Offend Responsibly

The thing I always like to stress is that although academics have the right to offend, they must do so responsibly, and they must to be able to defend the origin of the academic freedom of the right to offend and show that they exercise it in a way that’s as responsible as possible. Sometimes this means, if there is something on your syllabus that troubles a student, showing why that allegedly troubling thing involves a reasonable choice to appear on an academic syllabus; or why talking about a topic in a certain way is a reasonable choice for an academic to make.

Showing that your choices reflect certain intellectual virtues of sincere, respectful pursuit of debate and disagreement is also important. To me, the challenge is that some people use their academic freedom in ways that seem to be divorced from these virtues…

There are times when even an academic with academic freedom needs to practice a little bit of self-censorship. For example, you might want to discuss a controversial topic one way with undergraduate students, and in a different way with graduate students. Or you might decide that your students need more preparation than you could provide at the beginning of a semester if you are bringing up something that will churn up a lot of bad feelings. I’ve discovered that I can talk about a lot of very challenging topics with a group if I work hard to have them trust not just me but each other. And it takes time for them to realize that they can disagree without it turning personal, and that they can bring in alternative views in ways to try and at least bring some balance in.

That’s Michele Moody-Adams, professor of philosophy (as well as former dean and former VP for undergraduate education) at Columbia University, in an interview in a student publication, The Current (via LR). I think she is exactly right here, and as I’ve said in previous discussions here, when an instructor is skillful in presenting controversial ideas and can demonstrate, say, an understanding of why course material might be troubling to students, then he or she rarely runs into any kind of institutional challenges to academic freedom.

The interview is full of points worth considering.

On civility and respect in disagreement:

[W]hen people engage in conflict, we don’t know how to preserve two things that make a really robust debate possible. One of them is genuine respect for the people we disagree with, and the other is genuine trust… We need a new kind activism that keeps the contestation there but shows how to balance it better with more civility.

On the special circumstances of speech on a residential college campus:

Freedom of speech issues do take on a different character on a college or university campus. In part, this is because they are communities where, unlike communities outside the university, it isn’t so easy to get away from the people who are expressing the attitude with which you disagree… It’s difficult sometimes to get away, to get a little perspective, to get a little distance. Every challenge that comes up on a campus—it’s on the newspaper, it’s on [the student news site], it’s on a radio station, your friends are talking about it when you’re eating, you hear it in the classroom—it’s such a small community, there’s never a chance to get away from it.

On the idea that academic freedom is increasingly limited:

Academic freedom certainly has come under pressure. But I don’t know that it has ever not been under pressure, because if people are exercising academic freedom robustly, they’re going to say something that upsets or challenges or offends someone… this is the risk you take when you take on the responsibility of being an academic.

On speech and academic freedom in the classroom:

[A] classroom is not the same thing as the public forum. If academic freedom has any substance, students can’t have the exact same level of freedom to say whatever they want in a classroom as professors do. Even Supreme Court Justices have said: when you pay for a college education, you’re actually consenting to sometimes experiencing or hearing things that you don’t agree with, and to not having the equal right to speak back to it in the classroom.

On whether students are too sensitive nowadays:

I used to think that students had become more sensitive. But I’ve come to believe that it’s something else. Now I believe that students are giving expression to a cultural development that has encouraged people to think that their identity, and the things that matter most about them, has to be defined in terms of the grievances they have and the suffering they undergo. I am never going to tell you that suffering doesn’t matter, that it isn’t real, that it doesn’t have moral, and even intellectual, weight. I am never going to say that people don’t have real grievances, or that they don’t need to have their suffering and grieving respected. But as a culture—and I think students are only reflecting what the culture has encouraged all of us to do—we’ve stopped understanding that a whole human identity is not just about the grievances we have and the suffering to which we have been subjected over a lifetime.

I’m not saying: toughen up, get resilient. I think resilience and grit are important, but I think as a culture we need to ask: what are we saying about human identity when every time we have a disagreement with someone the first thing we feel we need to say is: “protect me from anything in that disagreement that might actually cause me distress”? No one denies distress is real, but robust disagreement that might actually help you transform a conflict into something constructive sometimes means you’re probably going to be upset by something.

The whole interview is here.

John Sargent, "Madame X" (detail)

John Sargent, “Madame X” (detail)

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