Here's a compilation of some reported incidents that should be alarming. One assumes that in most or all these cases there were no repercussions for the speech, but the idea that they would even be reported and scrutinized is bizarre.
Here's a compilation of some reported incidents that should be alarming. One assumes that in most or all these cases there were no repercussions for the speech, but the idea that they would even be reported and scrutinized is bizarre.
Shocking! (Context.) A shame he didn't understand the paper, though (alternatively, if he did understand it, a shame he couldn't make any relevant counter-arguments). Do read the first few comments on the post, they're very funny.
(Kudos, by the way, to Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, who instead of demanding a juvenile pity-fest for their vulnerability, communicated to their critic that given that the paper was in the public domain, it was fair game for mocking criticism.)
(Thanks to several readers who brought this to my attention.)
You lose your job for it, at least if you're at the mercy of the maniacs there in the Graduate Students Association. The irony of costing a human being his livelihood over a joke about wanting to hire a "slave" to "boss" around is unbelievable. Kudos to philosophy professor Byron Williston for speaking out:
The sudden closure drew criticism from many of the café’s customers. Laurier ethics professor Byron Williston penned a scathing open letter to the graduate students association, accusing them of acting like “spoiled children.”
“I suppose it’s a sign of the times, especially on university campuses whose student bodies — undergraduate and graduate — seem to have been taken over by the terminally thin-skinned and self-righteous,” Williston wrote. “Perhaps you should direct your moral outrage at some of the many real problems in the world rather than behaving like petty bullies.”
Williston said the termination was a gross overreaction to a joke, even if it was in poor taste.
“I wrote the letter because I think the operator has been morally wronged. I think it’s important for somebody to speak out for him,” he said in an interview.
(Thanks to Mark Capustin for the pointer.)
This is a striking tale.
(Thanks to Jordan Rosen for the pointer.)
The other keynote speaker controversy making the rounds concerns a talk by philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne (Oxford) at a regional meeting of SCP at Evangel University in Missouri. This appears to be a sympathetic account of what transpired from someone in attendance. Briefly: Swinburne offered the usual awful arguments for anti-gay bigotry that "natural law" theorists and Christian philosophers usually trot out. No one outside the sect takes the arguments seriously, because they aren't serious arguments, but put that to one side. This talk was given inside the "sect": should anyone have been surprised that a keynote address at a Christian philosophy conference included familiar arguments rationalizing anti-gay bigotry? Many self-identified Christian philosophers reject such arguments, but many others plainly do not. As philosopher Chris Swoyer (Oklahoma) noted:
A substantial portion of Christians hold views like those attributed to Swinburne and do so on the basis of their understanding of Christianity. So it's surely not surprising for him to express such views in the setting he did.
That is surely right, and poses a difficult question for those Christian philosophers who repudiate such views about whether they want to be in that "setting" as it were.
In the case of the other keynote speaker controversy du jour, Professor Shelby was asked by a Black woman in his Q&A why he had not cited or discussed any Black feminist authors; Professor Shelby, unsurprisingly, was dismissive of the question, calling it a request for a "bibliography" and indicating he was just trying to do philosophy. He, correctly, supposed that a question of the form, "Why didn't you mention authors with particular racial and gender attributes?" is not a serious philosophical question, in contrast to, say, the question, "Why didn't you address the following argument by author X [who is also a Black feminist]?", which is an appropriate question. (Readers should review the full statement by the aggrieved audience member at the end of this post.) Other audience members shared this aggrievement as well. The organizing committee, instead of taking the opportunity to educate the aggrieved philosophy graduate student about the intellectual norms of the profession she plans to enter instead sent out a missive to all those who attended the conference stating that,
In particular, we apologize for the effects of the Saturday keynote address [by Prof. Shelby] and for our failure to do more about a situation in which SAF members felt personally and collectively hurt. When members identify effects including the erasure of Black women’s bodies and words, then we have to do better. What was said was wrong, and inappropriate at a feminist conference, and we take responsibility for our roles in the events that took place.
So one initial difference between the two cases is that Professor Swinburne's views really are a philosophical embarrassment, whereas Professor Shelby's views and his response to an inappropriate question were not. Indeed, the philosophical embarrassment is that the organizing committee of a philosophy conference caved in to meritless aggrievement by someone who apparently does not know what constitutes an appropriate philosophical question. The other difference involves the "official" SCP response to the Swinburne talk. Michael Rea (Notre Dame), the President of SCP, made the following public statement in the wake of attention being called to the Swinburne talk:
I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As Preisdent of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.
Like the SAF conference organizers, Prof. Rea rebukes the speaker to the extent of feeling the need to apologize for the effects of the talk (both statements apologize for "hurt"). Unlike the SAF conference organizers, Prof. Rea at least does not pronounce "what was said" to be "wrong" and verboten "for a Christian conference," which would, for the reasons noted by Prof. Swoyer, be a difficult position to defend in this "setting." Prof. Rea's response would have been better had it just consisted in the statement that "The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse." If he'd left it at that, this would not be notable at all.
The comical sanctimony of certain segments of the philosophy "profession" is a regular topic of conversation and head-shaking among adults, but the insulting treatment of philosopher Tommie Shelby (Harvard) after his keynote at the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism (SAF) sets a new low. Justin Weinberg (South Carolina), who always has his finger on the racing pulse of the hyper-sensitive, offers this account:
At the SAF, some members of the audience found the keynote talk by Tommie Shelby (Harvard), drawn from his forthcoming book Dark Ghettos, highly objectionable. My understanding (which may not be entirely accurate) is that the controversy concerned some remarks in the talk about procreative ethics, how (as he puts it in an earlier article), “basic duties are not suspended or void because one is oppressed,” and whether what he said was disrespectful to poor, black women. Some attendees apparently thought that an apology was in order, perhaps from the organizers. (UPDATE: two days after the SAF conference ended, its organizers sent an email to the participants issuing an apology, and requesting feedback from them regarding the event and future conferences.) (UPDATE 2: further details regarding Shelby’s talk can be found in the comment below from “a poor black woman who was there.”)
I suppose Professor Shelby (and everyone else) has learned an important lesson here, namely, that the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism is not really a philosophical conference, but one in which failure of ideological purity (which is marked by giving "offense"--heavens!) is verboten and results in an "official" repudiation by the organization.
Again, if we were dealing with professionals--it appears we are not--then we would expect SAF to issue an apology to Prof. Shelby for this shameful treatment at what was supposed to be a philosophical event. (I should add that the sins of SAF should not be visited on those who work in feminist philosophy, though there is, of course, some overlap in the two groups. But I guess if I were a job candidate, I would get SAF off my CV, lest the sins of the SAF organizers be visited on the innocent.)
UPDATE: Philosopher Kate Norlock (Trent) tells me that Professor Weinberg's account is not accurate, and therefore the inferences I have drawn from it are not warranted. She writes:
Tommie Shelby spoke to an attentive and quiet audience without interruption.the question-and-answer period afterward involved many members of the audience providing substantial and critical comments and questions to him. I can attest, since I was there, that their objections were not to the notion that the oppressed can have moral duties.
Interestingly, one of the more unfortunate moments in the discussion period was a moment when Shelby attempted to deflect a robust criticism with the comment that he was "just doing philosophy." Since the unfortunate implication of this ill-chosen deflection is that his questioner may not be trying to do the same, I found myself asserting, as I closed the event, that I appreciated the extent to which we all, including our keynote speaker, remained engaged and did philosophy together. It is therefore disappointing to read your statement that "the meeting of the Society for Analytic Feminism is not really a philosophical conference."
Presentations at our conference included the works of philosophers from 30 different states and 3 countries. I provide you the link to our program so that you may be better informed as to the philosophical content of our conference:
I know you care about truth and fact more than your post indicates. I believe that you wish to be accurate and right. Your post about SAF is neither. It is not reflective of actualities and instead seems to merely echo Justin Weinberg's likewise uninformed post at Daily Nous. Your recommendation that my organization should not appear on a philosopher's CV may be well-intended but is predicated on misunderstanding on your part.
Last, please provide me with any proof that I or my organization officially repudiated Tommie Shelby or owes him an apology. Proof should include more than your repetition of Justin Weinberg's gossip. That the blogs cite each other does not constitute proof. Again, I know that you know this, or would ordinarily know this.
I appreciate the additional detail, but I am, I confess, still puzzled. I am surprised that Prof. Weinberg's posting would remain uncorrected on these points after more than a day and despite dozens of comments including from members of SAF. (UPDATE: Prof. Weinberg's post was updated to reflect this point after I posted this.) I have asked Prof. Norlock for the apology e-mail organizers allegedly sent to members; Prof. Norlock's message to me was silent on tHis. When I have more information, I will post more.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Another SAF meeting attendee has forwarded me the e-mail sent out by the organizers, which confirms the crucial part of Prof. Weinberg's original account:
We write to all participants in the SAF 2016 conference so that those of us not on Facebook or social media have the same access to our acknowledgement of the harms some participants have already identified, and opportunities to participate in addressing them.
In planning this conference, we wanted to create a safe and nurturing space for feminist philosophers and feminist philosophies. We recognize that this was not the case for everyone present, and for that we apologize. In particular, we apologize for the effects of the Saturday keynote address [by Prof. Shelby] and for our failure to do more about a situation in which SAF members felt personally and collectively hurt. When members identify effects including the erasure of Black women’s bodies and words, then we have to do better. What was said was wrong, and inappropriate at a feminist conference, and we take responsibility for our roles in the events that took place.
What matters in the narcissistic world of late capitalism is not what you think or do but how you feel. And since how you feel can’t be argued against, it is conveniently insulated from all debate. Men and women can now stroll around in continuous self-monitoring mode, using apps to track their changes of mood. The brutal, domineering ego of an older style of capitalism has given way to the tender self-obsession of the new....
What Davies recognises is that capitalism has now in a sense incorporated its own critique. What the system used to regard with suspicion – feeling, friendship, creativity, moral responsibility – have all now been co-opted for the purpose of maximising profits. One commentator has even argued the case for giving products away free, so as to form a closer bond with the customer. Some employers have taken to representing pay increases they give to their staff as a gift, in the hope of extracting gratitude and thus greater effort from them. It seems that there is nothing that can’t be instrumentalised....
Happiness for the market researchers and corporate psychologists is a matter of feeling good. But it seems that millions of individuals don’t feel good at all, and are unlikely to be persuaded to buck up by technologies of mind control that induce them to work harder or consume more. You can’t really be happy if you are a victim of injustice or exploitation, which is what the technologists of joy tend to overlook. This is why, when Aristotle speaks of a science of well-being, he gives it the name of politics. The point is of little interest to the neuroscientists, advertising gurus or mindfulness mongers, which is why so much of their work is spectacularly beside the point.
(Thanks to Michael Swanson for the pointer.)
A philosophy graduate student elsewhere calls my attention to this interesting lecture by the writer Lionel Shriver; an excerpt:
Let’s start with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, which—the horror— numerous partygoers wore.
When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the “culprits” threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Partygoers were placed on “social probation,” while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoin’s student newspaper decried the attendees’ lack of “basic empathy.”
The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of colour, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favour hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”
Curiously, across my country Mexican restaurants, often owned and run by Mexicans, are festooned with sombreros – if perhaps not for long. At the UK’s University of East Anglia, the student union has banned a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros, deemed once more an act of “cultural appropriation” that was also racist.
Now, I am a little at a loss to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero – a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the souvenir to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.
The ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.
But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.
(1) Over the last year, the gender breakdown of academics criticized on this blog was nearly 75% male, about 25% female. This fact (which is what it is) won't stop, however, some benighted souls from asserting otherwise. Why? Group polarization: when some malevolent dope says on Facebook that I criticize more women than men, other malevolent dopes concur, thus reinforcing the false belief.
(2) Those who make the most outrageous assertions about me, including contradicting the facts in #1, are, it turns out, overwhelmingly from religious Christian backgrounds, especially Catholic and various Southern Protestant denominations. This is true of the most extreme cases, as well as the more run-of-the-mill casual defamers. I hadn't really registered this until a reader pointed it out, and some checking confirmed many cases. I'm not sure what to make of this fact; possibilities are (a) they are already ill-disposed towards me because of my critical comments about religion; (b) they're (explicit or implicit) anti-semites; (c) they are simply timid and fearful people, perhaps drawn to their religion because of that, but in any case easily frightened by pugnacious criticism directed at anyone. Of course, all of this may simply be an accidental correlation: the numbers are small (a dozen or so diehard obsessives) and of course most philosophers with Christian upbringings do not engage in the ugly distortions and casual defamation characteristic of my special small "anti-fan" club.
...and so has little to do with the experiences of the vast majority of students in higher education in the U.S.
In The New Yorker; it really sounds like an unhappy and dysfunctional environment. What a shame for what used to be a major liberal arts college in the Midwest.
On Facebook, I've got, broadly speaking, three "kinds" of friends: academic lawyers, academic philosophers, and regular people (the latter category including some lawyers, relatives, neighbors etc.). The FB habits of these three groups are strikingly different.
Regular people use FB the way I thought it was supposed to be used (and the reason I joined): to post photos of kids and pets, recent vacations, occasionally a bit of personal or professional news. Academic philosophers do a little of that, and so do academic lawyers, but for most of them, that's only a small portion of their posting.
Academic philosophers increasingly treat FB like a blog, a forum for pontification about everything from real politics to academic politics. Until I realized I could "unfollow" people without "unfriending" them, I dumped a fair number of academic philosophers because their pontifications were so tiresome. My advice: get a blog! Anyone who wants to read me pontificating, can come here, but I don't impose it on my FB friends.
Academic lawyers do a fair bit of pontificating too, though not nearly as much as the academic philosophers, and theirs is almost always confined to real politics. The really revolting aspect of some academic philosopher behavior on FB is its "high school with tenure" quality: back-stabbing, preening and posturing, endless displays of righteousness and "pearl clutching", faux solidarity with all the oppressed and "wretched of the academy" (less often the actual wretched of the earth), and so on. An awful lot of academic philosophers on FB come across as teenagers desperately seeking approval and affirmation. I've managed to "unfriend" most of the offenders, but it was really a kind of depressing and sickening spectacle while it lasted.
Jason Brennan (Georgetown) on his experience replying to critics (most recently, of his views about the adjunct problem):
The philosophy blogosphere has quite a few people, writing anonymously, who write nasty, angry, and dishonest invective against others, but then faint and cry if anyone says anything back to them in response, even if the responses are moderate.
In my interview with Clifford Sosis awhile back, I observed regarding the illiberal culture in parts of philosophy cyberspace that:
I have no crystal ball, so I can’t tell you whether there will be...a return to the core values of robust expression and debate which are essential for academic life, as even Herbert Marcuse realized in his famous polemic against “Repressive Tolerance.” There is some portion of the younger generation of professional philosophers (grad students and assistant professors) who consistently have the wrong views on these questions. They may well take over the discipline, that I cannot predict. It’s ironic, because other humanities fields, like English, went through this totalitarian catastrophe in the 1980s while philosophy remained a paragon of wissenschaftlich seriousness. The real threats to philosophy as a profession do not come, of course, primarily from benighted youngsters who are victims of group polarization; they come from institutional and economic forces that are basically indifferent to intellectual merit. That’s the real battle that needs to be fought, though I fear we academics are not well-equipped to fight it.
Over at the latest incarnation of a metablog, there is a quite interesting commentary on this issue from someone with experience in both academic English and academic philosophy:
I am an English PhD with an MA in Philosophy from a top-twenty program, and I am struck and puzzled by what seems to be Philosophy’s repetition of the politicized “theory wars” of the 80s-90s. What is going on here? On the basis of pure anecdote and observation, I suspect in part the following:
1. External economic pressures that first hit English in a big way then also started to hit Philosophy in a big way.
2. Specialization exhaustion set in first in English, and now has also become steadily more pervasive in Philosophy.
3. Points 1 and 2 are not unrelated.
4. The new approaches of “feminist philosophy” and the like respond to points 1 and 2 by inventing a new and uncharted territory in response to specialization exhaustion; this new approach must first be justified politically and morally in order then to make itself intellectually fashionable, hence awarded, hence self-perpetuating.
5. The academic context in which this is now occurring is even more administratively heavy than it was three decades ago. Hence the moral and political necessity of the new approaches will also require more direct appeals to top-down administrative intervention than was necessary in English.
6. In both cases, the proponents of the new approaches are basically of two sorts: those already powerful and those not already powerful. The motivations of each group vary, but there is an observable tendency of the first to appeal to morality and justice (they can afford to do so) and of the second to appeal to intellectual novelty and smartness. The second group want to be admitted into the world of the first; the first group wants to pretend that they are not only more intelligent, but also more humane than their elite opponents, with whom they have their fiercest battles.
7. If one or two major Departments are won over to the new approach, the discipline can change very quickly indeed.
8. Thirty years later you’ll realize that the intrinsic conservatism of your discipline, the false certainty of its historical and conceptual divisions, “areas”, and so on, really did need an overhaul. Unfortunately, by then you might have forgotten some of best and most important insights and practices of your discipline prior to the Revolution. In the way that I am an outlier in my generation of English professors for having a pretty thorough knowledge of the Bible, and a bit of Latin and Greek, perhaps some decades hence some young maverick grad student in Philosophy will stand out for her interest in Frege and Quine, her unaccountable fascination with modal and second-order logic, her bizarre affinity for Chisholm.
(A brief aside about the metablog: like all anonymous fora, the metablogs have been a mixed bag: a mix of the stupid, the defamatory, and the obsessed, along with the insightful, the amusing, and the illuminatingly contrarian. The metablogs thrive because of the culture of fear and hostility cultivated by a small handful of philosophy academics active on social media. But if one can wade through the morass, as I periodically do, there are often genuinely interesting contributions. UPDATE: I've removed the link, since elsewhere on the thread, unrelated to what I had linked to, there is a lot of crap, even by metablog standards of "crap." I do wish the owner of the metablog would do a little moderation, stuff is appearing there that will lead to legal action.)
I find some of this plausible, some implausible, most of it intriguing. I wonder what readers make of this. I'd certainly welcome hearing from academics in English as well as Philosophy, and those in other fields that have gone through similar periods of transformation and controversy. Anonymous comments are fine, but please include a valid e-mail address (which will not appear) and choose a stable pseudonym so other commenters can target their responses accordingly.
Last month's fake controversy du jour--complete with false accusations and selective presentation of evidence ("Lebron-gate" for short)--included an appearance of the weirdest trope to infect philosophy cyberspace over the last couple of years, a variation on "think of the children!" This is the idea that criticizing a graduate student (even if you didn't intend to, and even if you didn't use his name!) is a line that can not be crossed in the minds of some putatively "professional" philosophers. One aspect of this I find puzzling is that in academic law and its associated social media, no such norm is recognized by anyone (I realize it's not recognized by most philosophers either, but the question is why philosophy social media behaves so differently). So, for example, right-wing law professor David Bernstein (George Mason)--an always reliable apologist for Israeli crimes and punishment of anti-Israeli speech--here chastises by name a law student at the University of Texas at Austin who disrupted a speech by an Israeli. (As a sidenote, I think universities should prevent these kinds of disruptions, and not just of Israelis.) Academic law blogs did not erupt in horror (real or feigned) that Prof. Bernstein had criticized a "mere" student. And Bernstein did this on a much bigger platform, a blog nominally hosted by the Washington Post.
Maybe academic philosophy is just more of a hotbed of New Infantilism and faux-sensitivity than academic law? That's probably true, but I think there are some other factors at work; in no particular order:
(1) There is no culture among law students of feeling "vulnerable" and in need of "protection," whereas there clearly is in philosophy cyberspace (recall the bizarre letter from some Harvard PhD students regarding the Marquette case).
(2) There is more respect for free speech norms among law students and professors than among philosophers; this is not surprising, given the strong libertarian tendencies of American free speech law. As a result, there is more skepticism about the idea that certain topics can't be broached (and especially when it is something as odd as "not criticizing a student").
A survey of literature and arts faculties found that,
Although fewer than 1% of survey participants reported that their institution had adopted a policy on trigger warnings, 7.5% reported that students had initiated efforts to require trigger warnings on campus, twice as many (15%) reported that students had requested warnings in their courses, and 12% reported that students had complained about the absence of trigger warnings. Despite a media narrative of "political correctness," student requests concerned a diverse range of subjects from across the ideological spectrum.
There's additional details at the link, above.
From a new paper by psychologist Nick Haslam (Melbourne):
[M]any concepts that refer to the negative aspects of human experience and behavior have expanded their meanings. These concepts increasingly extend outward to capture qualitatively new phenomena (‘horizontal’ expansion) and downward to capture quantitatively less extreme phenomena (‘vertical’ expansion). I illustrate these forms of semantic creep by reviewing changes in the concepts of abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, and prejudice over recent decades. In each case, the concept’s boundary has stretched and its meaning has dilated. I argue that this pattern of ‘concept creep’ reflects a dominant moral agenda within social, developmental, and clinical psychology, involving an escalating sensitivity to harm.
Hmm, this sounds familiar, doesn't it? Haslam further explains the two kinds of "expansion" as follows:
The first, ‘vertical expansion,’ occurs when a concept’s meaning becomes less stringently defined, so that it encompasses quantitatively milder variants of the phenomenon to which it originally referred. For example, the concept of obesity would have undergone vertical expansion if the critical body mass index threshold was lowered, thereby swelling the number of people defined as obese. The second form, which I call ‘horizontal expansion’, occurs when a concept extends to a qualitatively new class of phenomena, including application to a new semantic context. For example, the concept of ‘refugee’ has expanded to include people displaced by environmental catastrophe, whereas it originally referred only to those displaced by conflict.
...but putting an appropriate and discerning spin on the "infant" aspect:
Many observers of the student protests of the nineteen-sixties noted those movements’ Oedipal aspects. That generation of student activists was seen as killing the father (figuratively) in their organized political resistance to university faculty and administration, and, more broadly, to war and oppression. Today’s student protesters are certainly directing anger at faculty and administrators, but this time the parental dynamic is notably different.
Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students’ social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they’re deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them. The world in which it’s not bizarre for a young person to rebuke someone for failing to “create a place of comfort and home,” or to yell, “Be quiet … You’re disgusting!,” and storm away, is the world of family, where a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent. The online scorn heaped on the student who was filmed behaving this way represents an unproductive refusal to compassionately translate her behavior across the generational divide. In a piece called “Hurt at Home,” another Yale student wrote, “I feel my home is being threatened,” and contrasted her comforting relationship with her father to the care she felt students emphatically did not receive from the master of Silliman College. Yale tells its students that the residential college is their “home away from home,” but this generation might be the first to insist so literally on that idea.
I've noted some related aspects of this phenomenon, but Prof. Suk puts it quite well. (And note these caveats about the "infantilism" label.) The neediness of these students is quite real, and it's not clear universities are going to be able to meet all those needs in ways consistent with the ideals of freedom that make intellectual life possible.
(Professor Suk, some will recall, was an early entry into these discussions, recounting the difficulties she was encountering teaching rape in criminal law.)
Philosopher Lionel McPherson (Tufts) writes with an interesting perspective on the recent debate about events at Yale:
I wanted to call (or recall) your attention to this:
"Then he left to walk back to his dorm room. He says he saw an officer 'jogging' toward the entrance of another building across the grounds from the building he’d just left.
'I did not pay him any mind, and continued to walk back towards my room. I looked behind me, and noticed that the police officer was following me. He spoke into his shoulder-mounted radio and said, "I got him."’
'I faced forward again, presuming that the officer was not talking to me. I then heard him say, "Hey, turn around!" — which I did.
'The officer raised his gun at me, and told me to get on the ground.
'At this point, I stopped looking directly at the officer, and looked down towards the pavement. I dropped to my knees first, with my hands raised, then laid down on my stomach.'
"...Now, don’t get me wrong: If indeed my son matched the description of a suspect, I would have had no problem with him being questioned appropriately.... The stop is not the problem; the method of the stop is the problem.
"Why was a gun drawn first? Why was he not immediately told why he was being detained? Why not ask for ID first?"
[end of excerpt from piece by Times columnist]
You write, "Manne and Stanley go so far as to write that the racism that exists at Yale 'is not the sort of racism that is generally considered newsworthy...There are no black bodies on the pavement to focus on. The violence being done is subtler...' It's so subtle, in fact, that it's not clear how it constitutes 'violence' at all."
But there were black bodies "on the pavement" at Yale recently--Charles Blow's son, at least. Manne and Stanley are mistaken on that front (and I find it somewhat disturbing that they would miss or ignore a recent incident of this kind). Their strong claim, then, about the "subtle" violence being done is also mistaken. Being ordered to the ground at gunpoint, I would think, clearly does constitute violence. The incident involving Blow's son helps to provide a fuller sense of the "racial climate" at Yale, among other PWIs.
(As an undergrad, I was stopped at Princeton and asked to produce ID when walking to the library while Black. A few years ago, as a professor, I was asked to produce ID when working in my office at night, with music playing at moderate volume, while Black. I wouldn't call these campus police encounters violent, since I wasn't ordered to the ground, nor was a gun drawn. I would call them hostile and not "subtle.")
My own view is that it's generally a mistake to look at what's been going on with black (and brown) students on college campuses, post Ferguson, through a skeptical wide lens on "identity politics," "the new infantilism," "trigger warnings," and the like.
I find myself in agreement with almost everything Prof. McPherson says. Racial stereotyping by police (and disproportionately ominous behavior by the police in connection with that [e.g., drawing a firearm!], even when it stops short of killing people) is wrongful and harmful behavior, and to the extent police harassment of students of color at Yale played a role in recent events, that is an important fact that has not, so far, figured in the public descriptions. Unlike so-called "micro-aggressions" (what I had in mind as an example of "subtle violence") police conduct is subject to meaningful regulation and disciplinary oversight, and with no cost to any other academic values. (Police misconduct is sufficiently serious that even if there were costs to academic values, that's a cost universities ought to bear.)
I also agree with Prof. McPherson's last paragraph, with one small caveat: the phenomena I've lumped under the heading of "the new infantilism" are various, but what they have in common is the idea that certain kinds of lawful speech are verboten lest it cause hurt or offense. I would not class complaints about racist abuse and threats in Missouri, or police misconduct as described by Charles Blow and Prof. McPherson, in that category: to be free of that kind of treatment is required by the rule of law and a commitment to equal citizenship regardless of race. My own view (shared, I'm reasonably confident, by Prof. McPherson) is that a residential college named after an apologist for chattel slavery is also an embarrassment for a university and an affront to its students--not an act of "violence," subtle or otherwise, but a wrong that should be remedied. What I call the New Infantilism is largely a phenomenon at "elite" universities, and is primarily, I suspect, an artifact of class (see for example). I do not have the impression that this phenomenon is limited to white students, but I believe Prof. McPherson is correct that it's probably mistaken to look at recent events, even at Yale, through that lens. (The mindless "identity politics" I've criticized is manifested by those [usually posturing faculty] who purport to speak for the students, and usually on social media. I agree "trigger warnings" are also irrelevant, but still a bad idea for a reason I gave long ago.)
My thanks to Prof. McPherson (whom I've never met, alas, but have been fortunate to correspond with for many years) for this contribution.
Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade as a dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of taking care of themselves.
At the same time, parents were becoming more and more involved in their children's lives. They talked to their children multiple times a day and swooped in to personally intervene anytime something difficult happened.
From her position at one of the world's most prestigious schools, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children by trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment and failure and hardship.
Such "overhelping" might assist children in developing impressive resumes for college admission. But it also robs them of the chance to learn who they are, what they love and how to navigate the world, Lythcott-Haims argues in her book "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success."
"We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm," she writes. "It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life."
Kate Manne (Cornell) and Jason Stanley (Yale) have a piece purportedly on recent events at Yale here. (Some if it invokes some of Jason's ideas about propaganda, discussed here. I won't rehash any of the criticisms made in that review, though it does seem to me this is another case of treating everything as a nail because you have a hammer.) I find it a disappointing and misleading intervention (and I've heard similar comments from other philosophers), and for the sake of the reputation of our discipline, I would urge philosophers to write letters to the editor; feel free to make any of the points, below.
The trouble comes early, when Manne and Stanley write:
More worryingly still, [the students] are held to be attacking freedom of speech rather than exercising it to call for institutional reform....
Rather obviously, they can be, and were, doing both. In spitting on speakers, petitioning for the removal of people from their jobs because of their speech, and heaping vulgar abuse in public on a faculty member in order to shut him down, they are trying to suppress and punish speech. Why pretend otherwise? At the same time, some students (maybe some of the same ones!) were speaking on behalf of institutional reforms. Perhaps someone, somewhere has called for shutting down that lawful speech; if so, they are mistaken too.
There was a funny, if over-the-top piece by a Harvard Law Student, denouncing the "fascist" techniques of some of the students at Yale. The word "fascist" is being abused here: the "fascist" response doesn't involve spitting or cursing, it involves breaking people's head open with bats. But put the hyperbole aside, the author correctly identifies the misconduct at issue (substitute "behavior incompatible with the functions of a university" for "fascist," and "speech compatible with the functions of a university" for "not fascist" and you'll get the point):
|Tactic||Fascist or Not Fascist?||Explanation|
|Blocking people you disagree with on Facebook||Not Fascist||Maybe a bad idea, but you’re not actively transgressing on another person’s right to speech.|
|Calling for people to be fired for expressing their beliefs||Fascist||You are (1) calling for reprisals (2) for people expressing what they believe.|
|Organizing a protest against an editorial you disagree with||Not Fascist||You are condemning a belief you disagree with, but not trying to punish the speaker for saying it.|
|Calling to defund a newspaper for publishing an editorial you disagree with||Fascist||You are (1) calling for reprisals (2) for people expressing themselves.|
|Putting up fliers demeaning people that disagree with you||Not Fascist||Using an ad hominem attack is silly and hurtful, but does not use positions of authority to punish free speech.|
|Spitting on people attending a meeting you disagree with||Fascist||You are (1) committing a crime against someone (2) because they exercised their free speech.|
|Calling for a University to change its seal||Not Fascist||You are not punishing anyone for their beliefs. Not fascist in the slightest!|
|Tearing down fliers that you disagree with||Fascist||You are (1) committing a crime against someone’s property (2) because they exercised their free speech.|
|Condemning people for wearing offensive Halloween costumes on Facebook||Not Fascist||You are expressing indignation at someone else’s choices, but not calling for them to be punished because of their expression.|
|Calling for students to be expelled for wearing offensive Halloween costumes||Fascist||You are (1) calling for reprisals (2) for people expressing themselves (even if in a hurtful, offensive way).|
Manne and Stanley simply obscure what is at issue, not once acknowledging that calling for people to be fired for their expression, or spitting on them, or heaping vulgar abuse on them to shut them up are not behaviors compatible with a functioning university environment--as little as racist abuse and racial discrimination are. But the key difference, of course, is that no one is rationalizing or justifying the latter, whereas lots of people--even philosophers!--are rationalizing the former.
Manne and Stanley repeatedly obliterate the pertinent distinctions throughout their essay, setting up their opponent as a strawman. For example:
Following Christakis’s email, protests erupted among students of color and their supporters. Their political activity has since been written off by many commentators as a silly tantrum thrown in response to a one-off email, rather than a reaction to chronic, structural racial injustice — such as the persistent paucity of black faculty members and administrators at Yale, the common experience of being the only black student in some classes, and being disproportionately likely to be stopped and asked for ID — or worse — by campus police officers, as students have movingly testified. An article in the National Review went so far as to call these students of color "defective people from defective families" — an eyebrow-raising choice of language.
Students responded to Christakis's odd e-mail (see the careful discussion of its actual content here) by calling for her to be fired. When her husband defended her, they called for him to be fired, leading to the now notorious mob scene. This is what is objectionable: that students respond to ordinary speech and a defense of free speech with calls for sanction and vulgar abuse by a mob intent on intimidating the speaker. (Manne and Stanley even manage to misrepresent the absurd National Review piece [a tantrum in its own right]: the "defective families" being criticized have nothing to do with race, rather the author is explicitly attacking "a certain strain of upper-middle-class American culture that cultivates an excess of self-importance that grows cancerous when it isn’t counteracted by a deep understanding that the world is full of things that are much more important than you are...That American striver culture has many invaluable aspects...but in the absence of transcendent values it turns everybody into a miniature Donald Trump.")
This whitewash of the objectionable behavior pervades the Manne & Stanley piece. Describing the reaction to the Associate Master's e-mail opposing the campus-wide e-mail about Halloween, they write: "the students then opposed her opposition--alleging that she ought not to have spoken as she did, given her position as associate master of Silliman College. And many pundits have, in turn, opposed their opposition--holding that the students ought not to be protesting thus..." But the alleged "symmetries" here are fabrications by Manne and Stanley: the students didn't simply criticize or "oppose" the Associate Master, they launched a petition to have her fired; when her husband came to her defense, they added him to the list of people who needed to be sanctioned for their speech. When the husband tried to talk with the students, he was shouted down and subjected to vulgar abuse. That is what sane people are objecting to: some students are behaving horribly and utterly differently than those they are criticizing.
It's true that sometimes "sounding reasonable can be a luxury," but not at a university: it's how the whole place works. And, contrary to Manne and Stanley, it's quite clear the student concerns, despite the absurd misconduct by some, have been met with a "receptive, even sympathetic audience" (contrary to Manne and Stanley's suggestion that the students could not presume such an audience). Witness not only the Master's forced apology, but now this interview with Yale's Dean of the College (who does, tactfully, note towards the end that today's students are less "resilient"). Ivy League students, including students of color, enjoy unprecedented attention and solicitude. (You'll notice there's not even been any talk of disciplinary action against any of the students engaged in the documented misconduct.) Manne and Stanley go so far as to write that the racism that exists at Yale "is not the sort of racism that is generally considered newsworthy...There are no black bodies on the pavement to focus on. The violence being done is subtler..." It's so subtle, in fact, that it's not clear how it constitutes "violence" at all. Racially tinged rudeness and insensitivity (e.g., so-called "microaggressions") is not the same as murder or beatings: why cheapen the coin of racist "violence" by abusing the language this way? Thank God there are no bodies on the pavement at Yale.
Yale students have legitimate grievances (e.g., the scandal of a college named for an apologist for chattel slavery!). And it's sometimes true that (as Manne and Stanley write) the "notion of freedom of speech is...co-opted by dominant social groups, distorted to serve their interests, and used to silence those who are oppressed and marginalized." But it is an irrelevant point when, in fact, some of the Yale students are trying to suppress the kind of free speech that is part of academic life, and through tactics--calls for firings, spitting, shouting down by a mob--that would spell its end.
It is true that "the protesting Yale undergraduates have become pawns in the culture wars," but it is false that it is a mere "myth" that some of them pose "threats to freedom of speech": they obviously do in the ways noted. Why can't Manne and Stanley acknowledge that? It's mystifying.
ADDENDUM: Several readers point out that Manne and Stanley also, falsely, state that "hate speech" is an exception to the constitutional protection for speech, along with 'fighting words" and slander. Although this mistake is perhaps telling, it's also largely irrelevant to what is so wrong-headed with the argument in this piece. The Constitution does not constrain Yale, and it's constraint on public universities is tempered by Pickering and progency, as we discussed in the context of the Salaita case.
UPDATE: For those interested in reactions to the preceding, see here.
This is really pathetic. Note that a student organizer of the protest acknowledges (with chagrin, at least) that this happened.
(Thanks to Philippe Lemoine for the pointer.)
It examines the e-mail and the reaction (including the petition) in some detail. The author notes:
Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.
There's a lengthy account here along with three videos; the third is the most shocking. The student behaving that way should be subject to disciplinary proceedings for her abusive misconduct. The student reader who sent this to me asked not to be named (for fear of repercussions given how nuts philosophy cyberspace is), but offered the following apt commentary:
Note the typical absolutist rhetoric of "acknowledging hurt". One must simply answer the question and acknowledge that one had bad thoughts that need to be corrected. Red Herrings are offered in order to rule out the possibility that there is nothing that needs to be apologized for: "We're not saying that you're intrinsically bad for having the bad thoughts. We just want to help correct you. Even if it wasn't your intent, you still caused hurt and need to apologize." The ideology simply does not provide room in logical space for the possibility that the student was being over-sensitive. The real crux of the discussion occurs about 30 seconds into the third clip. It is the precise moment when Christakis says "I don't agree, I have a different vision than you" that the student explodes in rage. Note also how Christakis has been encircled by a couple dozen students shouting him down and demanding his resignation for not providing them a safe space. No doubt the irony is lost on them.
This account sums things up. What an embarrassment for Yale.
According to the Philosophy Metablog, philosopher Aidan McGlynn (Edinburgh) could not let the embarrassing reaction to a link to Les Green's piece on Greer earlier this week rest. Please note that what Dr. McGlynn referred to as a "problematic" and "offensive" article is this perfectly sensible and informed analysis of the sense in which gender is a social construct and its bearing on the question whether or not transgender women are women. The thought crime at issue was Justin Weinberg's linking to one small part of this essay by the Professor of the Philosophy of Law at Oxford University (who, as informed readers will know, has written quite a lot of important work about sexuality and gender). Here's McGlynn (in part):
I’m still disappointed with [Justin Weinberg]. The twitter post that created the fuss is still up, days after people pointed out how problematic it is, and Justin’s preferred tactic seems to be to ignore many of the people raising concerns (particularly Rachel)....First, some people don’t see anything wrong with linking to a problematic or offensive article so long as it’s made clear which bits one is cherry-picking. I don’t agree, and I don’t agree that it was clear in this instance....This discussion has nothing to do with ‘thought-policing’ (though in fairness, to my knowledge only one person has suggested otherwise). We’re not talking about Justin’s thoughts – we’re talking about what’s on the twitter feed associated with one of the places members of the profession need to go to for information and discussion concerning issues about the profession. Moreover, this is clearly how Justin took my remarks – he explicitly responded in terms of what he thought appropriate to take a stand on with the twitter feed associated with the Daily Nous [blog]. No one should expect Leiter to care about that distinction, of course....
It's fair to say I don't "care about" an irrelevant distinction, but put that aside. This finger-wagging produced a number of rude and sometimes quite apt rebukes at the Metablog, of which this one made me laugh:
The vocabulary is one of the main things I just can't stand: 'I'm still disappointed... deeply problematic...' Don't these people realize they sound like passive-aggressive schoolteachers, as reimagined by your worst nightmare? I actually prefer McKinnon's style to this, and that's really saying something.
And then there's the suggestion that it doesn't count as 'thought-policing' unless it involves the metaphysically impossible feat of actually policing people's thoughts. Does McGlynn seriously doubt that, if the relevant people could do that (whatever that would amount to), they would?
But the best was this gem, which is worth reposting and linking to anytime these "pathologically self-righteous...fundamentalists" start their sermons:
The vocab is hard to keep up with. Should we start a running glossary?
"Problematic": adj. (of arguments) false; (of pratices) must be banned; (of utterances) must be retracted and apologised for; (of tweets) must be deleted;
"Free speech": n. a problematic concept [see above]
"Censorship": n. the alleged suppression of problematic ideas, a largely mythical practice. [compare "silence"]
"Silence": v. (1) to ignore, not talk about. (2) to disagree with (3) to discuss a marginalized individual [see below] in terms they would prefer not to be discussed
"erase": v. synonym for silence
"identity": n. an (esp. marginalised) individual's conception of themself. NB all other definitions, such as those which have been explored by philosophers over the past two millennia, are problematic [see above]
"offense" - n. something nobody ever complained about [compare "harm"]
"harm" - the inevitable consequence of erasing [see above] an individuals identity [see above]
"listen" - (to a marginalised individual), agree with, show deference to,
"bully" - v. synonym for erase
"expert" - n. a marginalised person
"educate" - v. to inform a non-marginalised person of the correct opinion
"safe space" - one in which no identity is erased. Unsafe spaces are problematic [see above].
When I asked Dr. McGlynn via e-mail whether he had written the piece in question, he acknowledged doing so, but added, "I have been reflecting on this, and I have subsequently decided that I should not have written it. Therefore having initially edited it, I have taken down the entire post from my facebook page. Please accept my apologies." I am happy to accept his apology, though I don't feel he owes me one. I worry, alas, that the views expressed are consistent with the views he has expressed elsewhere, and are indicative of how some (hopefully small) portion of the profession thinks about these issues. Since this way of thinking is anathema to academic life, it's time for those who believe in freedom of thought and discourse to object, and object strenuously.
Meanwhile, Rachel McKinnon (Charleston) continues her twitter tirade against Justin Weinberg* (South Carolina), whom she apparently believed to be an "ally." (Her idea of an "ally" seems to be what everyone else would probably call "a spineless toady.") In any case, I will let Prof. McKinnon speak for herself:
Les Green (Oxford) has an illuminating discussion of the tempest in a teapot du jour; a taste:
Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept. Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.
But gender has another interesting feature. It is path dependent. To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present. In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways. That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who use to have one and then cut it off.
The whole piece is worth reading.
Ironically, in the last paragraph, Green writes,
Greer’s remarks are correct and are neither dangerous nor hateful. The number of critics of students who supposedly want to ‘no-platform’ speakers dwarfs the number of students who want to ‘no-platform‘ anyone. Maybe the transgender tsunami hit the press, not because of some seismic event in our universities, but because commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.
The second sentence, alas, is unduly hopeful. Nearly 3,000 people signed the petition to cancel Greer's talk, and incidents like this are cropping up all over the U.K. and the U.S. In the U.K., there are certainly other more serious (government) threats to free speech, but that is neither here nor there: at least those threats are recognized, usually, as wrongful, while the "I'm offended" crowd thinks their authoritarian preoccupation with controlling thought and speech puts them on the moral high ground.
As if to make the point how wrong Green is in that last paragraph, note the reaction when one tweeter, Justin Weinberg (South Carolina), quoted only the bit from the last paragraph, ignoring the actual substance of Green's essay. He was denounced quickly and furiously by those purportedly rare "no-platform" folks. Aidan McGlynn (Edinburgh) demands clarification whether Weinberg is endorsing the actual content of the piece. Toby Meadows (Aberdeen) worries that Weinberg is making a "broad endorsement" of the whole piece. Weinberg then tries desperately to deny that he has committed a thought crime: "I was clear in response to Aidan what exactly in Green’s post I was endorsing." And then from Rachel McKinnon (Charleston) there's this: "You're endorsing a post that *agrees* with Greer's transphobic view of trans women. How do you not see that?" And also this:
@DailyNousEditor So if I say "The sky is blue" in a post on "The Nazis were right about the Jews," you'd endorse my post? Seriously?
@rachelvmckinnon Hi. I’ve been on a plane. Can’t engage now but look forward to learning more about this from you soon.
Which produces the following from McKinnon:
I'm not optimistic either, given that these people may be the future of the "profession." In any case, Green's nuanced discussion is worth reading.
UPDATE: It's good to see that Prof. McKinnon has learned from this episode that throwing a tantrum because someone committed a thought crime (or, in this case, a link crime!) and trying to bully them into submission on Twitter is not the right way to behave. Or maybe she didn't?
Argh, I'm too busy writing my second book and 4 new articles to deal with this distraction. Fuck y'all. I'm going back to work.0 retweets 5 favorites
ADDENDUM: Even the metablog is feeling sorry for Weinberg! (For those not familiar, the irony is that Weinberg has repeatedly championed violations of academic freedom and punishment of lawful speech in the name of sensitivity to the children.)
Here. The idea that anything Greer said is "hate speech" is preposterous, but also shows how dangerous that category can be in the hands of zealots.
The response to Greer and her alleged transphobia is just one example of a creeping trend among social justice activists of an identitarian persuasion: a tendency towards ideological totalism, the attempt to determine not only what policies and actions are acceptable, but what thoughts and beliefs are, too. Contemporary identity-based social justice activism is increasingly displaying the kinds of totalising and authoritarian tactics that we usually associate with cults or quasi-religious movements which aim to control the thoughts and inner lives of their members. The doctrine of "gender identity" – the idea that people possess an essential inner gender that is independent both of their sexed body and of the social reality of being treated as a person with such a body – has rapidly been elevated to the status of quasi-religious belief, such that those who do not subscribe to it are seen as not only mistaken and misguided, but dangerous and threatening, and must therefore be silenced.
If you haven't witnessed this first hand, this might sound a touch hyperbolic and overwrought. But in the methods and reactions of those who espouse the doctrine of gender identity, we see many, if not all, of the features of thought control identified by Robert Jay Lifton in his classic study of indoctrination in Chinese re-education camps, to varying degrees:
As with so many of the current high-profile no-platforming cases, Greer is being ostracised and shunned, cast out of our moral community and declared beyond redemption, simply for the crime of believing the wrong things, of holding the wrong thoughts in her head, of defining concepts in ways that run counter to those of the newly-established doctrine of gender identity. It is not sufficient to behave towards trans women in a certain way, to respect their preferred pronouns and to support their right to receive the medical treatment they need. You must also really and truly believe that they are women. And if you cannot be made to hold this subjective mental state in your head, that is sufficient to justify silencing you, in the name of protecting the believers.
What all of this assumes is that we have the right to make these kinds of claims on each other's inner lives. It supposes that I can legitimately demand that you believe the things I believe in order to validate my identity, that I can demand that you share my perception of myself because it would be injurious to that perception if you do not. And from there, it's a quick step to the belief that if you do not share my perception of myself, you are committing an act of psychic violence against me. That by refusing to accept the narrative I tell myself about who I am, you harm me just as much as if you really did incite physical violence against me. Thus I become justified in using any tactics at my disposal to ensure that you see me the way I see myself, in making use authoritarian methods of thought control and indoctrination. Acceptance of the doctrine is the only path to salvation and enlightenment, and dissenting views are not only mistaken, but threatening - both to my understanding of myself, and to the ideology itself.
We're familiar with this in academic philosophy too, though mostly, so far, in the bowels of cyberspace. But if the current offenders actually get academic jobs and/or get tenure, then we will be in real trouble.
"New Infantilism" has clearly touched a nerve, and readers now regularly send me apt illustrations of this unhappy development. A few recent ones:
The attack on lawful speech at UCLA (via Curtis Franks).
South Park makes fun of "safe spaces." (A graduate student, whom I'd best not identify given the censorious atmosphere in certain dysfunctional parts of academic philosophy.)
Reader Michael B. sends along this item from Wales and sums up the stupidity aptly:
By now you know the routine: someone says something that some students don't like, so the students quickly muster their rage and start a petition to have that invited speaker banned. Which makes sense: universities are neither the time nor the place to hear or read, much less discuss, things with which one disagrees...
I remember Bertrand Russell writing that he would get attacked by angry mobs when he tried to talk about equality between men and women. Some of the worst were women who would react dramatically to the planned release of rats by saboteurs with whom these women were in cahoots. I suppose these students are too stupid and arrogant to realise their chosen tactic of silencing unpopular (with them) opinions is exactly what kept - and helps keep - people oppressed.
They belong in a church, not a university.
And here is an interview with Germaine Greer about this latest.
...has a "safe space policy" which, in non-Orwellian language, is actually a "policy to suppress speech in the name of equality", as its application to the lesbian feminist writer Julie Bindel plainly demonstrates. (Thanks to Phil in an earlier thread for pointing this out.) This is the road some would like American universities to head down, alas. I wonder if anyone familiar with Manchester and this policy can comment on how frequently it is invoked for the suppression of speech that is clearly not unlawful, even under English law?
UPDATE: As explained by several commenters, the Student Union (responsible for the "safe space policy") is a legally distinct entity from the University, over which the latter has, it appears, no control.
...but this comment by a student who subsequently complained about the professor's failed pedagogy is very telling:
“My mind was racing but physically, I was frozen,” she wrote. “How do I react to this? In high school, I would have walked out of the room straight to my car. I would have called my mother on the way home, and she would have arrived at the front office in under an hour to rip the principal and his employees a new one. All is well when you are young and do not have to deal with these issues head-on. But in college my mother is over 1,800 miles away. This time around I was on my own.”
UPDATE: Here's the full statement by the complaining student--the one whose Mom wasn't available this time. Its contempt for tenure and for academic freedom is appalling. Its inability to distinguish between racism and failed pedagogy is also alarming.
(Thanks to Paul Elbourne for the pointer.)
ADDENDUM: I'm opening comments, in case anyone has more information about the actual content of the banned publication.
...a fairly sober report from Psychology Today. At bottom, this is all very sad, both for the students and for those charged with helping them.
ADDENDUM: These developments are symptomatic of two phenomena, one hopeful, one pernicious. The hopeful phenomenon is that treatments for previously debilitating mental health problems are dramatically improved over the last generation: not just in terms of productive pharmaceutical interventions, but also in terms of successful cognitive-behavioral interventions. Students who, a generation ago, might never have made it to college are making it there and, in many respects, thriving. But they bring a particular set of medical needs, some of which may be exacerbated by cultural tendencies. The second phenomenon is not a hopeful one: it is the increasingly reactionary and rapacious character of American capitalism (represented most clearly by the insane Republican party), something that at least one Presidential candidate this year, Bernie Sanders, wants to undo. But should we really be surprised that in the current economic climate that students obsess about failure? In America, failure in the competition for economic survival means destitution or death; young people no doubt internalize this reality in various ways and end up exaggerating the import of even small setbacks accordingly. Even the so-called "helicopter parenting" phenomenon is a symptom of this. The pathologies of the economic system under which we live are surely playing some role in the phenomena aptly described in the linked article. It is, alas, both tragic and perversely reactionary that some bourgeois academics think the relevant response to these real phenomena are better policing of microaggressions and suppression of speech offensive to the needy. There is speech that should be suppressed, but there is no chance that will happen under current conditions.
(Thanks to a reader who asked not to be named for the pointers.)
ADDENDUM: Things are going a bit further off the rails at the second link, alas, but there's one interesting comment a bit further down worth noting, so I quote it here:
What's tiresome about the Rini piece is that she writes as if those of us interested in promoting dignity for all individuals and groups are somehow blind to the importance of solidarity with the marginalized.
We're not. Solidarity is *obviously* very important. We are, however, suspicious of this particular instantiation of solidarity, because it is bound up with a variety of ills that conflict with other important values. Trigger warnings, overzealous speech codes, changes to syllabi, and the need for "safe spaces," are all outgrowths of this instantiation of solidarity, all cause real intellectual harm, and all cater to a childish mentality.
Moreover, there is a performative aspect to all of this, amplified by social media, that is simply off-putting. And the performative element feels increasingly 'mandatory' in some quarters; one's denunciation of the most recent outrage must be swift, harsh, and public.
Rini is of course under no intellectual obligation to address all of this. But then, to whom is she really talking? Does she really believe that those of us who object to 'call out' culture are uninterested in solidarity, or do not recognize it when we see it? We recognize it, but at the same time we also recognize other characteristics that ought to be kept at arms' length. This latter insight doesn't disqualify one from upholding the value of solidarity, and claiming that it does is simply another feature of this increasingly ridiculous debate.
...or maybe it's just fascism? What's odd is that anyone can, of course, boycott the newspaper, but calling for it to be defunded by the student government because of an opinion piece is, well....
Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell, has an op-ed on "trigger warnings" in the New York Times. She makes some good points contra this piece (though that piece was not primarily about "trigger warnings"), but elides the real issues which are: (1) PTSD is a clinical diagnosis, and no one I know has argued against (legally required) accomodations for someone with that medical condition; (2) instructors, with no clinical competence, making ad hoc judgments about what warnings *might* be necessary for students who *might* have PTSD is an invitation to both insufficient accomodation and unnecessary "warnings" that may have, as their consequence, precisely what the critics claim, namely, shutting down discussion. Prof. Manne is aware of the latter risk, but says only that, "Common sense should tell us that material that is merely offensive to certain people’s political or religious sensibilities wouldn’t merit a warning." Common sense is sometimes in short supply, alas (The Atlantic article is actually full of useful examples.)
ADDENDUM: The AAUP statement is also useful, and see esp. its discussion of the Oberlin policy, which was distinctly lacking in "common sense."
This could spell trouble for some blogs that champion it!
(Thanks to Michael Swanson for the pointer.)