The University of Chicago Has Power: That Doesn’t Mean They’re Wrong

I suppose this should start off with a warning that I speak only as an individual and that some people are likely to be offended if they keep reading. [Also, the above image was pulled from a very good article by Soraya Chemaly on what trigger warnings are actually for.]

Like many of us, I suppose, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the debate over the University of Chicago’s “welcome letter” to incoming first years, in which they warned them not to expect “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” at the university. Although the university later clarified that professors were free to alert students to disturbing material or not as they chose, and in fact the LGBTQ organization on campus is labeled big as day a “safe space,” the negative response was swift and strong. The University of Chicago, deliberately or otherwise, knows nothing about the actual meaning of trigger warnings or safe spaces, and was simply a smug (or insecure–opinions differ) power play to assert the importance of the administration. Etc., etc., etc.

I’d been gearing up to dive into the details of the controversy, but fortunately work intervened, and in the mean time The Atlantic published two separate columns by Alan Levinovitz and Conor Friedersdorf that, to my mind, effectively squelched the insufferable self-righteousness of the likes of Kevin Gannon and others (though Tyler B. Kissinger’s twitter thread is worth reading, as is Derek McGrath’s column above).

Now, I do trigger warnings myself, after a fashion, particularly if I’m playing a video clip that has a high level of violence. Basically, I see no point to playing shock jock in the classroom, unless it’s for a very good reason (emotion, after all, has its place in both human development and education). And yet, I rather liked the University of Chicago letter, because, however poorly worded it might have been, it was responding to real incidents in higher education.

And I have noticed two repeated claims in the progressive response to critiques of campus “political correctness.” One, no threat to freedom of speech exists in student activism (and/or we need to stand with students at oppressive institutions), and two, these critiques are “about power,” not about truth or justice.

The problem is, both are incorrect; one factually, the other logically.

One, as Friedersdorf thankfully points out, there is a lengthy list of earnest students demanding exactly the kind of things that U Chicago says it will not concede. See, the problem is that, while my progressive colleagues will tell you that this is a “red herring,” unimportant, or just downright “bs” (which means “lies,” but since these are actual facts they can’t say that), they can’t actually deny that these incidents happened. Whatever you may think of FIRE, the incidents they record, whether from faculty, staff, or students, are not made up. This is inconvenient for our social justice crusaders, and puts them, as Friedersdorf rightly points out, in the awkward position of creating a strawman and coming dangerously close to denying facts in evidence. Now, you can still say there are other and more important threats to freedom of speech on campuses these days, but denying the reality of these seemingly random incidents does your cause no favors.

And besides, Friedersdorf is 100% right when he says that

And contra Gannon’s protestations, it is not only proper, but inescapable, for a college to tell its students, “We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it.” It is the place of the institution to decide what, if any, classes will be mandatory; to hire professors; to decide what classes to offer; and to formulate major and graduation requirements. Insofar as institutions are transparent about the ethos that guides them, the matters on which they are open to debate, and what they consider to be their core values, prospective students will be best served.

And this leads me to my second point, and to my mind the more important one. Frequently the response to declarations such as U Chicago’s is that this is about power. Take Perry’s declaration from January, for example:

Any attempt to analyze a given incident of ‘politically correct’ action or repression must look not at what’s being demanded, but where power actually lies.

Perry’s and Gannon’s arguments both focus on the power of the university and administration, giving the distinct impression that because the university has more power than students any pronouncement by the university critical of student activity is wrong, because power. The reasoning seems to be a conflation of Acton’s dictum that “power corrupts” and of a belief that injustice can only be done by those with power. Hence, as my favorite historian Veronica Wedgwood noted, the assumption is that we, who have no power, are therefore not corrupt.

And yet, this is logically, metaphysically, and morally wrong. First, being “powerless” does not exempt your pronouncements from logical analysis or moral critique. Claiming that the speech acts of a group or individual are off limits to scrutiny because they are not running things makes no sense and teaching that is the opposite of liberal education; it makes a hash of the logical rigor I encourage my students to apply to everything.   Second, the justness or correctness of demands are not inversely proportional to subjective assessments of the demanders’ power. My own experience studying revolts and revolutions supports this conclusion: demands from less-powerful groups often contain clauses of dubious justness, however understandable the origins of the demands may be. This was captured perfectly in Batman vs Superman:

bvs 1

And third, to claim, as Perry and Gannon effectively do, that we who have power (such as it is) have an obligation not to critique the pronouncements of those with less power is morally wrong. I may spend most of my time silent because I am listening to those with less power or status, but no person has the right to tell me I cannot exercise my own judgment about public pronouncements because anything but agreement is “punching down” (a favorite phrase of some). When it comes to argument and debate, I “punch” in any direction I believe is necessary, because my conscience is not yours to command.

As JFK says in Thirteen Days, “There’s something immoral about abandoning your own judgment.”

And in my judgment, Levinovitz and Friedersdorf deliver reasoned responses to Gannon and others that tip the scales in favor of Chicago.