Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Protests at Yale

The first point I want to makes about the student protests currently being held on the Yale campus, which have as their most proximate cause Prof. Christakis' email about offensive Haloween costumes, is that the "this isn't really about the email" argument seems not only weak, but disrespectful to the students involved. Yes, the evidence indicates that there are other serious matters going on at Yale, which merit strong protest, prompt administrative response, and decisive change. But the idea that the protests aimed at these professors - and it is not in dispute that there are protests aimed specifically at these professors, and specifically in response to this email - are themselves "really about" the other things going on, turns the students who are protesting these professors in response to this email into petulant children - taking out their understandable and justifiable frustrations about other things on the most recent and most convenient, but not directly related, target. So I'm not going to address that point, because I can't see how it cuts any ice.

Having read the email in question carefully several times, it seems to me to make the following three points - or at least to contain the seeds of them, since each is not fully developed. 1) There is good reason to doubt the competence of administrative authority to determine what is and is not offensive (notwithstanding that what came from the administration was a "suggestion" rather than a rule or policy - suggestions from high-ranking administrators are not ordinary suggestions); 2) the contemporary concept of cultural appropriation is problematic - it is an amorphous mass which has swallowed up the clearly important and reasonably well-defined notion of harmful cultural misrepresentation, and a discussion about how its boundaries should be determined is one that needs to be had; 3) even if administrative authority is competent to determine what is offensive and what is not, any administrative policy which succeeds at restricting everything offensive will almost inevitably cast too wide a net, and restrict forms of expression which, though transgressive, are also genuinely valuable in one way or another.

Now, my own view is that these three points are actually correct - but nothing I have to say depends on that (although I will delve a bit more deeply into 2) below). It is, at the very least, not out of the question that they are reasonable; and likewise, it is not by any means a foregone conclusion that they are themselves offensive or intolerant. Acknowledging this point does not imply that one cannot recognize the potential for harm in another person's choice of Halloween costume - that potential certainly exists, against the social, cultural, and historical background of contemporary America. It does not even imply that one cannot recognize the possibility of costumes so virulently racist that a punitive response on the part of the administration would be appropriate. But such situations already fall within the purview of existing codes of conduct at virtually all American universities.

There are two aspects of the specific response by students to these professors caused by this email which I want to discuss. The first is the desire for the administration to take on the role of determining and discouraging the offensive - the desire which point 1) above calls into question. I believe I understand the motivation behind this desire - the daily lived exhaustion, physical, emotional and cognitive, of living within social structures infected with systemic oppression. The weight of that consideration should by no means be underestimated. But the question which at least has to be asked is whether a society in which administrative authority plays this role is part of the just society we should be working toward, or is even a likely transitional step on the way to a just society. The reason this question is so important is that, even if we conclude that a university administration ought to play this role on a college campus, it is seriously in doubt whether the State should play an analogous role in society at large. And the interactions between university students and university administration is, quite appropriately, a training ground for the relationship between responsible citizens and the State. This point does not place the responsibility for fighting oppression solely on the shoulders of the oppressed - all students, and likewise all citizens, bear that responsibility, though the question of how to organize and coordinate the efforts of those who are directly affected and those who are not is an incredibly difficult one. The point about the importance of carefully considering, questioning, and debating the appropriate role of authority remains.

The second is the nature of the protest directly aimed at the professors, demanding their resignation in the event that the administration should fail to remove them. The troubling feature of this protest its unwillingness to engage in even forceful debate on the basis of reasons - more than this, its explicit and self-conscious rejection of the appropriateness of this in the present context. This applies even to the formal letter calling for the resignation, which manifestly mischaracterizes the content of the email it is a response to. But it applies far more to the preceding and ongoing campus protests. These are marked by a feature which has become a disturbing trend, an equating of disagreement itself with disrespect, a demand for apology in response to something which has caused emotional pain, which cannot even countenance the possibility that act which caused the pain was not wrong, that not every act which causes emotional pain is thereby wrong. This point brings us to a very thorny issue of epistemic authority. We can, should, and must recognize the epistemic authority of oppressed individuals and communities in relating both the events which mark their lives and their physical, mental, and emotional experiences of these events. This authority has not been recognized throughout American history, and today change on this front is thus far slight and excruciatingly slow. I do not doubt for a moment the reality of the pain being experienced by these students, or the fact that the email in question is the proximate cause. I recognize their epistemic authority on these points. But these descriptive questions must be distinguished from two normative questions (I use the term "normative" in its philosophical sense). The issue of epistemic authority on normative matters is much trickier than it is on descriptive matters; and it is not at all clear that the one translates into the other in the matters at hand - that is yet another question which must be open for honest and critical reflection and debate. The first normative question is the individual-level one of whether this pain - the self-reported inability to eat, sleep, attend class or do homework on the part of some student residents of this college - is reasonable. 

Now, the very questioning of the reasonableness of the emotional response to a specific perceived act of oppression by those who live within social structures which do systematically oppress them is incredibly fraught - the real and horrifying history of gaslighting makes this so. But to permanently place this question out of bounds is dangerous, in both the short-term and the long-term. First, doing so excludes the emotional responses of the oppressed from the realm of reason - it may look superficially as if what is being asserted is that all such responses are reasonable, but when we assert that something must be reasonable whatever its content may be, what we are actually doing is placing it outside of the realm of reason altogether. Some may think it obvious that the experience of emotional pain is outside the realm of reason; but there is in fact a large literature on emotional responses as a species of value judgment, and thus subject to standards of reasonableness - one of my professors, Robert Solomon, who passed long before his time, did much outstanding work on this topic. Second, it preempts much needed conversations about the genuine reasonableness of extreme responses in extreme circumstances - most notably the reasonableness under currently obtaining circumstances of expressing outrage through rioting, including property damage. As unpopular an opinion as this is, I think that such a response is not only understandable, or excusable (which is the strongest position I've seen even in the progressive media), but under circumstances which do actually obtain today, genuinely reasonable and justifiable - though I fear that to expand on this point would take us deeper into Marxist territory than most are comfortable with. Third, it preempts much needed discussion on a general level of the precise goals of social justice. Central to one such discussion is the concept of cultural appropriation, the contemporary interpretation of which is called into question in the email. 

Consider the following thought, which I arrived at independently but have since seen articulated by thinkers as profound as Adolph Reed, Jr., who has become one of my own intellectual heroes: the contemporary concept of cultural appropriation, in its radical expansion of the older notion of harmful cultural misrepresentation, has reduced the institutions, traditions, and artifacts of all the world's cultures to the category of property subject to theft, as this is understood in the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition. That reductive categorization demands an answer to the question of who owns this sort of property, a question which is designed for an answer with fine bright lines, and the only plausible candidate answer which purports to have sharp enough boundaries is that cultures are the product of "races" (the scare quotes indicate my own belief that this is a fictive construct), and thus "races" are the owners of the cultural property which may be "appropriated"--i.e. stolen. Reed cites the outstanding work of Walter Benn Michaels in this connection –

- and quite correctly, in my view, casts the "identarianism" of which this understanding of appropriation is a symptom as the left-wing of neoliberalism. Thus, far from being an essential component of social justice, concern for cultural appropriation as it is currently understood turns out to be a symptom of conceptual imperialism, all the more insidious for the inability of those who wield the concept to recognize this. This is my own view; but I do not claim to know it for a certainty. Rather, it is an example of a conversation which I believe is desperately needed, but which is excluded from conversation by an ideology which does not allow the reasonableness of offense to be scrutinized under any circumstances. Such an ideology blinds us to what is problematic about the very concepts being used to interpret the offense, which may themselves be far more harmful than the actual actions which count as offensive under that conceptual regime. And fourth, it preempts a much needed conversation about whether these students have been failed by their universities, their highschool and primary teachers, their parents, their purported role models in the struggle for social justice, and society at large, in being prepared for adulthood. The real and serious experience of these students in response to this email, the experience of not being able to eat, sleep, or work, in response to the expression of three reasonable and respectful (but by no means inarguable) opinions - we must ask the question of whether it is the experience of fully functioning, psychologically healthy adults, even against a background of systematic social oppression. Not having that discussion means missing multiple opportunities to address real problems in our society, problems related to the pressures of childhood and young adulthood under neoliberal capitalism, the demand for academic perfection coupled with the complete lack of basic security in life even following on the attainment of that alleged perfection, and the economic policy landscape that has created a world in which the children of the middle class must push themselves to the breaking point and beyond in order to have any hope of remaining middle class.

The second normative question is the public-level one of whether the response - the demand for resignation or firing - is reasonable. Here again, there is no obvious claim to epistemic authority; instead, there is a debate which needs to be had, and the dangers of an ideology which cannot see that, which cannot see where epistemic authority is not present while it fights for recognition in those arenas where it is.

All of this is to say that these students are not simply fighting for a basic right in the language of "safe spaces". The language, and the idea, of safe spaces is more powerful, pervasive, and pernicious than they are often made out to be. There are real issues, relating to questions of the appropriate limits on authority, the means and ends of social justice, and the concepts we use to interpret the world and our interactions with each other. In some cases, I see worrisome answers being given by this generation; and in others, I see a dangerous failure to engage in, or even recognize the appropriateness of, passionate - and as passionate as you like, you won't hear any criticisms of tone from me - but still reasoned debate.