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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alfred macdonald
5 years ago

I don’t think the author gives a good case for why people ‘must’ offend responsibly.

I mean, it does not follow from offending someone irresponsibly (well, whatever he takes ‘irresponsibly’ to mean I guess) that you’ve negated “your choices reflect certain intellectual virtues of sincere, respectful pursuit of debate and disagreement is also important”, unless he’s defining ‘irresponsibly” to entail this by definition

basically: I suspect there is a whole ideology concerning civility in upper middle class western conversation, which is the kind of conversation that takes places at universities., but people who are not engaged in philosophy or any academic field often hold some kind of meta-conversational viewpoint about incivility and what they think is allowable in conversation. it’s not necessarily clear how much of this is due to logical necessity or some kind of necessity of truthseeking and how much is just imparted for sociocultural or sociobiological reasons. the more I look into it, the more I think views regarding civility are some kind of culturally-imparted conversational ideology rather than a set of epistemic norms that you’d find in informal logic.

and I think a lot of this seems to be an attempt at justifying these norms and the current situation campuses are having with speech, i.e. he’s on the side of more censorship and he’s unwilling to say the students are wrong for, say, demanding that ovid’s metamorphoses be removed from a syllabus. (which, IIRC, happened at his university, so I’m curious how much that influences his position.)

either way, on a practical level, speech codes lead to less intellectual innovation by virtue of requiring more cognitive load to maintain them and by automatically censoring chains of thought before they begin. it may appear to be the case that people become more hostile or whatever short-term when they are offended, they hold their viewpoints more deeply etc etc (we’ve all read the research) but this is only true in isolation. speech codes stack, and there will be a point where maintaining all of them requires too much cognitive load, and any benefit from, say, people not reinforcing their beliefs (due to hostile reactions) will be outweighed by how little they can actually consider their beliefs. if you *are* limiting speech in some way, it’s best to do it for some truthseeking reason, because you have a limited amount of cognitive load to work with. people can be offended by anything. whatever difficulty arises from being offended by this guy is minor compared to the how much cognitive load must be applied to negotiate the dozens, if not hundreds of ways people could potentially be offended by something.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  alfred macdonald
5 years ago

She.Report

alfred macdonald
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

yes, I noticed the error after posting — I read misread “michelle” as “michael” — but have no means of correcting it as this website does not have an edit button. I can repost it amended, but since I can’t delete my original comment, it just clutters the page.

but far more importantly, do you have a reply to any part of my post that is not a superficial pronoun error?

you ignored about four paragraphs of text to make a one-word correction to the least impactful part of my post, and whatever detriment offense has, ignoring the content of about 400 words to do the equivalent of quoting “your” and replying with “*you’re*” is far more detrimentalReport

upstate
upstate
Reply to  alfred macdonald
5 years ago

Misidentifying the author’s gender is notably different from making a grammatical error.

But, for what it’s worth, I had a hard time following what you were saying. I had a hard time understanding this paragraph in particular:

“basically: I suspect there is a whole ideology concerning civility in upper middle class western conversation, which is the kind of conversation that takes places at universities., but people who are not engaged in philosophy or any academic field often hold some kind of meta-conversational viewpoint about incivility and what they think is allowable in conversation. it’s not necessarily clear how much of this is due to logical necessity or some kind of necessity of truthseeking and how much is just imparted for sociocultural or sociobiological reasons. the more I look into it, the more I think views regarding civility are some kind of culturally-imparted conversational ideology rather than a set of epistemic norms that you’d find in informal logic.”

Is the idea that the author’s position is more a result of how she was raised rather than a result of reflective deliberation? Or is the idea that the students’ positions are like that? Both? What’s the evidence? I don’t necessarily disagree — I’m just curious as to your reasons.Report

alfred macdonald
Reply to  upstate
5 years ago

in terms of the thought process (or lack thereof) that would lead me to make the error, misreading “michele” as “michael” is about the same. and, like an accidental mixup of your / you’re, it doesn’t bear on the truth or falsehood of what I’m saying whatsoever. it certainly doesn’t warrant obnoxiously replying with a single word, as if the correction is so important and profound that it trumps four paragraphs in importance, none of which hinge on pronoun exactness. if anything, it’s *more* annoying than merely replying with “you’re*”, since this kind of correction is far more self-righteous and takes place among people who are used to not being so lazy.

but as for your question, the idea I’m considering is whether there is a kind of conversational ideology that propagates at universities and elsewhere, especially among the middle class but not necessarily strictly among the middle class. I think this because what is considered ‘civil’ in a university setting *just so happens* to be aligned with what is ‘civil’ to people who are entrenched in the upper middle class. whether this is the result of upbringing or conditioning or whatever I don’t know, but the definition of civility in these contexts seems more aligned toward class norms than it does any sort of conversational code to better get at truth.

however, I could be wrong. there could be legitimate, culturally-neutral justifications for these definitions. I’ve just never heard people discuss conversational ideologies / norms before, in a “how should conversations be structured” way. I used “I suspect” because, frankly, I don’t know if anything I wrote is true. I’m merely considering the possibility that it could be. my basis for making these cultural observations are (a) growing up around poor people and (b) the black side of my fiancee’s family, both of which instill very different (read: “uncivil”) conversational norms than what you encounter on blogs like this. as far as I know, the philosophy of disagreement studies this somewhat, and so does any area that might concern itself with epistemic norms, but this is otherwise a fairly untouched area of thought so I just put all of my thoughts on here in case anyone who *does* study this has more insight to give.

this relates to the author’s idea of “responsible offense.” her wording makes me wonder how much of this is due to a conversational ideology rather than some kind of epistemic need.

I mean, to put it in her own words, from the interview:

“Let me first give you one example about the philosophy canon because we need to be cautious about saying the main and only reason that any canon looks the way it looks is that everything in it is simply the best of the best. Challenging this claim doesn’t mean it isn’t good. But a canon—whether in philosophy or literature or any other subject—is formed by the victors. So, in philosophy, Descartes, Locke, and so on—that selection of texts is certainly justifiable. But are there works that were left out for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with its quality? I would venture to say yes.”

if you just regard conversational norms (i.e. how you think you should behave) as a kind of canon for conversation, then how much is included because the category of people advancing it are simply the victors? I don’t know, but I suspect “responsible offense” and how people parse civility and related concepts are a lot more culturally-loaded than they are often given credit for. sure, they could be totally justifiable, but given the similarities among what totally different groups in the upper middle class consider ‘uncivil’ or ‘offensive’ behavior, I’m inclined to doubt that all of these norms are adopted out of epistemic need.

for what it’s worth, this article addresses a similar theme on a different subject: https://psmag.com/how-the-other-half-lifts-what-your-workout-says-about-your-social-class-f04d1b70c507#.8g4xd4knx

I don’t think the students’ positions are as likely to be that way as professors, because students are far less entrenched in these norms than professors; however, it’s probable that a lot of students share the same norms as income goes up.

not sure if that is clarificatory or even useful to you, but I elaborated to the extent I could with a nascent thought.Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
Reply to  alfred macdonald
5 years ago

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’ve missed her point. Here’s a telling quote: “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.”

Based on this quote, at least, her aim is not to support broad censorship (e.g., removing the Ovid from syllabi). Her point is that, as teachers, we should present material in ways that facilitate student engagement (because, you know, we’re teachers). So when we address something that students are likely to find controversial–or personally difficult–we need to think carefully about what modes of presentation are likely to impede authentic student engagement. That can mean treating views you find utterly mistaken a bit more gently than you’re inclined to, beginning with acknowledgement of how sensitive the issue is, or even giving a trigger warning. Again, the self-censorship she’s talking about is *in service* of learning about controversial issues.

(Also, you’re right that codes of civility can be used in classist ways, or to ‘protect’ people from ideas that really ought to be engaging with. But civility can serve better ends too, such as learning, teaching, or productive dialogue. Compare: a sharp wit can be put to good use or ill; but that is no criticism of a sharp wit. That may seem obvious. But so far as I can tell, the whole anti-civility kick in the philosophy blogosphere is mostly missing it.)Report

alfred macdonald
Reply to  Luke Maring
5 years ago

there’s an anti-civility kick on philosophy blogs? other than Leiter’s this is the only blog I read of this kind — what blogs advocate an opposing view on civility?

but your reply lists several things that I’d consider either norms for conversation or norms for teaching or both. I’m not sure which. like these:

“present[ing] material in ways that facilitate student engagement”

“think[ing] carefully about what modes of presentation are likely to impede authentic student engagement”

“treating views you find utterly mistaken a bit more gently than you’re inclined to”

“acknowledgement of how sensitive the issue is”

“giving a trigger warning.”

“[discussing] a controversial topic one way with undergraduate students, and in a different way with graduate students” (maybe; I don’t know what “different way” means outside of just being harder / less simplified)

I don’t know what literature professors use to measure student engagement; in other words, I don’t know if there’s methodology that measures test scores + brain function or if this is just something gauged by self-reports. but with that said, “facilitating student engagement” seems like the kind of thing someone would think works a certain way before they actually found out if it did or not. I mean, in the few times I’ve had professors talk about how sensitive something was, I if anything was bothered that I needed to hear a minute of warning that I had my focus slightly interrupted by thoughts of who out of my class was so easily offended rather than the actual subject matter of the lecture.

in other words, I don’t really think this would work on all personality types and cultural backgrounds, and in some it’d have negative effectiveness. there’s a certain kind of person for whom “treating views you find utterly mistaken a bit more gently than you’re inclined to” is just a horrible way to go about it, because they expect your levels of outrage to be proportional to how actually wrong they are.

so it seems more like cultural norms (be it for teaching or otherwise) are guiding these things and rationalized after-the-fact, rather than selected out of some kind of neutral deliberation for what works/what doesn’t independent of cultural background.

if I’m wrong though, as usual, feel free to say why.Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
Reply to  alfred macdonald
5 years ago

There was anti-civility thing posted on NewApps a while back, but the anti-civility kick lives mostly on Leiter’s blog and in comment sections. But beyond that, I’m worried that I’m missing your point. Nothing you’ve said is an argument against self-censoring when doing so helps students to engage.

First, of course the norms of civility I mentioned are norms of conversation/teaching. Why would that be a problem? In a given context, some norms of conversation/teaching promote engagement, some don’t; Moody-Adams is advocating ones that do. Second, good teachers can recognize when students are engaged without empirically rigorous measures of brain function–if students are looking at me, frowning in thought, and asking questions rather than checking their phones, I don’t need an FMRI to know they’re engaged. And third, not every strategy for discussing controversial/sensitive topics is equally effective with all people. Like every other skill, teaching sensitive/controversial topics is a matter of judgment and we do the best we can. Moody-Adam’s point is that sometimes, doing the best we can is going to mean self-censoring.Report

alfred macdonald
Reply to  alfred macdonald
5 years ago

ok, gonna dispute this:

“good teachers can recognize when students are engaged without empirically rigorous measures of brain function–if students are looking at me, frowning in thought, and asking questions rather than checking their phones, I don’t need an FMRI to know they’re engaged.”

okay, yes, past a certain point it’s obvious that a student is really involved with the subject matter. however…

there is a whole art to looking like you’re engaged while not actually being nearly as analytically involved as your instructor thinks you are. just because a student frowns doesn’t mean they’re thinking very hard about what you’re saying. a lot of theater students will just have hyper-expressive faces out of conversational reflex, and a lot of regular students exercise a milder form of that.

shit, even if your students ask questions, it doesn’t mean they’re the result of being engaged. *so* many students I used to be peers with would just fall back on stock questions they’d ask for participation credit. (although, yes, if questions were optional and did not affect participation, it was usually the case that they were sincere and the result of engagement.)

so yeah, you probably have a good idea of who is *definitely* engaged but if you averaged this out across your whole class it might be that you estimate student engagement at 80%, when it’s really more like 30% — human beings are not generally good at judging these things accurately unless trained to; all kinds of biases distort judgment unless trained to debias..Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
5 years ago

This is brilliant, illuminating stuff — especially her discussion of the ways students fall back on legitimate grievances as a means of stifling discourse. She is right to say that the grievances are legitimate, and she is right to say that discourse should (respectfully) continue.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
5 years ago

As someone who tends to offend irresponsibly and all too often I appreciated the article and will try to learn from it. This is not just about the classroom but everyone. The penultimate paragraph seemed particularly good. The ego has no place in philosophy but often seems to rule the roost. Self-obsession seems to be a core characteristic of materialistic societies, endlessly encouraged by industry whose purpose it serves.

The difficulty sometimes is that in the sciences politeness can be interpreted as ineffectiveness, since an interesting theory will be a direct challenge to accepted ideas. It seems almost necessary to rattle cages sometimes.Report