you have to do this work

I live between two different intellectual worlds, in the academy and in political media. Often this divide is therapeutic; when the various absurdities of either world seem overwhelming, I can turn to the other. But when one bleeds into the other, the effect is disquieting. I am forever encountering in one world attitudes that I am assured in the other world do not exist.

The trigger warning debate is the perfect example.

The conventional wisdom within progressive media is that this is a phony controversy: trigger warnings are optional for professors, not mandatory, and they’re just warnings, so they can’t censor anything. I have heard this line more times than I can count. The fact that it isn’t true seems unimportant to the people who push it. In fact the initial wave of debate about trigger warnings flared up precisely because there were people calling for them to be mandatory and because there were arguments that classroom material that carried trigger warnings should be optional. Here is a UCSB student government resolution calling for exactly that. They are not alone in that call. “No one says students should be able to use trigger warnings to opt out of course materials” is simply untrue. It is a dodge, a very common one in this discussion. It is a means for sympathetic voices in the media to avoid precisely the difficult intellectual and political questions at hand. That this insistence that “no one is calling for” what some people in my world are explicitly calling for comes packaged with smug eye-rolling only makes it more aggravating.

I live in the whiplash of debating people on campus who make arguments that I am then told no one is making by people online.

This is the constant dynamic in these fights: people in the progressive media, wanting to undermine what they see as conservative arguments, cherry-pick and idealize the ideas and organizations they defend. We then have a phony debate about the idealized version, which inevitably leads to progressives in the media arriving at a pat conventional wisdom that leaves their sense of cultural and social connection to progressive students intact, even as they decline to engage with the actual arguments of those students. And to whatever degree they are forced to engage they tend to argue through appeals to irrelevance rather than to actually affirming the student position. “They’re just college students, who cares,” they say, an ostensible defense which is more insulting than my criticism and which entirely sidesteps the uncomfortable but necessary work of hashing these things out.

Here is a question I have been asking friends of mine who work in universities. In a classroom situation in which a student has been allowed to say “I supported Hillary Clinton because I’m With Her,” does another student have the equivalent right to say “I supported Donald Trump because he will Make America Great Again”? 10 years ago I would have been sure that almost all professors would answer yes, of course they do. The idea that professors were out to silence their conservative students was a conservative canard. Today I’m less sure that the average liberal professor would answer that way. That concerns me; it concerns me as an educator, it concerns me as a citizen, and it concerns me as someone who has watched state governments defund public universities using appeals to political bias. I’m not begging the question. Perhaps the liberal academic commitment to student political freedom is as strong as ever. Or perhaps we really should be silencing our conservative students, though you know where my assumptions lie. But we have to hash that out; we have to do the work. Dismissing the idea that there is any work to be done is a form of bad faith.

I have perfectly conventional progressive views on social policy. If I were king my progressive critics would get almost everything they want, when it comes to abortion, to affirmative action, to reparations for slavery, to parental leave, to equal pay laws, whatever. Yet I am accused daily of being a reactionary, because of my conviction that these debates have to be had. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to have a conventional career as a liberal political writer. It would have been effortless for me. I know just when I could put my head down, just how to be loud when my perspective is popular and quiet when it isn’t. I think instead we should do the work. Politics isn’t supposed to be comfortable. Politics is supposed to hurt. And I would argue that so many informed people woke up shocked the morning after Election Day because they had built this wall of convenience between themselves and that work, a wall they couldn’t see over.

 

13 Comments

  1. I’m a professor (left-lib, like most professors) and I would absolutely let my students voice support for Trump, or any candidate they wanted — though I wouldn’t let them say anything threatening or demeaning about any social groups in the process. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I doubt it. Has a survey been conducted demonstrating that many professors would in fact ban pro-Trump utterances from their classroom? Because if not, then I have to say this still sounds a bit like a conservative canard to me.

    I don’t think there’s any question that political discourse *among students* has changed quite a lot over the last few years — but generally I find that the professors are not part of this trend, and if anything feel somewhat alienated by it.

    1. What specifically inspires me is the rising tide of position statements issued by faculty that (rightfully) decry racism and Islamophobia but then tie those things explicitly to support for a major presidential candidate. That candidate is monstrous; he was also supported by 60+ million Americans, and to forbid that association or that support is to play exactly into the hands of conservative bias rhetoric.

    2. I think the null hypothesis has to be that things have changed in the faculty as well.

      If you get 100 applicants/tenure track position, you can easily close the door to someone who is mildly offensive and still have plenty of qualified candidates to choose from. If you have only 10, then you will end up hiring more people that you disagree with. This is the flip side of saying that those who are good at networking and currying favor have an important advantage when jobs are so scarce.

      If you are on a temporary contract or not tenure track you’re not going to display the same courage in defending unpopular opinions as you don’t have tenure to protect you. Many more faculty are in this position now.

      If you are in a purely teaching position, you’re less likely to stand up to students, so an increase in student intolerance will lead to an increase in faculty that accommodate such intolerance.

      The various bureaucracies have also gotten more powerful over the inner workings of departments, staffed by human resource drones, politicians, and grant chasers, all of which are less likely to defend unpopular opinions.

      What would be strange is if despite all of these changes in circumstances, faculty had the same passion for defending unpopular speech today as they did a few decades ago. It would require a significant increase in personal commitment to free speech among the general population of would-be faculty to counteract the above, and I don’t see any mechanisms in the hiring process that would account for such an upswing.

      1. This research suggests that there is a very high willingness to discriminate against conservatives in progressive colleges:

        http://yoelinbar.net/papers/political_diversity.pdf

        The paper found 25% of those surveyed willing to admit that they would discriminate when hiring. If one assumes that for any hiring decision, multiple people have veto ability, then the chance of an openly conservative person to get hired can be very low indeed (as only 1 of the decision makers has to object).

        And of course, those at the edge of the Overton Window will often prefer to hide their beliefs, creating a stronger and stronger bubble where even some factual statements are seen as hate speech, let alone decent arguments that end up with the ‘wrong’ conclusions.

  2. I think that you need to be specific here about the “liberal academic commitment to student political freedom.” A “liberal” professor may be committed to “political freedom” in the abstract and recognize First Amendment rights in a public institution. Nevertheless–

    1. The professor, because of the background and socialization of most professors, cannot grasp how someone can support “Donald Trump” and be capable of critical thinking or empathy. “I supported Donald Trump” then becomes an exhibit of either extreme cognitive dissonance or willful perversity.

    2. The professor is in a subject or area in which “I supported Donald Trump” is most probably incompatible with professional or disciplinary norms, which now include some form of “social justice.” The student’s act of “political freedom,” however commonplace in much of the United States, is incompatible with course objectives.

    3. The professor recognizes the “political freedom” of the Trump supporter but grasps that, in the event that another student subsequently claims with psychological or legalistic language to have felt “unsafe” or “triggered” or exposed to a “hostile climate,” the likely institutional (and social media!) response will be very bad for the professor.

  3. “It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to have a conventional career as a liberal political writer.”

    Could you say more? How would you have broken in? Who would you have worked for? Who are the conventional political writers who took the easy path whose checks you could be cashing were you so inclined?

  4. The flip side of trigger warnings is that they’ll start being taken as an excuse to be as awful as you like, because, hey, trigger warning?

  5. Our Title IX training said all the right things about trigger warnings, inequality, etc. All of the practical examples were “this grad student/adjunct professor/cafeteria worker did/said something wrong, and then they wre fired”, delievered in the style of a joke and a punchline. We were then encouraged to always involve the police in all situations, especially situations where we didn’t understand the situation, coupled with a friendly reminder that new regulations devolved even more legal liability from the adminstration onto the lower income workers at the university. That’s the beauty of it. No one has to “call for it” in particular. The discourse obscures the reality, but of course that’s the point.

  6. freddE you might be one of the greatest to ever do it

    small nitpick

    “you have to do this work’

    oh yeah, well you have to Get this work

    *raises fists*

    nah ok let’s be a bit more serious tho

    what I don’t like about trigger warnings is that it seems like it can devolve into a points-scoring exercise against professors, which depending on how invested the campus administration leads to a shadow of power-exercise behind the points-scoring. Or to simplify, someone points out that something could be triggering and gets Progressivism Points (trademark). (I know this happens because I used to do it before I sort of left that shit behind) Then, depending on the campus administration’s stance, the professor could also have to agree or else he gets punished. I have heard of some instances of this actually occurring, by the way, though I couldn’t cite it off the top of my head.

    there’s probably some very serious and real situations that I wouldn’t even mind trigger warnings, like being 100 with you trigger warnings are the number one campus type issue that I don’t care about basically at all. But it seems like the above will happen, and also the above leads to very obvious feature creep (call it trigger creep?) which will be very, very stupid. And finally, I haven’t really heard much from the people who want trigger warnings for their own trauma; maybe that’s on me, but it seems like the people requesting are mostly doing so as a proxy for these people and they rarely get involved. which seems *hardly ideal*

  7. I have long defended the right to “safe spaces” as living apart from the First Amendment (which guarantees free speech but no right to your desired venue) and censorship (which is best reserved IMO for gov’t action against free speech).

    But post election I see so much more silo-ing going on. And if anything IMO Democrats lost because they were in a bubble. Way too much dependency on the comfort food of the prophets of confirmation bias (see Paul Krugman, everyone on MSNBC) and far too quick to dismiss and delegitimize folks who broke from the conventional wisdom (see Michael Moore correctly calling the rustbelt vote six months before, as everyone laughed, myself included).

    So yeah. The hard part of political engagement is the actual listening. And with as you have said respecting that what they tell you is what they actually mean. When a rustbelt voter says “Trump will bring jobs,” why not believe they believe that? Why conclude: “They say they voted for more and better jobs but they really voted because they love white supremacy.”

  8. I have read many blog posts about trigger warnings, and I still don’t get it. I just don’t get how you end up with people asking for them.

    Things are completely different in Continental Europe (I’m in France, with some knowledge on what goes on in Belgium, Germany and the Nordic countries), and, from what I have seen in Scotland, are also different in the UK.

    I can list a dozen things that I have seen students fight for over the past couple of years (immigration, welfare, fees, better facilities, etc.). Many of them touched upon discrimination (gender, racism, disabilities…). None of them had to do with opinion suppression or mental safeguards against ideological content.

    How did you get there? Is Canada experiencing the same thing?

  9. As you mention UCSB, I’m tempted to chime in and to emphasize how dramatically rhetoric will diverge from reality. It turns out that even at a literally-coastal university like UCSB, you can be kicked out of a history doctoral program if the findings of your research become too queer for your advisor’s liking.

    When push came to shove, UCSB History’s on-paper commitment to diversity and equality was nothing compared to its psychological predilection for maintaining the absolute subordination of its student body.

    https://www.change.org/p/ucsb-ucsb-history-support-lgbt-issues-and-let-kevin-complete-his-degree

  10. In things like this classical liberalism – what Hayek called American Conservatism – has a functional but not moral advantage. We take certain things as given: free speech and freedom of association to name two. They can be used for immoral purposes but we won’t challenge them because they are settled. Why? Because Jesus or Aristotle or… well just because. On the left nothing is settled, everything is subject to politics, each generation comes to reality anew and as a result there is constant social and political Flux. Tie this to the tendency of leftists to believe in the blank slate and you have a constant bias towards coercion. Because if sticks and stones AND words break bones then my generation’s totally new concept of Truth must be coerced. It all seems so exhausting and ultimately pointless. Nothing is ever settled, nothing is taken as given. There can never be human progress in a world totally donated by left politics.

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