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.