Why a liberal professor shouldn’t be afraid of his liberal students

Facebook is a wonderful thing. It helps one stumble upon everything and anything, from the illuminating to the mind-numbingly mundane. Two days ago, my newsfeed cheerily threw in my face an article that was neither. Titled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me”, the article speaks of one particular professor from the Midwest who was experiencing grave challenges in speaking out and challenging the beliefs of his students in the face of the growing cost of being politically incorrect. He discusses the challenges in “rocking the boat” by exposing students to controversial material, in the face of the growing power that students have over the job stability and career progression of academics. He blames this (and I quote) on “a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice”.

There are many things contained in his article that I agree with. His concerns of the stifling of debate and discourse around topics that the social justice movements have embraced are valid (as he cites the examples of the shutting down of an abortion debate in Oxford in 2014). However, there are flaws to his argument which must be addressed. A nuanced response to this article was published soon after, which indicated that the immediate problem that the original writer spoke of does not lie with students and their sense of justice, nor with the bent of various social movements, but with the capitalist motivations of institutions which seek to preserve their reputation and the investment of their students by refusing to diffuse situations or back their faculty.

The original contributor cites many examples of modern youth’s misguided intentions. He mentions that comparing the number of “web articles surrounding the supposed problematic aspects of the newest Avengers movie with those complaining about, say, the piecemeal dismantling of abortion rights,” it is clear how liberal society gets riled up over trifles. And yes, I do agree that social conscious cyber communities may tend to zero in on certain topics with almost missionary zeal, but I believe that it is necessary, nay even healthy, for us to question and critique. If critical thinking is what the writer strives for, then he cannot argue against this phenomenon (especially when media has proven time and time and time again that we cannot accept what they present at face value). The second element, and one that is required to complete this process of problematization and engagement, is to create spaces for the discussion of such topics. Secondly, I do not agree that the number of articles that exist on a particular topic is in and of itself an indicator of how great a concern it may be. This seems rather simplistic. The abortion debate has existed for decades, and is still a number-one priority in many social justice movements. Timing is everything, with more recent debacles, such as Joss Whedon’s alleged treatment of gender, tend to garner an immediate response. More problematic to me, if truth be told, is how short the memory span of cyber activists may be, but that is a discussion for a later day.

I do not doubt that the professor who authored the article is well-intentioned. For instance, he does state that we cannot dismiss identity (and the prejudice that follows like a rabid dog). However, he does much harm by stating that the feelings dictate discussions of identity, as opposed to rational thought. I, for one, am rather tired of feelings being demonized and denigrated to a lower status than rationality. In the age when we believe that emotional experiences form the cornerstone of human life, we still cling to the archaic belief that rationality trumps all. It is emblematic of the eurocentrism that still dominates any mode of philosophical thought. Mothers make split-second, emotional decisions to protect their young; is this bad? It is time we realize that emotions are an integral and necessary aspect of humanity, which we cannot trivialize. Secondly, it is not only the feelings of individual students, for instance, that stand to be affected when one discusses problematic issues without any modicum of sensitivity. The very real threat of reinforcing harmful stereotypes and beliefs – which students take with them from the classroom to society – cannot be ignored.

He blames social justice movements for being insular and narrow-minded. Yet again, while I agree that open dialogue and discourse about issues is the ideal modus operandi for the fight for equality, there are very real barriers to consider. First, let’s really think about the scale of the movement. We’re not talking about a shadowy, Illuminati-esque force here (as Ann Coulter would have us think). Socially conscious liberals and libertarians are still very much a minority in this country, and are constantly required to debate and revisit the basics of their ideologies before a majority that views them with skepticism. Even a simple example serves to illustrate this point – consider how terms like fag and retard are still in use, and how long it took for the n-word to be phased out of our lexicon. While I don’t believe in censorship, to blame all social justice movements for this phenomenon is to undermine them as any whiff of a flaw has the critical majority out for blood. In fact, this degree of opposition necessitates that social justice movements constantly evaluate their ethos, serving as an undesirable checking mechanism.

In such a volatile environment, there are grave dangers in promoting unrestricted freedom of speech. I know that this may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe this American insistence on free speech needs to be reined in. Allowances for free speech enables people like Ann Coulter to travel around the country, propagating her ill-informed messages of hate and bigotry. Although she expects the truth to emerge in a free marketplace of ideas, reality is not quite so simplistic. People are willing to embrace what ideas appeal the most, and with money and fame to lend power to their voices, the likes of Ann Coulter are able to appeal to the misinformed masses.

Again, I must point out that open discussion and dialogue are not be demonized and shunned. Yet, the problem is that people do not approach these spaces with the right attitude. Respect alone is not enough. It is important to recognize and value the humanity, and to seek to understand rather than discredit. If only all human beings could approach one another from a place of love. Then again, if that were the case, we would not have anything to discuss in the first place.

– Themal

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