Climate Concerns and Climate Action

This week young people around the world are making their voices heard in leading a chorus of concern about the catastrophic dangers of climate change. On Friday, Sept. 20 many will be engaged in a climate strike – breaking from their regular routines to call attention to the importance of changing the way we use the earth’s resources. Here on campus, faculty are organizing events to raise awareness about the threat posed by climate change. Others, including students, will travel to New York to participate in workshops and lectures on these issues in relation to social justice organized by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, of which Wesleyan’s College of the Environment is a founding member.

Over the years, students have urged the University to change its investment policies in response to the climate crisis. I am pleased to report that the Investment Committee of Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees has voted to eliminate any permanent allocation to “oil and gas” from its asset allocation model. What does this mean? It means that Wesleyan will no longer seek out managers specifically to invest in oil and gas in order to balance its portfolio as a whole. This is a significant step, as the University had previously sought to invest around 7 percent of its endowment in this sector. Furthermore, any new investment managers hired must meet our ethics, governance and social responsibility expectations. As stated now in our guidelines: “in selecting external managers or considering direct investments,” the Investment Committee will “consider environmental, social and governance factors as part of their investment process.” Just as we aim to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy on campus, I expect we will steadily reduce our dependence on fossil fuels investments in the endowment.

Plans at Wesleyan for the day of climate action on Friday, Sept. 20 are still taking shape, but here are some of the scheduled events:

  • 12–2 p.m. Global Climate Rally (Usdan courtyard): Speeches by student groups and other members of the Wesleyan community, followed by an on-campus march.
  • 4:30 p.m. (Exley 150): Climate Rant by Professor of Physics Brian Stewart (who will also convert his 1:20 p.m. class into a climate teach-in at Exley 150)
  • 6 p.m. (Church St. or Washington Ave.) Candle Light Vigil

During the following week, Sept. 23­–27, the COE will organize more teach-ins. On Sept. 25, the COE will host a discussion among students at Wesleyan, Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev, and Universidade do Sao Paulo about climate change and coordinated action among young people.

More program information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/pg/wesleyancoe/events/.

Teaching and Religion

This essay on teaching intellectual history courses that take religion seriously builds on some pages in Safe Enough Spaces. It recently appeared in The Atlantic

 

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.

Wesleyan Music Festival (The Mash) Sept 6th

For the past several years, we’ve inaugurated the first week of the semester with The Mash — Wesleyan’s fall version of the festival of music. Students, staff and faculty join in with song, dance, general merriment on the first Friday of the semester. This year’s MASH will kick off on Friday, September 6th at 3:00 pm on Andrus Field, and we expect 3 hours of great music.

This year we look forward to at least a dozen new acts to be opening our ears on stages between the back of Olin Library and the front of the Usdan Center. Come on out and join friends and classmates in a good boogie, or just engaged listening. It’s fall, it’s music, it’s Wesleyan, and IT’S THE MASH!

 

 

Make Our Spaces “Safe-Enough”

Happy first day of classes! Last week the New York Times published an op-ed I wrote urging that we not be too critical of the idea of safe spaces. This is related to my new book Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness. By the way, I’m donating the royalties I receive from the book to the endowed scholarship Kari and I set up here at Wesleyan.

 

As a new school year begins and students prepare to head off to college, there will be the usual excitement among family and friends as well as anxiety about the unknowns. Will these young people, especially those first-year students who are essentially entering into a new society, forge friendships? Will they be inspired and supported by their teachers? What will they learn and how will they establish good habits for study and physical and mental health? Will they be happy? Will they be safe?

To those familiar with campus politics, that last question may seem like a loaded one. The idea of a “safe space” — in the broadest terms, the attempt to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom — has become a favorite target of critics who claim to worry about the preservation of free speech on campus. Easily caricatured or ridiculed, safe spaces can seem like an extreme form of what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “vindictive protectionism,” with social justice border agents policing conversations for possible microaggressions that might inadvertently wound someone.

Is this fair? That depends.

To be sure, there are plenty of examples of sanctimonious “safetyism” — counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile. Instead of teaching young people to find resources in themselves to deal with chagrin and anxiety, some school officials offer hand-holding, beanbags and puppies. Infantilizing students by overprotecting them, or just treating them as consumers who have to be kept happy at all costs, can be easier and more profitable for institutions than allowing students to learn the hard way that the world is a challenging place and that they have to figure out ways of dealing with it.

On the other hand, the outright dismissal of safe spaces can amount to a harmful disregard for the well-being of students; it can perpetuate environments where the entitled continue to dominate those around them and students never learn how to build a more equitable, inclusive community. With mental health and suicide crises emerging on some campuses, the idea of universities taking conscious steps to protect and nurture students emotionally as well as physically should be welcome.

So what’s a university to do?

The first answer is obvious: We should begin by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.

As a college president for almost 20 years, I am a strong proponent of creating spaces that are “safe enough” on college campuses. (Here, I draw from the psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” parent, who enables a child to flourish by letting them experience frustration and failure within the safety of the family, not by coddling or overprotecting.) Like families, campus cultures are different, but each should promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables students to learn and grow — to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative. That basic sense is feeling “safe enough.”

Despite the feverish urgency of contemporary debates, the idea of a safe space isn’t at all new. The concept can be traced back to Kurt Lewin, a founder of social psychology and of management theory. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Lewin was asked to work with supervisors and psychologists at the Harwood Manufacturing Company, a family-owned textile company that, having relocated a factory, found itself with a less experienced and more female work force. Lewin wanted to test the impact of participatory decision-making on productivity and absenteeism with small groups of employees, but he had to get honest (and hence useful) answers from workers who might be worried about speaking out in earshot of the boss.

Lewin and his colleagues created “safe spaces” in which groups of employees and managers could speak honestly about working conditions and productivity goals without fear of retaliation or retribution. When members of the group felt they could freely participate in setting factory goals, productivity increased. No puppies there, not even immunity from criticism — only the feeling that one could speak one’s mind without being attacked or losing one’s job.

As the idea of safe spaces moved from industrial psychology on the manufacturing floor to the private, therapeutic setting, clinicians saw a key benefit in their patients’ being able to more easily change their minds, to “unfreeze,” if they felt safe enough to entertain criticism and alternative ideas. In group therapy, the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote, one “must experience the group as a safe refuge within which it is possible to entertain new beliefs and experiment with new behavior without fear of reprisal.” This wasn’t overprotective safetyism — just an environment in which one could speak more freely and encounter different ideas.

In the 1970s, feminist groups created their own “safe spaces” where women could come together and share accounts of life in a sexist society without fear of retaliation. In the gay liberation movement, the concept was equally important. In the face of discrimination, safe spaces allowed for community building. These arenas were not devoid of disagreement, but they were safe enough for the development of a political movement without interference by dominant and hostile groups. Moira Kenney has charted the importance of these spaces for lesbian and feminist groups in Los Angeles 50 years ago, and today the radical feminist bookstore Bluestockings refers to its safer spaces for resistance and critical thinking.

For different people at different times, safety can mean different things, but the baseline is certainly physical security. For most of the past 100 years, students of color were at risk in many campus spaces, as they were in most cities in America. When I was a college student in the 1970s, female students were routinely targeted by male professors who found it easier to get sexual partners among 19-year-olds than among women their own age. Back then, gay students knew that walking near a fraternity house during pledge week might result in getting beaten up as part of a pledging ritual. There were plenty of campus spaces that weren’t safe for different segments of the student body. Today, campuses are safer, and it would be hard to find anyone arguing that this isn’t a good thing.

Still, college women must continue to take special precautions to ensure their well-being; they pass on the knowledge that at certain parties it’s just not safe to drink from a punch bowl because some guys might spike it with knockout pills, or that it is best to stay away from certain professors who have a history of coming on to their students. Students point out that some among them are more vulnerable than others, and they warn that some spaces (and the people who administer them) are more dangerous than others. Does all this mean students are more fragile? Hardly. It means students are protecting themselves.

Critics of “safe spaces” don’t, of course, want to return to the days when students from certain demographic groups were at greater risk on some parts of a campus. What they worry about is that the idea of such places encourages the isolation of groups of students from questions that might take them outside their comfort zones. Throughout American culture, groups are enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view, even from disturbing information; this siloing of perspectives is being exacerbated by social media and economic and cultural segregation.

Universities must push back against this tide; our classrooms should never be so comfortable that intellectual confrontation becomes taboo or assumptions go unchallenged because everyone’s emotional well-being is overprotected. Instead, we must promote intellectual diversity in a context in which people can feel safe enough to challenge one another. Vigorous scholarly exchange and academic freedom depend on it.

Acknowledging that campuses need “safe enough” spaces is not saying that students need protection from argument or the discovery that they should change their minds. It is saying that students should be able to participate in argument and inquiry without the threat of harassment or intimidation. Calling for such spaces is to call for schools to promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables all students to thrive — to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative and not destructive. That basic sense is feeling “safe enough” to explore differences without fear and work toward positive outcomes with courage.

Students and their families make great efforts and sacrifices to put themselves on our campuses. Ensuring they have “safe enough spaces” when they get there is our basic obligation. It’s the least we can do.

Yay, It’s Arrival Day!!

One of the most exciting moments of the academic year at Wesleyan is seeing the new students arrive in late August. This year we mostly beat the rain and got folks moved in. As usual, the athletic teams joined in to help unload giving us all a very big lift. THANK YOU to all who are making arrival day a great entry for new Wesleyans!

From Foss Hill on Arrival Day morning

At the Butterfield dorms

International students & family assembly
First meeting of Class of 2023!

Cancel the PC Label — And the Conformist Outrage that Goes With It

Yesterday the Boston Globe published this op-ed on the misleading use of the term “political correctness.” I reproduce it here. I’ve been doing some radio interviews about Safe Enough Spaces. Here are the links: WNYC WPR and the Jim Bohannon show.

 

As the school year gets underway and we get further into the presidential election season, whenever a commentator complains about college campuses or a politician needs a boogeyman to attack, we can be pretty sure that the words “politically correct” will get tossed around.

Call for more diversity in casting movies and television shows? You’ll get labeled politically correct. Describe how the rhetoric of white nationalism incites violence? You’ll be told you’re being “PC.” The phrase has long been a free pass for avoiding serious issues, and nothing seems easier for self-proclaimed individualists than joining in with others who reject PC conformism.

Donald Trump realized the power of being anti-PC somewhere between his guest appearances on the Howard Stern radio show and his run for the presidency: No matter what he said or did, he could earn credit for rejecting the politically correct. It’s always a response available to a president who uses his Twitter feed as a weapon against the marginalized.

In my new book, “Safe Enough Spaces,” I chart the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” Among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be politically incorrect, or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness, was not atypical banter. By the 1990s, though, accusations of political correctness became a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy.

Setting the stage for this was philosopher Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987). He didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses, plagued by “moral relativism,” into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. That prejudice, which students believe is just moral common sense, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth. We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right. With his surprise best seller, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to best-selling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to sexualized rock music and for their deafness to the higher pleasures of philosophical contemplation.

By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it. Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions.

Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself. But how to tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African-Americans oversensitive about stop-and-frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out mis-gendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling and assuming the status of the victimized are among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. Students, faculty, and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both call-out culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees.

Conversations about race, the economy, bias, sexual assault, climate change, or the winner-take-all economy all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language, and sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get called out for their supposed racism or privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being criticized or stigmatized. But they should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage — for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best refutation of the PC charge.

Debates on campuses can get nasty, but they are productive when they endure; compared with what one sees on the national political stage, college communities have the ability to tolerate conflict. Hopefully, there are other places in America today where arguments about important issues are taking place among people from different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

So when the predictable sanctimonious criticism of political correctness is repeated in the coming months, let’s try to overcome this conformity of complaint and cultivate instead the ability to be open to a multiplicity of perspectives. On campus or on the campaign trail, we will certainly learn more that way.

Young People Resisting Fascism (in France)

This past weekend the Wall Street Journal published my review of Amherst College professor Ronald Rosbottom’s new book on young people in the French Resistance. My work in graduate school and for the first 15 years or so of my academic career was in modern French history. It was a pleasure to return to those topics while reading Sudden Courage. I reproduce the review here.

 

Ronald Rosbottom has been teaching college students for many years now, and his affection for and curiosity about them must be very strong. He has also been studying French literature and history for many years, devoting much of the past decade to understanding how France responded to the Nazi occupation during World War II.

In 2014 he published “When Paris Went Dark,” an account of what it was like to live in the French capital during those awful years. Now he asks what it was like for students at that time. How did some of them, as young as those he teaches at Amherst College, make the leap from adolescent antics to standing up against the German invaders? Mr. Rosbottom touched on this in his earlier book, and he probably had more interesting material than he could fit into that volume.

In “Sudden Courage: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940-1945” the author finds many points of light in young people who acted with bravery, passion and savvy in confronting a brutal enemy willing to exact the ultimate punishment on those who got in its way. Mr. Rosbottom’s sources tend to be memoirs, letters, diaries and the occasional historical novel. As in his earlier book, he proves to be a fine story-teller but doesn’t have much to say about the traditional concerns of historians regarding social context or patterns of behavior that might shed light on the actions of individuals. He is convinced that young people (sometimes he means adolescents, sometimes people under 30) were the energetic core of the Resistance, but he provides no real evidence that this was the case. He cites one contemporary claim that 75% of the résistants were under 30, but how do we know this is accurate? Toward the end of the book, Mr. Rosbottom mentions that young people were also engaged in enforcing the cruel laws of Vichy. Were they the energetic core of the Collaboration as well? This, he tells the reader in a rather odd concluding chapter, is not his subject.

Guy Môquet in an undated photograph. PHOTO:UIG/GETTY IMAGES

SUDDEN COURAGE

By Ronald C. Rosbottom
Custom House, 320 pages, $27.99

No, Mr. Rosbottom’s subject, one which incites his sympathy and admiration, is the young who risked everything to fight an oppressive regime, to stand up for what’s right, to protect the most vulnerable of their friends and neighbors. Early on in “Sudden Courage,” he gives an account of the legendary Guy Môquet, whose father (a communist deputy to the National Assembly) had been arrested after the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed. Guy worked tirelessly to free him, first protesting against the Third Republic and then against the French police who collaborated with the German Occupation.

Guy Môquet was only 16 when he was jailed. Held against court orders by French police in a maximum security prison, he was executed within a year, in retaliation for the assassination by communists of a German soldier.

The Nazis demanded that prisoners, especially Jews and communists, be considered hostages, and when a German was attacked anywhere in the country, these hostages could be murdered. The idea was to make resistance seem like a cruel act against French prisoners—for they would be the ones to pay the price. It didn’t work: Môquet became a martyr for the Resistance in general and for the communists in particular. His memory is still invoked today as an example of patriotic précocité résistante.

After 1942, things got more serious for all. The Nazis weren’t winning speedy victories in the East anymore, and they drafted young French people to replenish factories in Germany. The danger for young Jews increased, as French police rounded up families to be deported to death camps. Mr. Rosbottom awkwardly writes that “Gentile French were appalled” by this, and certainly there were many who felt the sting of conscience and who spoke out. But the “Gentile” French police continued their dirty work.

“Sudden Courage” looks at the good guys, with a chapter added at the end about the courageous women and girls of the Resistance. It has many inspirational tales to tell, like that of the memoirist Maroussia Naïtchenko, who as a teenager often put her life on the line in friendship and solidarity with other brave young communist French patriots. Mr. Rosbottom avoids engaging in the intense debates that take place among historians as to whether France should be cheered for saving around 75% of its Jews, or condemned for sending a quarter of them to their deaths. Nor does he ask about the role of young people in the épuration, the violent prosecution of collaborators in the aftermath of the Liberation, in which tens of thousands were punished and several thousand executed outright. Were courageous youth on both sides of this purge?

The author does wonder “how many Frenchmen who assisted in the punishment and murder of their own fellow citizens would live long lives of guilt” and if they were ever afraid of being denounced. Sudden courage and lifelong fear are hard to separate in the story of Vichy France and its aftermath, but Mr. Rosbottom is committed to staying on the sunny side of the street where heroic young people defy the odds and attempt great things. That may not be history, but theirs are lives worth remembering—especially if, like the author, we still look to young people for idealism and inspiration.

Interview on Safe Enough Spaces

This week, Inside Higher Education published an email interview I did with its editor on my new book (out August 20th), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale Press). I’m hoping some find the book useful as they consider various debates about the politics of higher education. I’ll try to live up to the positions articulated in this slim volume, or modify those positions as a result of conversations with students, faculty and staff.

As president of Wesleyan University since 2007, Michael S. Roth is no stranger to the debates that have consumed American higher education. He has defended invitations to controversial speakers, generally those who are on the right. He’s called for institutions like Wesleyan to be as welcoming to conservative students as to liberals. In a new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale University Press), Roth talks about how to defend free speech and campus values of inclusion — and also touches on issues of affirmative action.

Q: You write that “wherever one stands on issues of affirmative action, most can agree that diversity isn’t just about admissions — it’s about the educational culture created by a university.” But given the debates about getting in, do you think universities do a good job with affirmative action?

A: There are at least three different debates going on about access to universities in the United States. The first is a debate about how to make college more affordable, more accessible, to more young people across the country. This is a crucial conversation that depends on shoring up public support for community colleges and public universities — schools that enroll the majority of those enrolled in higher education. And we don’t just have to figure out how to provide access to these schools; we need to improve completion rates while reducing debt levels. Free college for everyone may make for a popular stump speech, but what we really need is affordable college for those with financial need. This will take massive public investment.

The other “debate about getting in” has to do with how people are chosen for admission to highly selective colleges and universities. This will always be fraught because there are many, many more qualified applicants than there are spots available at highly selective schools. I don’t think admissions should be based on a single exam or group of exams, and in a holistic process, there will always be the possibility of some controversy. (And even with exams, controversy follows from perceived scarcity.) There will always be complaints that someone had an unfair advantage in the process (and some do). Still, part of the responsibility of college admissions departments is to bring in a class that makes it possible for all students to benefit from a diverse student body; the responsibility of the institution is to create an environment in which people can learn with/from folks different from themselves. The colleges and universities that I know work very hard to build equitable diversity through admissions; the even greater challenge these days is creating equitable inclusion for all students after they matriculate. I address this subject in the first section of Safe Enough Spaces.

There is a third debate I should mention regarding elite schools, and that is around the question of whether they are cementing inequality or providing paths for social mobility. The data recently analyzed by Raj Chetty and his colleagues show that the former is often the case. Although many schools have made progress in diversifying their student bodies, it is still true that in many of the most selective institutions more undergraduates come from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from the bottom 60 percent. It is clear that inequality in America has long affected elementary and high schools, and that it is increasingly difficult for low-income families to find educational opportunities that will result in their students being college-ready at age 17. Colleges can’t themselves correct for this systemic problem in K-12 education.

Richard V. Reeves has described “opportunity hoarding” by the wealthiest fifth of the American population. The upper middle class has focused on securing special privileges for its children, he writes, adding that “education has … become the main mechanism for the reproduction of upper-middle-class status across generations.” As inequality has gotten worse, the benefit of having a college diploma has gotten greater. Still, at many elite schools we continue to privilege the privileged — whether through admissions offices that give alumni relatives an advantage, or through geographically based marketing plans that aim recruiting messages at those already most likely to succeed because of the advantages they already have. Some schools have made significant changes, but providing more opportunity for deep learning among the most marginalized populations remains a challenge. This is an important priority for us at Wesleyan University, and we have created strong partnerships with community-based organizations to make economically sustainable progress in this regard. What would it take for all schools to think of this as a civic responsibility essential to their mission?

Q: What do you make of the criticisms from academe of Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein?

A: Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy.The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. Now, Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost 30 years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Q: What do you make of the term “politically correct”?

A: Safe Enough Spaces charts the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” Among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. By the 1990s, though, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. Setting the stage for this was philosopher Bloom’s bestseller. With Closing of the American Mind, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself. But how to tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized are among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class … all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage — for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Q: You talk of mostly supporting free speech on campus. Who would be justifiably barred by a (private) campus?

A: The libertarian or marketplace approach to free speech often claims that if anyone is excluded from speaking, we are on a slippery slope to pernicious censorship. Drawing on the work of several other scholars, I argue that if there is a slippery slope, we are always already on it. Defenses of free speech always exclude something. As Stanley Fish has often reminded us, for the poet John Milton (a favorite of free speech absolutists), Catholics were excluded from free speech protections. For us today, child pornography or incitements to violence would usually be considered beyond the pale. Typically, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

That said, I don’t have a formula for excluding speakers or performers from campus. In Safe Enough Spaces, I do point out that we do not have to provide a platform for those whose principal goal is the intimidation or persecution of others. Sometimes, a group of people may say they feel assaulted by someone else’s ideas, but we should have a very high threshold for accepting that someone’s ideas are too disturbing for us to even try to refute them. However, to say that a university is a marketplace of ideas where we must entertain all provocateurs is neither an accurate description of higher education nor a legitimate principle on which to build policy.

When markets are unregulated, real pollution, real harm, occurs — and those who are hurt tend to be those who historically have been vulnerable. In the last several years, the pollution on campus has often come from right-wing provocateurs who come to speak at institutions of higher learning to add credence and energy to racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes and practices. This dynamic increases in intensity as harmful effects are repeated. When those in positions of authority insist that this is not real harm because it’s not physical violence, or when First Amendment fundamentalists opine that “all of us” sometimes feel marginalized, it is no wonder that many students have learned to see the ideology of market deregulation at the heart of free speech dogmatism. They have learned this because they have experienced that power matters in regard to speech as well as other things. University leaders must be conscious of this as they work within their particular campus cultures to expand intellectual diversity and to promote the engagement with difference. We must not let the absolutist doctrine of “more speech” become as unhealthy for universities as the doctrine of deregulation has been for the environment.

Q: How do you see the issues differently on public campuses?

A: I have spent my career at private institutions, and I don’t pretend to have any expertise about public universities. That said, every campus — public or private — has its own distinctive culture, regulations and relationship to the political sphere. Navigating the various constituencies of those cultures so as to promote a richer education for all is the task of administrative and faculty leadership. At public institutions one has the added burden of dealing with state legislatures that often are reluctant to fund quality research and teaching, and these same officials often create conditions for the operation of public campuses that may have little to do with their educative purposes. However, the task of expanding intellectual diversity while cultivating inclusion for the sake of deeper learning is common to us all — as is the task of making a case for this learning and the research which makes it possible.

Do Something: Fight the Rise of Fascism and Terror

Another shattering few days of violence, at least a good part of which was inflicted on communities of color in the name of white nationalism. Terrorism has become a pressing part of the American political scene as choreographed racist resentment and fear mongering inspire members of already active fascist groups to use weapons of war to kill and create even more fear. As philosopher Jason Stanley has been pointing out, these are some of the ways fascism works.

Although I have written many times before, alas, about how these mass killings underscore the importance of gun safety laws, it is imperative that we see and come to grips with the ideological dimensions of right-wing terrorism. If verified, the El Paso shooter’s manifesto provides a chilling look into the mechanisms of creating violence to defend white supremacy. The fear is of an invasion, or of being replaced, and instead of seeing a demographic transition, the author envisions an apocalyptic threat. As historian Kathleen Belew wrote of the manifesto in today’s New York Times:

It has paragraphs that give rote gesture to not being white supremacist, even as the document invokes phrase after phrase, ideological marker after ideological marker, of the white power movement. These are all markers of the genre.

We can all recognize the similarities with the rhetoric of the president, who on the one hand encourages violence against immigrants, and on the other hand will condemn the El Paso shooter as “deranged.” We see the “markers of the genre” in Trump’s discourse.

These mass shootings are not just meaningless acts of isolated, troubled individuals. They are the product of ideological rage and the rhetoric that goes with it.

What are we to do after we mourn the victims? First, we understand the mechanisms for promoting domestic terrorism, and we ensure that our institutions disrupt them. Second, we organize so as to create civic institutions that respect the diversity of our country and protect its most vulnerable inhabitants. This will involve creating a public sphere that inspires trust rather than fear, that promotes connectivity among people across their differences rather than the isolation of one group from another.

Colleges and universities have a role to play here, too. We must promote civic preparedness so that our students can learn from those with a variety of political, moral and aesthetic views without this openness compromising their abilities to fight fascism when it rears its ugly head. Violence, pseudo-science and fear are being “carefully taught” to those who would abide ethno-nationalism. We can counter this by teaching how to recreate a public sphere that is open to democratic participation and is fierce in the determination to fight terror.

Reviewing Lewis Hyde on Forgetting

In Sunday’s Washington Post I published a review of a new book on forgetting by Lewis Hyde. For many years, I was very engaged with memory studies, and my own area of interest was in memory abnormalities. I was focused on diseases of memory, especially as they were understood in 19th century Europe: amnesia, nostalgia, hysteria. I published related essays on these topics in The Ironist’s Cage:Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History (1995) and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past (2011).

Lewis Hyde will be visiting Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts in November. He’s a fascinating thinker — whether you’re interested in neuroscience, politics, the arts, or just in how to make sense of the past. 

How much memory do you want? asks the salesperson at the technology store. Watching the evening news, I see commercials for a pill that will enhance my memory almost as often as I see ads for another pill that will regulate my mood. I wonder if one medication counteracts the other. We live in a culture that seems to prize memory, even as it gives us technological tools to eliminate our need for it. I can ask my phone for most bits of information that I have trouble bringing to mind, and if I forget where I left my phone, my iPad can remind me.

Still, memory remains a subject of reflection and anxiety — not least because as people live longer, more of them are surviving without connections to their past. The destruction of memory caused by Alzheimer’s disease is often experienced as a destruction of the self. It can be terrifying to those who suffer from it and seem like the ultimate cruelty to loved ones who are no longer recognized. In “A Primer for Forgetting,” Lewis Hyde doesn’t ignore the pain of involuntary amnesia, but he is much more interested in the liberating aspects of “getting past the past,” as his subtitle puts it.

His book is organized loosely — it’s made up of four notebooks of aphorisms and reflections on a wide variety of sources that discuss what it means to lose the past. When you turn your attention to forgetting, does that mean you are in fact remembering? This question runs through Hyde’s beautiful prose like a bright red thread, or perhaps a string tied around your finger. He wants readers to acknowledge how sweet it can be to get free of one’s memories — free of the baggage attached to the self. The weight of the past can lock us into repetition; it can also instigate a desire to set the past right, to correct or avenge misdeeds. “The tree of memory set its roots in blood,” Hyde emphasizes, and he asks, “Could there be an art of forgetting that puts an end to bloodshed?”

Hyde’s four notebooks explore Myth, Self, Nation and Creation. He surveys Western traditions and delves into Buddhist teachings that urge us to let go of ego-building in favor of nourishing “serene self-forgetfulness.” Hyde is especially attracted to artists who manage to forget their habits of mind to unleash the freedom of creative thought.

But what of the wounds of the past? Doesn’t the quest for justice insist on remembrance? It is to Hyde’s great credit that he dwells on cases that demand recollection to shake off the chains of past horrors. He remembers the young African American men, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, who in 1964 were brutally tortured by Klansmen before being drowned in the Mississippi River. It wasn’t that hard to find those responsible, but it took more than 40 years for anyone to be brought to justice. Hyde is fascinated by Thomas Moore, brother of the murdered Charles, who for years plotted violent revenge but wound up going back to the scene of the crime and forgiving one of those responsible. Hyde discovers a sense of awe and mystery in the way Thomas “freed himself from servitude to the Unforgettable, and became the agent of his own recollections.” This Thomas Moore didn’t need a utopia. He achieved the freedom that comes with some forgetting and was nourished by the peace that forgiveness brings.

Thomas, who had long suffered from the memories of violent injustice, achieved agency through the “work of forgetting.” For Hyde, there is a lesson here for those who wind up paying for the ways nations construct their bloody myths. Victors manipulate memory to perpetuate injustice, as the United States did when it urged citizens to forget the strife of the Civil War so as to preserve white supremacy. “Violence denied and repressed doesn’t disappear,” Hyde writes, “it repeats.” He wants nothing to do with the “organized forgetting” that perpetuates America’s “foundational violence.” But Thomas’s path to forgiveness gives Hyde hope that the “people saddled with history can work on the past rather than have the past work on [them].”

But tough questions remain. How to tell what deserves remembrance and what will just poison the present? How does one “adaptively mourn” in a way that acknowledges the past without being subsumed by it? These are not questions Hyde can answer definitively, but he raises and examines them from a variety of perspectives. He praises getting free of the past, but he knows that forgetting can be its own horror; he has seen his Alzheimer’s- stricken mother awash in anxiety at not recognizing the man claiming to be her son. Hyde confesses, “Sometimes I think it is hopeless, this quest for beneficent forgetting.”

But this is his quest, and he turns to various traditions of leaving the self behind in pursuit of answers. He admires the composer John Cage’s efforts to hear sounds as if he had never encountered them before, to leave behind his habits of attention. And Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who made forgetting heroic, is always close at hand. For Nietzsche, no great deed is possible without some amnesia. But Hyde is no Nietzschean; he’s closer to Henry David Thoreau, who relished the sense of losing something instead of pounding his chest to insist that there was never anything to be lost. Thoreau, like Hyde, remembers forgetting, but he is consumed by neither memory nor loss. The last words of “A Primer For Forgetting” are “teach me to disappear.” But there they are: words visible on the page — the trace of a lesson.

A PRIMER FOR FORGETTING
Getting Past the Past
By Lewis Hyde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
372 pp. $28