Friday, July 28, 2017

Self-Muzzling

I teach at Evergreen State College.  Early this spring I became alarmed at the rapid deterioration of collegiality and respect for dissent on campus, and I drafted a letter which I hoped to circulate for signatures—but I sat on it.  I thought: not enough faculty would be willing to sign and this would just expose how isolated I was in my concern.  Or: the letter would only add to the momentum for polarization, since, despite its protestations, it wouldn’t be seen as simply a statement about democratic norms.  Or: the timing wasn’t right, and I should hold onto it for a more propitious moment.  Or: maybe I was just looking for excuses.

So for what it’s worth, which isn’t very much at this point, I’m posting it here.  This draft was dated April 3, 2017, a bit shy of two months before the outbreak of student protests.

* * * * * *

This letter is prompted by the perception that the atmosphere at Evergreen is being poisoned by political and communication processes that are antithetical to the principles this institution was created to uphold.  In particular:

1. A number of recent email exchanges have been highly inappropriate.  A public distribution list should not be used for lengthy threads intended to “resolve” a contentious issue.  It should not be used to impugn the character of any member of our community, nor should it use praise for community members as a signal that dissenting views are to be viewed as personal attacks.  We should all bear in mind that ignoring a post you regard as misguided is always an option and usually the best one.

2. One of Evergreen’s five foci is “learning across significant differences”.  It is normal that there should be significant differences among us on nearly every issue we face, and it is normal that they should be expressed in a variety of venues.  By all means, we should make reasoned arguments for positions we support, but closing off or even discouraging the expression of dissent should play no role.  This principle holds not only before decisions are taken, but also after: that’s democracy.

3. Even though we often disagree deeply, we owe each other the presumption of good faith.  This institution cannot prosper on any other basis.  We are all vulnerable to misperceptions due to unacknowledged biases, but this is not a reason for not listening to one another or failing to treat each other as colleagues.

4. In seminar students often have to cope with heated differences of opinion, and sometimes their comments are out of line.  We try to respond constructively, without suggesting that anyone be ostracized or points of view withheld.  We owe the same consideration to our colleagues that we expect students to extend to their peers.

11 comments:

rickstersherpa@msn.com said...

Good luck with this. I'm afraid you will need it.

David King said...

Well said, all of it, especially this:

> 3. Even though we often disagree deeply, we owe each other the presumption of good faith.

The Principle of Charitable Interpretation is a fundamental basis of philosophy, and applies especially the social sciences, and especially to contentious issues such as those before the TESC community over the past few months.

If it makes you feel any better about not posting it earlier, I doubt it would have had the intended effect because those who need to hear this message most are those least inclined to absorb its message.

It's tragic, though, that you felt unable to send it when you first drafted it. That alone is evidence that something isn't right amongst the Collegiate.

Anonymous said...

Part I.

I have almost never been even a little bit diplomatic .... I know it's "almost never" because even on those occasions where I have withheld by timing or other considerations I've still accused of
"never".

I've almost never called anybody names or directly demeaned their character either, but I have normally been reasonably direct, even if politically incorrect to be that direct. As best I can recollect this goes back as far as my 4th grade ... where I told the teacher in front of the entire class that she abounded "just like a 'n....r'-hater (the "N" word was the commonly used term at that time and in that location.... nobody called them "blacks"... at most "colored"... as this was in central CA where the demonstrated racism was between the Chicanos and whites.. I was white, blue eyed, blond haired, living on the white side of town.

She was a racist and there had been several other times she had uttered similar things which I construed, in my youth and experience to be put-downs of blacks and Chicanos. I was sent to the principles office, the teacher was fired at the end of that term (presumably because she was at least semi-overtly racist in our classroom but that's just my conjecture. oh, she was an import from Missouri after WWII I found out later.... she used to always say "I'm from the show me state" which until much later I didn't know meant being from Missouri.

The point is I've always found it to be best to be up-front and speak-up when the issue bothering me about methods, organization, directions of an institution or group first occurs. I might wait an over-night to think about it but mostly I just did so whenever the issue arose and every time it arose.

Disruptive, not a "team player", accusing, intolerant, etc. where all words used by those whom I was bringing issue to the fore.

These were all true... except "intolerant". It was intentional and necessary to force these issues to the front and get them at least beginning to be recognized and perhaps then dealt with.

Some of these issues in my later life were in the work-place:

Blatant sexism and sex discrimination against females... derogatory, usually coupled with descriptions of preferred sexual acts. Of course this extended almost only to the females who were smarter and clearly with superior skills and knowledge, and most especially if they were good looking and well "endowed".

Admonishing me: "This is neither the time nor place for this accusation."
My response: "Oh. When is the time and place appropriate? Are you going to call a special meeting?"
Admonishing me: "We need to get on with the agenda, so....."
My response: "Not yet we don't. This blatant sexist bullshit is going to get discussed now, or we can disband the meeting now and take it up in the (higher level executive's) office.
Admonishing me: "What are you doing this for? Why?
My response: "Because we all know it needs to be done but nobody will do it... so I will.

Continued in Part II:

Anonymous said...

Part II

Did this approach make a difference? Yes. In our local groups or area's things changed before they changed in the larger groups, but it accelerated even those. Investigations were conducted by higher levels and Headquarters. Managers were replaced and demoted, and egregious offenders were let go over time, or weren't promoted or given raises... so they quit in due course.

In many ways this is the same as an academic environment... especially in the R&D groups but also in manufacturing organizations. If we can't bring these issues to the fore and change them without fear of reprisals, then how do we bring technical or economic issues to the fore without fear of reprisals by the major manager or proponent group?

If you can't speak up when it's necessary, then you are being intimidated and intimidation means you're afraid for your or close one's negative ramifications. So you're serving your own interests at the expense of the larger and more important interests.

What I will say though is that bringing an issue to the fore and doing it when it needs to be done or when the issue is observed must be done without rancor or heavy emotional content, or name-calling or character assassinations or in any way which can be said to be emotionally inciting. It has to be a statement, not an attack. It has to have teeth though, at least enough to know this issue won't be brushed away OR "Taken up at another time." So it must be disruptive.

Of course I've never felt the need to succumb to intimidation.... it just goes against my grain for some reason. I think my philosophy on this is: If I don't speak up then why should I assume or expect anybody else should speak up, and if that's the case then nobody speaks up. In short, we let others control us to serve their own interests.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Anonymous July 28, 11:55 PM,

"I've always found it to be up-front." If you are unwilling to say who you are then, go fuck yourself, you worthless piece of hypocritical garbage.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

To anybody reading this you must understand that I have had very long and deep conversations with Peter about this before things blew up at Evergreen, and I discussed it for a long time partly because I was worried about what was coming and was concerned about the difficult situation he was in.

For the record, Peter, this is an excellent letter, and I think I understand why you did not send it out at the time, and I hope the situation improves.

To push in a direction few have, as far as I am concerned, there are limits that institutions of higher education can tolerate from students before they are expelled. I have friends, one from Harvard, who were expelled from their institutions for specific demonstrations that they engaged against their institutions during the Vietnam War. I am not a fan of this, but in fact there are limits. When students enter a classroom and shut it down because they disagree with the professor about something or other, this is unacceptable. Whether or not they should be expelled may depend on them doing something particularly outrageous, especially something involving violence or disrupting the rights of other students. This is a close line. I know the current admin at Evergreen will not remotely consider expelling anybody, but, frankly, based on what I have seen, there are probably a few there that deserve it, even if it is not done for them.

I have utter contempt for the most extreme of these people, and I am about to post on the matter of Extreme Contempt regarding other matters.

Anonymous said...

rosserjb
Is there not a juxtaposition of your belief that:

"...but in fact there are limits. When students enter a classroom and shut it down because they disagree with the professor about something or other, this is unacceptable."

with the fact that "shutting it down" is how most things get the attention needed to recognize a change may be required and needs to be acted upon?

While you refer to a university or educational institutional environment, why should that environment be any different than any other?

Taking the real issue in this is that whomever is instructing or teaching or promoting their academic knowledge or belief system to students is in fact teaching a point of view. Is it necessarily correct to teach a point of view or selections to support it with which there is wide disagreement or inherent injustices depending on which point of view is being promoted?

Is teaching a point of view any different than requiring a point of view be adhered to in practice? Is teaching a point of view designed to enlighten or is it to persuade? Are omissions of relevance to the subject permissible and if so under what basis or logic of reason?

Is not the status quo changed by disruption? Is the status quo in and of itself justified in its own maintenance? Does not disruption have to begin with one instance at one point in time and if that disrupts the maintenance of the status quo or a point of view is that not the necessary and required condition to change things?

And if violence results is that not just a degree of emphasis required to recognize the issue has consequence or the threat of consequence if not seriously being addressed?

Does dialogue work if nothing changes or if the changes as a result of dialogue are not material changes from the point of view of those promoting changes? Is compromise a solution when the issues are mutually exclusive?

These are I think the real issues at Evergreen (and anywhere else for that matter, and at every point in time) are a microcosm of the larger one in which it exists.

Incidentally, I've read all the reported and published information surrounding and preceding the Evergreen incidents.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I confess to being in a very bad mood for other reasons, but, I have no respect for your comment above, A, or pretty much anything else you have put up here. Until you tell us who you are, I consider you to be utterly beneath Extreme Contempt, down there with Trump and the worst of his racist nazi pals.

Go fuck yourself in hell, "Anonymous." You are beneath Extreme Contempt.

David King said...

Anonymous,

I'll take a guess to (some of) what may be irritating Barklay about your comments, besides anonymity:

> why should [academic] environment[s] be any different than any other?

Universities are fundamentally different from any other environment because they're supposed to be places where orthodoxy can be challenged without fear of reprisal. Where nearly every other employment environment involves everyone pulling in more or less the same direction, that it is not the situation amongst researchers, and occasionally they're pulling in opposite directions. I'm referring to academic pursuits, of course, but the principle extends to social considerations, too.

> Is not the status quo changed by disruption?

There's ways and means. The germ theory of disease was highly disruptive and very unpopular amongst the then-guardians of orthodoxy; it happened to be right, but change was (so far as I know) brought about by persistence, evidence and above all, time, not violence.

Rosa Parks sparked one of the biggest social upheavals of the 20th Century by a simple act of social defiance without the slightest glimmer of a threat.

In contrast, I can't think of any recent examples where change I'd consider worthwhile was brought about by violence.

> And if violence results is that not just a degree of emphasis

Ends don't justify the means. It's a common moral and cultural meme, but it's true nevertheless, even (especially) in court.

IMO, violence and intimidation are never justified, especially not in the academic or work environment. Protests are fine but hounding individuals or groups is not.

The line that divides violence from peaceful means demarcates the difference between making one's point vociferously and enthusiastically, and infringing the rights and opportunities of others to dissent and make their counter argument.

If you can't make your point without resorting to intimidation, then it's just possible that you don't have a valid point to make. Feeling strongly about a subject isn't the same as being justified. If, after persistence, you still get nowhere — particularly where (in this case) matters of social justice in other areas enjoy widespread recognition — it's even more likely that your perspective happens to fall somewhere in the long tail of the distribution.

However righteously indignant you feel about it, part of civil, democratic society is respecting consensus if you can't persuade consensus to shift. Be glad that fringe perspectives don't get traction, because there are many worse ways (on both sides) that things could go.

In any case, lasting, meaningful change requires that you change the way people think, which cannot be done by force nor intimidation.

Anonymous said...

David,
Thank your for a considered response.

Part I:

Let me address one of your counterpoints to my points.

>Universities are fundamentally different from any other environment because they're supposed to be places where orthodoxy can be challenged without fear of reprisal. Where nearly every other employment environment involves everyone pulling in more or less the same direction, that it is not the situation amongst researchers, and occasionally they're pulling in opposite directions. I'm referring to academic pursuits, of course, but the principle extends to social considerations, too.

Nearly every other employment environment other than a sole proprietorship does not make changes because everybody is "pulling together (more or less).. it makes changes either in response to competitors or to prevent competitors from encroachments. In R&D in private enterprise I can assure you researchers and developers are not pulling together, there are always at least two different directions they're pulling in, which ultimately results in a decision having to be made to cut one or the other direction.

As you said this extends to the social and political environment just as well. Thus institutions of higher learning are no different... just a microcosm of the rest of societies endeavors to change or not change.

Rosa Parks was instrumental in Civil Rights changes but not as you think she was. There were many long before her who did the same thing with public knowledge and accounts of same. The NAACP just decided her instance had the best chance of a court success (which ultimately didn't succeed). Her protest occurred in 1955. She became a symbol for change, but didn't change a thing herself.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks

Nothing changed though until 1965's Selma-Montgomery marches which were "non-violent" but with absolute knowledge of known violence to be created directly as a result. It was the violence that took center stage ... the disruption by violence that catapulted change. The civil rights act of the year before didn't do create the change.

Continued in Part II.

Anonymous said...

Part II

The Watts Riots in 1965 forced major changes in LA and other cities with far more money being spent to reduce unemployment in the ghetto's and create infrastructure improvements in black neighborhoods.

Rodney King's beatings in pictures forced changes.

SDS (started in Michigan, 1960) and the Black Panthers and VN war protests stopped traffic and commerce in major cities with consequent violence shown on national nightly news TV at every opportunity.

We can go back further in time... the Civil War was a violent protest, as was the Revolutionary War before it.. and these resulted in some changes though not perhaps as much change as the efforts in lives cost. And further back in time yet to the 1600's revolutions in England that put Parliamentary gov't in power.

Then there's labor rights violence that promoted change.... talk and law didn't make the changes until the violence and disruptions (strikes and strike breakers and military interventions) occurred.

And the changes to Gay rights ... only after the public became aware of all their friends and relatives dying from AIDs to expose the Gays and open the closets ... a tragic way to cause change, but it was the deaths by Aids that created those changes.

Disruptions become public in the only way that involves the public directly one way or another and that is what creates change. Talk is cheap.

We can wish this weren't so, but it's the reality and continues to be the reality. Denial of reality doesn't change reality. What I'm referring to is substantive change, things that persist over time and become the new status quo... only to be forced to change again to a newer status quo.. etc.

Universities and Colleges are instrumental in these changes .. they are the origins of most of them, and often become the focus of the public .. not by lectures of profs in lecture halls, but by protests and protests turn into disruptions by design and intent.

Interestingly and not at all coincidentally, universities' members are kids... the newer generation, flexing their new found "almost independence", full of vim and vinegar and youthful emotions, testosterone fueled, and a certain group of them are not satisfied with the status quo and have with a naïve innocence about what can be instead of accepting the way they are now.

They are, for all intents and purposes a form of a "union", and thus use their union power to promote changes, usually from what they see as injustices or controls by the powers that be in order to promote a "new power".

The Evergreen incidents are no different. There's always going to be a genesis of change ... some will succeed and some won't, but if nobody tries to make changes they won't occur and then we could all be (except for 10% of us) still be serfs and slaves.

The reality is that substantive change doesn't occur without disruptions, very often violent, and disruptions precede or are coincident with those changes. It is not at all apparent that Universities and colleges are any different than any other aspect of institutions in society nor is it apparent that they should be any different. Universities and colleges are, by definition, agents of change. To suppose those agents are any different than any other agents of change is simply fantasy.