Taboos

The growing number of restrictions on our speech and thought are alarming. Increasingly, there are things we must not say or think lest we hurt the feelings of someone somewhere. And while the impulses that have taken us in this direction are well-meaning and even laudable, they threaten to constrict thought and speech to the point where we are struck dumb.

In reading the Australian sociologist John Carroll’s book on Guilt published in 1985 I came across a passage that would today get some folks riled up. He is speaking about the

“. . .pervasive influence that the Romantic movement has had on modern Western sensibilities [that] require us to look into the guilt that flows through the high sublimation of its literature. . . .The hostility to the constraints of society, the elevation of spontaneity of feeling and sensitivity, of passion over reason, of art over work, all suggest identification with female traits, and hostility to the signs of the patriarchal father — order, control, artifact.”

The suggestion that there are “female traits” would be dismissed by the outraged radical feminists among us as completely out of order. And this despite the fact that those traits are evident and important. In fact, if our culture were less masculine, less inclined to violence, to control and take, and more feminine, more compassionate and caring — more in tune with our “Mother Earth” — we would all be better off. The point here is that constraining speech and thought by insisting that certain words and phrases are out of order results in the dismissal of those ideas that might help us understand more clearly what is going on around us.

The list of taboo words and phrases grows as the Political Correctness Police on our college campuses strive to turn them from educational institutions into Care Clinics. The irony here should be obvious: the desire to purge our college campuses of nasty and hurtful thoughts is in every way an expression of the “female traits” of which Carroll speaks and that desire is heartily supported by the feminists on college campuses who also object to the notion that there ARE such things as “female traits.”

But the problem goes even deeper as we hear about comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld who will no longer visit college campuses because of the restrictions on his comedic thrusts — which, let’s face it, are very gentle to say the least. Have we, after all, lost our sense of humor? The notion that there are growing numbers of things we simply should not allow anyone to say (or think) places restrictions not only on comedians but also on others who would say things on campus that might hurt someone’s feelings. But, surely, we should point out that someone somewhere will be hurt by something that someone says at some time. Of all places, college campuses should allow the free expression of ideas and speech in spite of the fact that something someone says might hurt someone’s feelings. That’s just the way of the world. In protecting our students from hurtful words and thoughts we hamper their intellectual development.

As quoted recently in a publication by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, this point was made evident on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts where 400 college professors signed a petition

“. . .to adopt the Chicago Principles. The petition states, ‘While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with.’ . . . Students have issued a counter-petition in which they argue that the unfettered free speech supported by the Chicago Principles harms minority students.”

The ACTA has taken a stand with the 400 faculty members. But the likelihood these days is that the college will side with the students in the end.

The problem, of course, has worked its way outside the walls of academe as political correctness is all the rage. José Cabranes was a recent recipient of the Merrill Award presented by the ACTA. He tells us we are faced with a choice between “academic freedom or civilizational decline.” Free speech and free thought must be encouraged at the very least to the point where it actively provokes violence toward others — not only on college campuses, but also at political rallies where the clear goal is to win over folks to a restricted world view in which only those who agree with those who seek power are allowed to speak. Somehow, we must find a balance.

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Uncomfortable People

The removal of Jon Greenberg from his teaching position in a Seattle High School is disturbing for a number of reasons. Apparently, Mr. Greenberg taught a course called “Citizenship and Justice” that employed what is called the “courageous conversations” teaching method that encouraged honest confrontations among students about their personal experiences of racial discrimination and injustice. The course had been taught successfully for ten years but recently a student complained to her parents that the course made her feel uncomfortable because Greenberg “created an intimidating educational environment.” Her parents complained to the school board who removed Mr. Greenberg from his position and moved him elsewhere. The story contains a brief, but telling, comment by another teacher in the same school system who suggests that the move will have ramifications:

Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.

Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.

“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”

There can be little doubt that the decision by the school board will have a “chilling effect” on the teaching of controversial subjects throughout the Seattle school system — if not beyond. Whenever a teacher is told that he or she must steer away from certain subjects, or teach the subject differently — by an administrator or the administrator’s superiors — the results will invariably be felt throughout the system. It is not simply a matter of academic freedom, which is a value recently honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a matter of an open system that is designed to help students think for themselves as opposed to a system in which students are simply taught what to think and when to think it. In a word, it is the difference between a system that focuses on education, properly conceived, and education reduced to training. The people in Seattle should be disturbed by the fact that their school board seems to want their schools to turn out robots rather than thinking adults.

But there is a feature of this story that disturbs me even more: it is the notion that a student can complain to her parents and the result is that the entire weight of the Seattle school bureaucracy is brought down on the shoulders of a man who is, from all reports, a stellar teacher of young people. As Edelstein said, “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.” No doubt. No one individual should have that sort of power. And those who call for more involvement in the schools by the parents might do well to think about the involvement of this student’s parents in this particular course. It’s not that unusual for the parents to side with the administration against the teacher (and vice versa) when they think their child has been mistreated.

Academic freedom is a precious and absolutely necessary value to defend in our schools at all levels. Teachers must not be told what to teach, though if what they teach turns out to be offensive there must be a way for the student to withdraw from that course without penalty if he or she is made to feel “uncomfortable.” But the truth often makes people feel “uncomfortable,” and we must be wary of those who want people fired or silenced simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Our problem is, on the whole, we are much too comfortable and as Arnold Toynbee said years ago, humans cease to think when that is the case.