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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Krista Thomason
Krista Thomason
6 years ago

This is a great question. I think there’s a certain amount of envelope-pushing that we have to do. I think it’s important to create some intellectual discomfort and to talk about potentially offensive topics. But it has to be productive discomfort: the important thing for me is that my students start to rethink their own positions. If they’re too offended, they won’t do that. One strategy that’s worked for me is to encourage my students to voice viewpoints that aren’t theirs. We do a lot of “someone might argue” and “a person could say” and that way they can put some distance between the arguments up for discussion and their own thoughts on the matter.Report

Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

Wonderful post. I think ideally three things are necessary in order to raise topics which might offend students:

1) the students should feel that the teacher is not taking sides between students (which doesn’t mean the teacher needs to be neutral in the debate);
2) the students need to be able to see that the teacher is doing with fellow teachers what is being advocated in the classroom (students need to see teachers having difficult conversations with each other, and see how the teachers deal with it when they offend each other); and
3) the students need to be able to see that the teacher is doing in broader society what is advocated in the classroom (students need to see the teacher engaged with the public, so it doesn’t seem like the teacher is merely being idealistic in the classroom, as if the teacher doesn’t need to get their hands dirty along with everyone else).

In short, ideally, every teacher should be a public intellectual in some sense, or to some extent, in order to raise topics that might offend students. If not, the teacher risks seeming out of touch, speaking from on high, merely using one’s power as a teacher to appear wise, etc. Btw, by public intellectual I don’t mean that one has to be famous or appear on CNN; just that one is engaged in the public domain outside of academic to some extent, and that this is visible to one’s students.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

This is an important topic. One rather sobering thing to consider is that in an introductory course, students probably don’t know much about their professor and they know close to nothing about philosophy. Trust takes time to build, but without it one risks alienating students who write off a course after (perhaps erroneously) coming to the conclusion that the course material is overly politicized in an offensive manner. As an advisor I have had students complain that their professors were communists or radical feminists and that they felt alienated and certain that they would be punished through bad grades for voicing their own views. Perhaps some religious students might feel that way in my courses as we work through Hume or Spinoza. I don’t think it’s possible to teach philosophy at the introductory level without offending some students, even inadvertently. I do think that making sure students understand they are being respected and treated fairly goes a long way in pro-actively transforming potential offense into tolerance towards a merely “eccentric” professor who is offering perspectives they might not have considered otherwise. One thing that makes this difficult is that beliefs (not just moral beliefs, but even about matters of fact) sometimes provide evidence about one’s character. You cannot always criticize someone’s beliefs without impugning his or her character. Hence, offense will be taken.Report

Kevin DeLapp
Kevin DeLapp
6 years ago

Thanks for the great topic, Justin! I agree with what previous commenters have said regarding trust and the interplay between beliefs and character. One additional thing I’m pondering is whether there’s a tenable distinction between teaching material which is (or might be taken by someone as) offensive, versus teaching material in an offensive manner. I think the former is part of the job, but not the latter. If possible, let the material, not the teacher, do the offending. In this sense, “provoker” might be a better job description than “offender” (here I’m thinking of offense as a possible response to provocation). When I anticipate a particular reading or topic being especially provocative (and of course I hope it’s all provocative!), I try to do a lot of stage-setting by talking about the fact that some may find it upsetting. Making the possibility of offense explicit from the start has tended to defuse actual offense, since students become primed to want to demonstrate that they can rise to the challenge of the provocation. I’m sure some students end up getting offended anyway, but at least I try to make sure that they don’t come away believing that it was their own teacher who offended them personally, but rather a provocative idea that is the source of whatever offense they took. Offensiveness that’s perceived to be from an individual (a teacher) can be written off by the student, whereas offensiveness in the form of an abstract idea might continue to nag and provoke reflection long after the class ends.Report

Robert Yost
Robert Yost
6 years ago

Offending students without a pedagogical reason is not desirable in any classroom. However, what you’re speaking of, offense (even inadvertent) while grappling with real philosophical problems is often unavoidable and sometimes even desirable. A philosophy class where students were not encouraged to think and question their own beliefs is a poor philosophy class indeed!
I took a medical ethics class once and we discussed abortion. One of the best things that my professor did was to set expectations that arguments had to be based on logic and not simple religious or political slogans. Additionally, I still have no idea what my professor actually thinks about the subject because he was very good at questioning the assumptions of both sides. One student did get rather heated, arguing that since life is defined by a heartbeat, then abortion after a heartbeat is murder, but we quickly began talking about if it was murder if the creature with a heartbeat was not a person. We kept moving and digging into the philosophical problems rather than devolve into a “Abortion is murder!” or “Women’s rights!” debate.Report

anonymous person
anonymous person
6 years ago

When I underwent mandatory discrimination and harassment training at Colorado, the topic of discussing issues surrounding the morality of war was raised (CU has a large population of veteran and current military students). The woman running the training said something that suggested that we simply could not discuss these issues in our classrooms or with students. I asked a clarifying question about this and she confirmed that, indeed, we were *not allowed* to discuss these issues with our students. I tried to ask what one should do if one was teaching a course that dealt with the ethics of war. She had no response. I will remember this forever.Report

Avi
Avi
6 years ago

Re. the update and the comment from “anonymous person” (#6): I’m sure most here will agree that it is chilling to consider someone’s “political philosophy” as placing that person in a protected class with enforceable rights. Political affiliation seems problematic as well. I can only say that I am glad I don’t teach at a place with such a policy. The administration at such places might think that such a policy has no downside, and even has a considerable upside in giving them power over faculty, but this policy does not serve the reputation of a university very well.Report

Alex
Alex
6 years ago

Anonymous Person (#6): That is an insane policy and I encourage you to break it. Surely (?), the person running this meeting has no idea what she is talking about.Report

Alastair Norcross
6 years ago

At my new faculty orientation at Colorado a few years ago, we were told that we couldn’t criticize religions, because this would constitute harassment and discrimination against people with those religions. I asked the person running that portion of the orientation (a lawyer) to define “religion”. She replied, apparently quoting from some official university manual, “any deeply held set of moral beliefs”. I said, “so utilitarianism is a religion?”. She gave me a blank look and asked me what utilitarianism was. I told her that it was the deeply held set of moral beliefs that I held, more deeply, in fact, than many of my Christian friends held their moral beliefs. She replied that yes, utilitarianism was a religion. So I asked her whether I should report pretty much all my philosophy colleagues for religious discrimination and harassment against me (and myself for discrimination and harassment against my Kantian colleagues). While she was fumbling for a response, my fellow philosophers at the orientation persuaded me to shut up, in the interests of getting out of the event before the bars closed. I recount this story to reinforce the impression, given by anonymous person, of what goes on at mandatory training sessions at Colorado.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
6 years ago

Nietzsche (arguably) defends the following claim: “Sickly, disabled, and unintelligent people are inferior, and they are properly the tools of those who are healthy, strong, and intelligent.” Can anyone imagine a statement more likely to cause offense?

If we can teach Nietzsche sensitively, then we can teach anything sensitively. I don’t think ANY topic should be out of bounds for a philosophical discussion.Report