Friday, June 05, 2015
Kick the sex cops off campus
Universities have one responsibility – to educate
This week, the UK’s top universities, assembled under the auspices of the Russell Group, have been criticised for not recording allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. This follows on from the story of a former Oxford University student who lost a legal case against the university after she accused it of failing to investigate her claim that she was sexually assaulted by another student. She claimed that Oxford ‘creates a hostile environment’ in which women are in danger of sexual assault and harassment.
These news reports arrive against a backdrop of ongoing claims that ‘rape culture’ has infested university life. In 2010, for example, the National Union of Students (NUS) released its Hidden Marks report, which claimed that one in seven women had experienced a ‘serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student’. The claim that sexual assault is now rife on campus was reiterated this week by the NUS national women’s officer, Susuana Antubam, who said ‘universities are not doing enough to acknowledge and confront the problem’.
Yet these shock-factor stats, so often trotted out by the NUS and other sex-patrolling SU types, are completely misleading. The Hidden Marks report only surveyed 2,000 women across the whole of the UK, and the questions asked were engineered towards producing the most extreme results possible (the definition of sexual harassment in the survey included things like being quizzed about your love life). The sample was also completely self-selecting, meaning student-activist types who shared the survey’s warped perspective probably made up the bulk of the respondents.
So let’s be clear here. Rape is a serious crime. But it is not the same as unwanted sexual attention. The first is an act of violence and the second is a form of unacceptable behaviour. If the two become conflated in a discussion of the supposed prevalence of sexual assault, this diminishes the severity of rape. Rape is carried out by an individual who has decided to inflict harm on another individual. Sexual assault or harassment now seems to encompass anything that is not contractually agreed and stamped with a students’ union’s seal of approval.
In a recent interview with Reason, pro-sex feminist Camille Paglia restated her argument for ‘the freedom to risk rape’, an argument she first made in the 1960s against US universities using the in loco parentis doctrine to control female students’ lives. The same in loco parentis arguments are being remade today by universities keen to create a protective climate. Yet, unlike Paglia’s generation, students today are being encouraged by their peers in students’ unions to embrace this control rather than protest against it.
Paglia’s seemingly shocking statement is actually pretty sensible. For women to be completely free and equal, they must embrace risk. Besides, the risk of rape is not something that any woman at university should worry about. There is not a rape epidemic on university campuses. The lack of any clear evidence to suggest that there is a pandemic of sexual violence on campus shows that the idea that women are unsafe is rooted in political fashion rather than fact.
Moreover, rape is a crime that should be dealt with by the police, not a university. The only thing universities should be responsible for is giving students an education. The current demand that universities play parent infantilises young adults and, most crucially, reduces individual freedom. You are an adult when you go to university and, therefore, your general wellbeing is your own responsibility.
If you are raped, your first port of call must be the police, to report the crime. If you are unsure whether you were raped or not, you weren’t raped – the very nature of rape means there can be no doubt. If someone oversteps the line, you can deck the guy, throw your drink at him, or tell him to fuck off. You should deal with it yourself there and then, not go crying to your university. There is no epidemic of sexual assault on campus, so if you happen to be unlucky enough to come across a few arse-grabbing guys who haven’t had a slap yet, then why not be the one to give them an education?
Paglia is right to argue that women need to take more risks, but women are at more risk brushing their teeth than they are at university. Students should argue for universities to back off and butt out of all aspects of student life that aren’t concerned with knowledge and learning – university management should certainly butt out of the bedroom. Students should close down all student-life centres, burn all the sexual-harassment surveys, kick out all the welfare officers, laugh at the consent workshops, and, most importantly, get a grip.
Young American liberals are losing the ability to argue
Censorship on campus – and elsewhere – is dumbing down political debate
The American left faces a grave threat – from within. Young liberals aren’t being taught how to argue.
On 9 May, Duke University professor Jerry Hough commented on a New York Times article, which blamed the Baltimore rioting on racism (or, as the NYT itself described it, ‘the century-long assault that Baltimore’s blacks have endured at the hands of local, state and federal policymakers’).
Hough’s most controversial statements centred on why, in his words, ‘Asians who were oppressed [as much as blacks] did so well and are integrating so well, and the blacks are not doing so well’.
Hough continued: ‘[Asians] didn’t feel sorry for themselves, but worked doubly hard… Every Asian student has a very simple, old American first name that symbolises their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolises their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous [and] black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.’
Duke University responded: ‘The comments were noxious, offensive, and have no place in civil discourse.’ (My emphasis).
But if Hough’s comments are racist, repugnant or simply incorrect, should we dismiss them as unfit even to discuss, let alone debate or refute? Were Asians and blacks discriminated against equally, or did blacks face greater challenges? Do Asians really have simple American names, and blacks strange new ones? (Here’s one take). Do Asians integrate while blacks insulate? Is it fair to ask blacks to integrate into a society that has long oppressed them?
But students won’t have these conversations. The liberal establishment dismisses Hough’s comments as the racist ramblings of an old white fool. Perhaps that’s right. But here’s the problem: if no one confronts such ideas, they will not go away.
‘[N]o one has said I was wrong, just racist’, Hough writes. Another Duke professor, Michael Munger, argues that universities educate conservative students by challenging them, while liberal students get a pass. As the chair of indignation studies (whatever that is) told Munger, ‘I don’t really need to spend much time with the liberal students because they already have it right. I spend most of my time arguing with the conservative students.’
Derision, rather than refutation, seems to be the norm of discourse in mainstream politics as well. Accordingly, opposing views are seen as a sign of some moral defect, not genuine disagreement. Earlier this year, for example, a prominent Democrat compared delaying the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general (she’s the first African-American woman to be given the role) to Jim Crow segregation. Elsewhere, questioning certain sexual-assault statistics makes one a ‘rape apologist’; proponents of traditional marriage are dismissed as ‘bigots’; and even President Obama is called sexist for arguing with Senator Elizabeth Warren about a trade bill (he called her ‘Elizabeth’).
Progressives think their vitriolic name-calling undermines their opponents. But Munger has it right: ‘The absence of [dissent] is harmful, not so much to those who would agree with the dissenting voice, but to those who are thus denied the chance to collide with error.’
A recent study suggests the Republican Party is the strongest it has been in decades. Should this trend continue, should liberals lose the minds and hearts of Americans, should prejudice not die but fester, then progressives need only look in the mirror to find whom to blame.
I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me
by Edward Schlosser
I'm a professor at a midsize state school. I have been teaching college classes for nine years now. I have won (minor) teaching awards, studied pedagogy extensively, and almost always score highly on my student evaluations. I am not a world-class teacher by any means, but I am conscientious; I attempt to put teaching ahead of research, and I take a healthy emotional stake in the well-being and growth of my students.
Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.
Not, like, in a person-by-person sense, but students in general. The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best.
What it was like before
In early 2009, I was an adjunct, teaching a freshman-level writing course at a community college. Discussing infographics and data visualization, we watched a flash animation describing how Wall Street's recklessness had destroyed the economy.
The video stopped, and I asked whether the students thought it was effective. An older student raised his hand.
"What about Fannie and Freddie?" he asked. "Government kept giving homes to black people, to help out black people, white people didn't get anything, and then they couldn't pay for them. What about that?"
I gave a quick response about how most experts would disagree with that assumption, that it was actually an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest, and isn't it good that someone made the video we just watched to try to clear things up? And, hey, let's talk about whether that was effective, okay? If you don't think it was, how could it have been?
The rest of the discussion went on as usual.
The next week, I got called into my director's office. I was shown an email, sender name redacted, alleging that I "possessed communistical [sic] sympathies and refused to tell more than one side of the story." The story in question wasn't described, but I suspect it had do to with whether or not the economic collapse was caused by poor black people.
My director rolled her eyes. She knew the complaint was silly bullshit. I wrote up a short description of the past week's class work, noting that we had looked at several examples of effective writing in various media and that I always made a good faith effort to include conservative narratives along with the liberal ones.
Along with a carbon-copy form, my description was placed into a file that may or may not have existed. Then ... nothing. It disappeared forever; no one cared about it beyond their contractual duties to document student concerns. I never heard another word of it again.
That was the first, and so far only, formal complaint a student has ever filed against me.
Now boat-rocking isn't just dangerous — it's suicidal
This isn't an accident: I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted. (I also make sure all my remotely offensive or challenging opinions, such as this article, are expressed either anonymously or pseudonymously). Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We've seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to "offensive" texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students' ire and sealed his fate. That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad, texts ranging from Upton Sinclair to Maureen Tkacik — and I wasn't the only one who made adjustments, either.
I am frightened sometimes by the thought that a student would complain again like he did in 2009. Only this time it would be a student accusing me not of saying something too ideologically extreme — be it communism or racism or whatever — but of not being sensitive enough toward his feelings, of some simple act of indelicacy that's considered tantamount to physical assault. As Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis writes, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Hurting a student's feelings, even in the course of instruction that is absolutely appropriate and respectful, can now get a teacher into serious trouble.
In 2009, the subject of my student's complaint was my supposed ideology. I was communistical, the student felt, and everyone knows that communisticism is wrong. That was, at best, a debatable assertion. And as I was allowed to rebut it, the complaint was dismissed with prejudice. I didn't hesitate to reuse that same video in later semesters, and the student's complaint had no impact on my performance evaluations.
In 2015, such a complaint would not be delivered in such a fashion. Instead of focusing on the rightness or wrongness (or even acceptability) of the materials we reviewed in class, the complaint would center solely on how my teaching affected the student's emotional state. As I cannot speak to the emotions of my students, I could not mount a defense about the acceptability of my instruction. And if I responded in any way other than apologizing and changing the materials we reviewed in class, professional consequences would likely follow.
I wrote about this fear on my blog, and while the response was mostly positive, some liberals called me paranoid, or expressed doubt about why any teacher would nix the particular texts I listed. I guarantee you that these people do not work in higher education, or if they do they are at least two decades removed from the job search. The academic job market is brutal. Teachers who are not tenured or tenure-track faculty members have no right to due process before being dismissed, and there's a mile-long line of applicants eager to take their place. And as writer and academic Freddie DeBoer writes, they don't even have to be formally fired — they can just not get rehired. In this type of environment, boat-rocking isn't just dangerous, it's suicidal, and so teachers limit their lessons to things they know won't upset anybody.
The real problem: a simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice
This shift in student-teacher dynamic placed many of the traditional goals of higher education — such as having students challenge their beliefs — off limits. While I used to pride myself on getting students to question themselves and engage with difficult concepts and texts, I now hesitate. What if this hurts my evaluations and I don't get tenure? How many complaints will it take before chairs and administrators begin to worry that I'm not giving our customers — er, students, pardon me — the positive experience they're paying for? Ten? Half a dozen? Two or three?
This phenomenon has been widely discussed as of late, mostly as a means of deriding political, economic, or cultural forces writers don't much care for. Commentators on the left and right have recently criticized the sensitivity and paranoia of today's college students. They worry about the stifling of free speech, the implementation of unenforceable conduct codes, and a general hostility against opinions and viewpoints that could cause students so much as a hint of discomfort.
IT'S NOT JUST THAT STUDENTS REFUSE TO COUNTENANCE UNCOMFORTABLE IDEAS — THEY REFUSE TO ENGAGE THEM, PERIOD.
I agree with some of these analyses more than others, but they all tend to be too simplistic. The current student-teacher dynamic has been shaped by a large confluence of factors, and perhaps the most important of these is the manner in which cultural studies and social justice writers have comported themselves in popular media. I have a great deal of respect for both of these fields, but their manifestations online, their desire to democratize complex fields of study by making them as digestible as a TGIF sitcom, has led to adoption of a totalizing, simplistic, unworkable, and ultimately stifling conception of social justice. The simplicity and absolutism of this conception has combined with the precarity of academic jobs to create higher ed's current climate of fear, a heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity in which safety and comfort have become the ends and the means of the college experience.
This new understanding of social justice politics resembles what University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. calls a politics of personal testimony, in which the feelings of individuals are the primary or even exclusive means through which social issues are understood and discussed. Reed derides this sort of political approach as essentially being a non-politics, a discourse that "is focused much more on taxonomy than politics [which] emphasizes the names by which we should call some strains of inequality [ ... ] over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them." Under such a conception, people become more concerned with signaling goodness, usually through semantics and empty gestures, than with actually working to effect change.
Herein lies the folly of oversimplified identity politics: while identity concerns obviously warrant analysis, focusing on them too exclusively draws our attention so far inward that none of our analyses can lead to action. Rebecca Reilly Cooper, a political philosopher at the University of Warwick, worries about the effectiveness of a politics in which "particular experiences can never legitimately speak for any one other than ourselves, and personal narrative and testimony are elevated to such a degree that there can be no objective standpoint from which to examine their veracity." Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics. In such an environment, it's no wonder that students are so prone to elevate minor slights to protestable offenses.
(It's also why seemingly piddling matters of cultural consumption warrant much more emotional outrage than concerns with larger material implications. Compare 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. The former outnumber the latter considerably, and their rhetoric is typically much more impassioned and inflated. I'd discuss this in my classes — if I weren't too scared to talk about abortion.)
The press for actionability, or even for comprehensive analyses that go beyond personal testimony, is hereby considered redundant, since all we need to do to fix the world's problems is adjust the feelings attached to them and open up the floor for various identity groups to have their say. All the old, enlightened means of discussion and analysis —from due process to scientific method — are dismissed as being blind to emotional concerns and therefore unfairly skewed toward the interest of straight white males. All that matters is that people are allowed to speak, that their narratives are accepted without question, and that the bad feelings go away.
So it's not just that students refuse to countenance uncomfortable ideas — they refuse to engage them, period. Engagement is considered unnecessary, as the immediate, emotional reactions of students contain all the analysis and judgment that sensitive issues demand. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in the New York Times, these refusals can shut down discussion in genuinely contentious areas, such as when Oxford canceled an abortion debate. More often, they affect surprisingly minor matters, as when Hampshire College disinvited an Afrobeat band because their lineup had too many white people in it.
Posted by jonjayray at 7:20 PM