Policies and Pluralism

I have been taking note of various policies on college campuses around the country. One trend I am noting, both at private and public colleges (but often particularly at private schools), includes the emergence of policies that reflect the desire to shelter students from situations or conversations that make them uncomfortable. There is an attitude out there that if someone is offended, it was a bad thing. This attitude tends to put the pressure on the person doing the talking, not the person “feeling” offended—all the responsibility is on the speaker to not say anything controversial, as opposed to the responsibility being on the listener to assume the best, seek to understand, and give grace to their fellow flawed person who, first of all, may have very different perspectives on life and who, second, is unlikely to be able to read the mind of the listener to know if what they are saying is being received well.

I want to be clear that I am in favor of the goals of teaching and modeling tolerance and respect, and I am not trying to defend the people who viciously state things for the purpose of harming or demeaning others. I want people to learn to seek understanding, to be capable of listening to viewpoints very different from their own without demeaning them, to learn to think critically and articulate their own viewpoints sensitively and with care.  Nevertheless, on many university campuses the policies are failing to accomplish this goal; in contrast, the policies end up turning civic responsibility upside down. Instead of learning that they should listen to different viewpoints and be capable of gracefully disagreeing while still being civil, students are being taught that they have the “right” to expect not to be offended. They don’t feel the need to respectfully articulate their discomfort or disagreement, but instead just complain to an institution that they expect will then clamp down on the offensive speech and silence the individual or group it is coming from. This common perspective of students and administrators should scare us…

We need to consider that there may be an underlying backdrop of censorship here. Realistically, if we are stifling viewpoints deemed “unacceptable” by university administrators or even by the majority of students, it is censorship.  We should have learned from history by now that stifling minority viewpoints because they are unpopular or disfavored is problematic—it runs counter to the principles of Free Speech that the United States has championed for so long, and moves us closer to the totalitarian regimes that have done so much damage to their citizens throughout history and today.

The question for me becomes, “Are there times when censorship is appropriate?  Lets back up.  Most people agree that children need to be protected, and that it is the role of parents, but also of society and government (to a certain extent), to provide this protection. I therefore think parents should limit what their children take in. In addition, elementary schools should limit what children can look at online and should carefully choose the influences they expose children too. A discussion bigger than this post is how schools should work with parents to still allow parents to be involved in some of those decisions (such as choosing to opt out of certain teaching materials for their children). I will just say, for now, that it is complicated.

Nevertheless, I think it should be clear that the university level is different. We are not dealing with children anymore—these are young people learning how to live on their own; how to make their own choices; how to participate in civic society; and what is appropriate in relating to other people and the government.  So the mandate to “protect” from all influences deemed “less acceptable” by the majority should fade away, and college students should be taught to think for themselves and to engage respectfully with ideas from all ends of the ideological spectrum. True respect and dialogue is grounded in listening and trying to understand, and has no room for entitlement.

We fail young people if, instead of teaching them to respectfully engage, we teach them that they have a right not to hear perspectives outside the academic mainstream.  If they believe that those in power should be able to stifle those not in power (without connecting this to the many tragedies of history that it produced), then it will lead to society’s decline and will doom us to the repetition of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization that have occurred over and over again in history. Unfortunately, it seems that is where much of University culture is headed… I recently read an interesting statement in an article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education.”  Laurie Essig, a liberal feminist scholar, says “We can never know the world by shutting it out. You can force disagreement to move out of the open, into the little nooks and crevices left after power has cleansed all offensive speech. But you can never make the disagreement disappear.” In the article, she is pointing out that US universities are stifling controversial and/or marginalized perspectives, leaving them little space to be articulated. I find it interesting that she is feeling that as a person on the far left. Many religious people with strong religious viewpoints that some might label “intolerant” are experiencing a similar reality. Yet there is a blindness among administrators that they are creating this artificial space where only the “acceptable” and “non-offensive” majoritarian viewpoints are able to flourish.

Instead, I believe young people should be taught to live in a pluralistic society.  Let me be careful to describe what I mean by Pluralism.  I grew up thinking pluralism is bad—I thought it was basically saying there is no such thing and truth. Therefore, I concluded, Christianity required me to be anti-pluralism, since we believe that there is one truth.  But true pluralism is not the cliché of the “coexist” bumper sticker. We should instead think of it as a respect for and promotion of healthy diversity and discussion, but without having to erase our differences. It is this type of discussion that promotes understanding and compassion, and helps people to authentically engage with those different than themselves.

As my friend John Inazu persuasively describes, “A confident pluralism seeks to maximize the spaces where dialogue and persuasion can coexist alongside deep and intractable differences about beliefs, commitments, and ways of life. It suggests that we ought to resist coercive efforts aimed at getting people to “fall in line” with the majority. There are, of course, limits to this resistance. Some limits, like enforcing majority norms against human sacrifice, are obvious. Others, like criminalizing marijuana use, are more contested. But a confident pluralism presumes a broad capacity to differ meaningfully from state and majoritarian norms.” , John Inazu, A Confident Pluralism, 88 So. Ca. L.Rev. 587, 592 (2015).

I am in favor of moving towards this type of dialogue. I want to listen and try to understand people from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum as myself.  I also think I will find that, while our perspectives remain far apart, we will find that society will benefit from seeing us engage respectfully, instead of society trying to police and silence opinions that someone might take offense at.

Thinking society should protect you from offensive ideas instead of learning to take responsibility to respond and address different ideas by engaging respectfully is dangerous (although this does not mean we can’t point out the dangerous direction an individual’s logic is leading, such as with racist propaganda). In contrast, practicing listening, dialogue and critical thinking will lead to healthy and lasting friendships and community—perhaps those are principles that we should be more focused on teaching at the university level.

I am not saying this is simple. I bristle when I see offensive language, racism, violence and sexuality all over—and part of me just wants it silenced. And I definitely censor it for my children because that is my job as their parent—I am to protect them and give them wisdom so that they can make good choices later and engage appropriately with the world. BUT the feeling that I want to stop it from existing through an exercise of power and censorship is not the best answer. I do want to stop it—but I don’t want to do it through domination and authority. I want to do it by engaging lovingly and showing that there is a better way.  It is through seeking to understand, through dialogue, through compassion that we will achieve change. This is a different kind of power—it is the power that Jesus displayed in how he came to this world through his incarnation.

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