Thursday, April 28, 2016

When Slogans Replace Arguments

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:  http://chronicle.com/article/Slogans-Have-Replaced/236099
 

April 17, 2016 


Many critics of the students protesting racism so vociferously on college campuses these days say they are just "whiners" who need to accept that life isn’t perfect and get back to their books. Political correctness has run so rampant, these critics say, that it threatens freedom of speech. Both claims are reductive analyses of something more complex.

But the fact is that one need not suffer from residual bigotry, or even mere incomprehension, to find something amiss in the furious building takeovers, indignant slates of radical demands, and claims that life on today’s college campuses is an endless experience of racism. Protest is crucial in an enlightened and complex society, but something has indeed gone wrong — and college leaders and the faculty share as much of the blame as the students.

The "whiny" analysis is hasty — the now-famous lists of students’ demands always include some legitimate concerns. For example, if I were an undergraduate at Princeton today, Woodrow Wilson’s name on university buildings would rankle me. I am given neither to street-style protest nor to the idea that public buildings must be purged of the names of all figures whose social views we now find unpleasant. But Wilson, for all of his accomplishments, was especially bigoted even for his era and Southern origins.

More to the point, the claim that a college campus should be a locus of absolutely unfettered free speech is a pose. There are certain opinions and topics which an enlightened society can today justifiably exclude from discussion. No university any of us would want to be associated with would entertain "free speech" in favor of genocide, slavery, or withdrawing women’s right to vote, even in the vein of airing them in order to review the arguments against them, as John Stuart Mill advised be done with repugnant ideas. There comes a point where all will agree that we have made at least some progress in social history and, in the interests of time and energy, need not revisit issues that have been decided. The question, however, is which issues, and this is where our current student protesters err in their confidence.

The tenor of their protests is founded on an assumption — tacit but, like most tacit assumptions, decisive — that they are battling something as unequivocally, conclusively intolerable as genocide, slavery, or the withdrawal of women’s suffrage: namely, "racism." And of course, none of us are in favor of racism, which allows their rhetoric a certain potency. One resists opposing a battle declared on such terms. However, these students have been allowed to suppose that racism is a much simpler concept than it is. The reason they come off as "whiners" is because their demands address problems more specific than "racism," ones that are very much up for intelligent, civil debate.

For example, what is a microaggression? What is the proper response to experiencing one, or being accused of having committed one? These are rich issues. In New York City it has been classified as a microaggression for affluent, white high school students to discuss their expensive vacations around black students. But then, on most campuses, it is also considered a microaggression to assume that most black people are poor. What is the etiquette here? Respectable minds will differ. Black campus protesters have claimed that it is a microaggression when a black student is expected to testify to the black experience in a class discussion. However, this runs up against one of the main planks of race-conscious admissions policies: that having black students on campus is valuable for exposing others to black experiences and concerns. There is no easy answer here, which is why, again, a discussion is appropriate. To dismiss as "racist" any questions about such issues is simplistic.

Continue reading at:  http://chronicle.com/article/Slogans-Have-Replaced/236099

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