Protecting Our Space

According to a new survey, 20% of American college students now say it is acceptable to use physical force to stop a speaker from making “hurtful or offensive comments.”  Catherine Rampell, in the Washington Post, reads this as a growing rejection of the principle of free speech.  I think she’s right.  It does seem that Americans are increasingly willing to accept censorship and silencing.  Or at the very least, they are more willing to take active measures to protect their discursive space.  Why?

The first and most obvious answer, I believe, is the dominance of consumer logic.  The world of late capitalism is ruled by “choice.”  Through our consumption habits, we are expected to construct our own reality.  I can customize my home or outfit—sculpt it to the exact image I want to project—so why not my information stream?  Of course, as Cass Sunstein has argued, exposure to opposing views is a necessary social good.  Consumer logic undercuts such thinking, though.  It sidelines the expert (Sunstein), and long-term (democracy) in favor of immediate, emotional satisfaction.  When we think as consumers, therefore, it is only logical to censor and silence.

So people shut down speech because they want to, and believe as consumers, they should get what they want.  Where does this desire to silence originate?  Of course, the alien is always disconcerting.  Still, this new survey data indicates that people are increasingly troubled by opposing views.  Or perhaps we are simply more attuned to them.  Perhaps because of the homogenization of our discursive space the alien sticks out, demands our attention (and challenge), more than it once did.  When I spend most of my time in a filter bubble, the sliver of the outside world that sneaks through is bound to be upsetting.

I do wonder though if there are other factors at play. This is very speculative, but I wonder if the structures of belief which we use to define self and world are shakier than they once were.  In our multicultural, multivocal world even the most closeted thinker must know—at least on some level—that other views are always out there.  Perhaps in earlier, less connected times these views were more distance, and hence less threatening.  And/or perhaps our relation to knowledge has changed.  Perhaps we can say that with modernity and postmodernity some sort of ground has disappeared, and this makes us fundamentally insecure.

We can imagine, for example, a true believer, someone so confident in his views that opposing beliefs are seen only as objects of amusement. Such would be the position of a medieval Christian laughing at a Hindu, perhaps.  The Hindu’s gods are so distance, and the Christian’s understanding of how the world “is” so solid, that the former’s religious claims cause no offense.  Now compare this to students trying to shut down a conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro at Berkeley say.  They find it intensely offensive that Shapiro claims there are only two genders. Shapiro’s views fundamentally hurt these students.  Why?  Why can’t they just laugh at him?  Certainly, they “know” that gender is a spectrum, a social construct.  They know it as certain as the medieval Christian knows the true nature of God….

My point is that it seems that what it means to know has changed.  On some (subconscious) level we have internalized the idea that knowledge is relative, rhetorical and shared.  Leftwing activists need Ben Shapiro to acknowledge gender is a spectrum because, simply put, we can’t be sure of anything anymore.  There’s an abiding sense of unreality, a feeling that everything is up for negotiation.  The negotiation is public, but the outside works its way in, shaping how the individual thinks.  This would explain why we see students chasing conservative speakers off campus.  And why we see Trumpian attacks on the “lame steam media.”  In both cases the principle is the same: I want (or need) to believe the world is X.  When you say it is Y, it makes my life harder.  I must therefore stop you from saying Y.

In short, in a world of excess—of connection and unbridled choice—we recognize that everything is shared, everything is unstable.  We must take an active role in constructing our reality.  And this means being constantly on guard against threats to that reality.

Are Teachers Really Afraid of Their Students?

A lot has been written lately about hyper-sensitivity on college campuses. The latest entry in this genre is a long, rather complex analysis on Vox.com, published anonymously by a professor at a “midsize state school.” This writer’s claim is that a reductive vision of social justice, one based on feelings rather than objective analysis, is making for a toxic learning environment and ultimately harming the progressive cause. Feelings can’t be wrong. So, this logic goes, the only way to win a debate is to yell really loud.

Ironically, this article resulted in something of a backlash, with a social media figure yelling about how she shouldn’t be quoted without her consent. That’s an interesting position. And seems to prove the writer’s point about hyper-sensitivity. On the internet. What about in the classroom though? Are things really as bad as they seem? Are teachers really afraid of students?

In my experience, no. I’m a (white male) teacher at a major public university. My (grad student) colleagues and I complain about a lot of stuff, but getting in trouble for offending our students isn’t very high on the list. Still, many teachers obviously feel differently. Perhaps they’re justified. Perhaps my colleagues and I are naïve. Still though, I can’t help but think that the hysterical online environment is unduly tinting their perception of the classroom situation.

Of course, as a teacher you will occasionally encounter prickly, hyper-politically correct (or politically incorrect) students. Part of being an educator though is learning how to negotiate with such people. As an example, let’s look at a situation described in the Vox article.

During a discussion of the 2008 financial crisis, a student voices his opinion that said crisis was caused by “Fanny and Freddy giving homes to black people.” This is a big, obviously problematic claim. Note how the Vox commentator responds though. Instead of seeking to engage the student, to bring out the causes and potential effects of such a belief, the teacher instead attempts to “state the facts,” telling the student that his view is “an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest.” The student feels disrespected and files a complaint, accusing the teacher of bias.

I understand the teacher’s frustration: the student hijacked his lesson plan. The administrative complaint could have been avoided though through proper pedagogical practice. Instead of positioning himself as “the subject who knows,” to misquote Lacan, this teacher should have sought to explore, with his students, the gap between their varying perspectives. In short, when yelled at he shouldn’t have yelled back. Instead, he should have practiced what he preaches in the Vox article.

My larger point here is that digital discourse seems to encourage a certain sort of rhetorical behavior. This, as the Vox commentator correctly notes, often involves yelling really loud about your feelings. Teachers must work to counter this influence. We need to cultivate listening, understanding and collaborative, critical exploration. And the place to start is with our own practice, both online and in the classroom. If we do this day-in-day-out, we have nothing to fear from our students.