A Good Offense (updated)

A Good Offense (updated)


When it comes to teaching philosophy, how offensive may we be, and in what ways? Recent discussions here, particularly regarding teaching same-sex marriage, have raised this issue, but those conversations have been dominated by discussion of the plausibility of arguments regarding that substantive matter. Though it has cropped up, the issue of the role that offensiveness is supposed to play in our pedagogical choices has not received a lot of attention. Of course, there are various forms offensiveness can take, some of which can be put aside:

pantsless professor

I think we can all agree that the tie/cardigan/tighty-whities look is an aesthetic abomination.

What I’m interested in are the topics we choose to cover and the ways we go about discussing them. In my own thinking on this, I start off with the idea that philosophy professors, at least at the introductory level, should risk being offensive, and the fact that some otherwise valuable lesson plan risks offending students is not a particularly strong reason, if one at all, against teaching it.

I don’t mean this as any kind of necessary claim. It’s just that, given our world, our culture, our people, including what they think and how well they think, teaching philosophy well is going to involve offending some students. This is because it is going to involve telling the students to, as Russell put it, “hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

Some of those things may indeed be cherished beliefs the very questioning of which is offensive. Candidates for this involve a variety of religious beliefs, of course, but not just that; others topics might include the value of patriotism and certain patriotic practices and norms, disability and enhancement, the permissibility of killing, parental authority, the relative value of human and non-human life, notions of private and public, equality and inequality, sexual ethics, the use of “bad words,” power relations, death, what minds are, what personal identity over time involves, whether there should be any persons at all—just to name some off the top of my head.

My own permissiveness towards offensiveness in the classroom extends, perhaps, a bit further than others. I do not take the offensiveness of views that attack or otherwise take a negative stance towards certain kinds of people as a reason to not teach about those views. The offense or uncomfortability a student takes in the countenancing of such views is a hazard of the philosophy classroom, but one that is, I think, worth risking given the aims of the enterprise. We’re after figuring out what’s true, the best we can, and it strikes me as unphilosophical to assume that what’s offensive couldn’t be true.

That said, if potentially offensive topics are going to be discussed, there’s the question of how to do it. It’s here that it seems incumbent upon the instructor to approach the topic and manage the discussion about it in a way that is not insensitive to student feelings and threats to their status as members of the classroom and community. This requires a bit of judgment and finesse, and of course depends on what others in the classroom say, but it certainly isn’t impossible.

One additional consideration is that your particular institution may have certain policies in place regarding the teaching of potentially offensive subjects, and it is in your interests to find that out.

I am curious to hear others’ thoughts on these matters, including thoughts about teaching offensive topics, the identification of topics that are surprisingly or not obviously offensive, strategies for handling offensive topics, thoughts about whether there are varieties of offense that matter to these kinds of discussions, and so on.

UPDATE (1/29/15): A few sources brought to my attention a post at the University of Colorado’s news site on how faculty should respond to instances of possible sexual harassment that they experience, witness, or have reported to them by others. The “fourth scenario” is of particular relevance to our discussion:

  • You are a faculty member and Karl, a student in one of your classes, describes to you various conversations in his problem-based learning group. The conversations have included talk about same-sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act and the Supreme Court, and whether the state of Colorado should allow same-sex marriages. Karl, who describes himself as homosexual, says he feels like this is sexual harassment given his sexual orientation. You disagree, because the conversations don’t sound offensive or hostile.

The article reports what Valerie Simons, executive director and Title IX coordinator in the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has to say about this case:

“This is one of the most difficult areas we deal with,” said Simons, noting the relevance of academic freedom and freedom of speech. “Faculty have to be able to do their job,” she said. “But if there is a situation where someone is being targeted based on gender, political philosophy (or another protected class), how do you determine that?”

(Protected classes according to Regent Law: race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, political affiliation, political philosophy.)

Again, faculty have an obligation to report such an instance – even if the faculty member doesn’t agree that it constitutes sexual harassment. The student could be advised to contact the Title IX coordinator, or the faculty member could inform the student that the Title IX coordinator will be contacted.

The key takeaway that the coordinators emphasized to council members: When in doubt, report – a message that they say will be articulated increasingly in the future.

(top image: a page from the “A Ride on the Bus” section of Joel Feinberg’s Offense to Others)

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