disturbing” situation, then punish anyone who does not react in the way you want them to?

    Very, very questionable. And even more telling is their wishy washy back and forth on the way they have handled it. Are they really qualified to teach anything? Or is it just indoctrination?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Usually university administrators are desperate to avoid any controversy with the tuition paying and donating constituency. That’s why we have tenure. To protect professors from the bottom line conservatism of the administrator. This school seems to have the opposite problem, at least in this case, with a rather startling disregard for the fear of alienating the constituency (hence, my reference to putting the flag burning event into the alumni magazine).

  • http://twitter.com/AtheistMission TheAtheistMissionary

    I applaud the professor for his experiment. However, I would have suggested a twist. I would have asked the students to write letters one at a time, each time stopping to ask the students to step on the piece of paper:

    J

    Then JE

    Then JES

    Then JESU

    It would be interesting to see if any of the students had refused to step on the paper by this point.

    Then I would have the students complete the word JESUIT and ask them to step on it.

    • Walter

      Better hope there is no Catholics in the class.

      • http://twitter.com/AtheistMission TheAtheistMissionary

        I guess we could finsh off with BEJESUS.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          I thought you’d invoke the Homerism “Jeebus”.

  • Moon Shine

    As a Christian, I would not hesitate to stomp on a piece of paper that has written “Jesus” on it. I know Jesus is not on a butt of paper.
    If I write “Jesus” on butt of paper, did I make that paper “holy”, am I not allowed to throw that paper to garbage?
    You guys, don’t see how stupid this Mormon acted? He could very well get wisdom from God and say:”Sir, I will stomp on this piece of paper because you cannot make me stomp on real Jesus” Case closed.
    But everything when stupidly out of hand with this Mormon asking for apologies and crap.

  • J_Riv

    All this talk about Milgrim and social experiments in general has reminded me of a great TV show I used to watch. I rarely even turn on my TV anymore since the wretchedly disappointing ending of Lost, so I don’t even know if the show is still on. But there are many videos on YouTube. Search on ‘ABC What Would You Do’. Here’s a description and a couple of samples for those unaware of it.

    They would set up a scenario that presented people with a moral dilemna. For example, they staged a couple meeting at a bar, then when the woman goes to the ladies room the man blatantly spikes her drink. The couple and the bartender are actors, the experiment is what the people who witness this will do about it. They would film it, Candid Camera style, and eventually confront the people and discuss their reactions.

    People’s responses ranged from the utterly disgusting (like the guy who sided with a blatantly anti-semitic clerk in a bakery) to the breathtakingly irresponsible (like the kid who helped an obviously drunk couple start their car for $7) to the inspiringly heroic (like the petite woman who jumped out of her car alone to confront three punks beating a man up with a baseball bat) and everything in-between.

    Some episodes are very moving (the ones I linked to were hardly the best ones), as people step up to the plate to help someone or correct an injustice, and others saddening, as people fail to do so.

    Perhaps there’s some fodder in there for further discussion. (Or perhaps just an opportunity to avoid a major time-suck by skipping to the next comment. Be warned, lest you waste the better part of an evening like I did yesterday!)

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo