It was a debate moment that historians will surely return to -- like Richard Nixon’s sweaty brow and George H. W. Bush’s impatient glance at his watch. When Donald Trump lost composure and interjected “such a nasty woman” (twice), the game was over. Respect for women? Please.
From mocking disabled people to stigmatizing immigrants to encouraging violence against one’s enemies, the Trump campaign has indulged in a startling variety of transgressions of normal political discourse. The Clinton campaign’s counterpoint “when they go low, we go high,” suggested by the extraordinarily popular first lady, seems to be more about political advantage than moral elevation.
Few people seem to be turning to college campuses lately for moral elevation. Videos go viral of undergraduates screaming their demand for a peaceful home, while deans make a virtue of their commitment to academic freedom by undermining their faculty’s ability to prepare students for disturbing content. Absolutist rhetoric circulates easily at our universities when they should be cultivating subtle analysis and nuanced interpretation.
Some have pointed out that coarse political discourse goes way back in American history and that Trump is following in the footsteps of other titans of transgression. Politicians have said the darnedest things for a long time, we are told, and the Trump campaign’s invective is not actually as unusual as today’s oversensitive onlookers like to claim. The same might be said of our campuses, which have long been hotbeds of contention.
Back in the 1970s there was a Saturday Night Live routine, “Point/Counterpoint,” in which Dan Aykroyd would turn to fellow commentator Jane Curtin and exclaim, “Jane, you ignorant slut.” The funny part of this bit was that it was hard to imagine anyone on a real news show ever saying something like that as a prelude to articulating a disagreement.
Over the last decade, however, we have grown accustomed to the rabid fulminations of talk radio and to cable news pundits cultivating personae of perverse aggressivity. And now we have been treated to the spectacle of political candidates commenting on penis size, assaultive groping and vicious denigrations of the physical appearance of women. Today the Dan Aykroyd line would not be so funny because it would not be so preposterous.
The expectation of excoriation has become a fact of public and academic life -- with consequences in the civic realm. Disagreements -- be they on social media or at the neighborhood watering hole -- can get nasty very quickly. And it’s sticks and stones as well as words. Americans are killing one another at alarming rates in disputes over everything from what to play next on the jukebox to the best car brands. A verbal shot can have an awful counterpoint when somebody has a pistol tucked into his belt -- whether he’s in a bar or a classroom.
Although this growing barbarism is much remarked on in the political realm, when it comes to colleges we hear about a very different kind of concern: political correctness on campus. Somehow, the enforced niceness of PC culture is dangerous because it protects “coddled” millennials from having to challenge their own assumptions. While the rest of the country is engulfed in a dangerous war of words, campuses are accused of caring too much about triggering painful memories and providing safe spaces. This fantasy about PC culture has been weaponized in the current electoral campaign, so that all kinds of assaultive speech (and worse) are celebrated as evidence that candidates aren’t caving in to political correctness.
When you spend time on college campuses, however, you find plenty of debate that is actually substantive -- about the role of systemic racism in our institutions, about the possibilities for meaningful work after graduation, about the struggle for transparency in our public institutions. Transparency in particular is a key value for many students across the country, and this often leads to controversy because privacy is also a value they cherish.
That said, undergraduates today are often repulsed by official politics, and they are too likely to be cynical about the possibilities for building responsive institutions that can support the most vulnerable or empower the most innovative. It’s been observed that they are no longer inspired by abstract calls for “free speech” or by warm and fuzzy talk about “diversity and inclusion.” No wonder nihilism seems to be making a comeback among those who want to show how sophisticated their suspiciousness has become. If you’re really smart, the thinking seems to be, you won’t believe in anything that promotes possibilities for change. “We won’t get fooled again!” is the defensive cry of those afraid of being disappointed if they seek to engage with anything beyond themselves and their immediate peer group. Disillusionment is harder to mock than idealism and is in great supply on our college campuses.
It’s less risky to undercut an opponent’s stand than to take a stand of one’s own, and mocking the commitments of others from a distance is the safest route of all. Proposing practical programmatic change in areas like refugee resettlement, mass incarceration, the minimum wage or gender equality may indeed lead to social media storms of abuse from the alt-right or from a holier-than-thou left. That doesn’t make the proposals bad or good, but it does make it easier to propose nothing at all.
What’s most worrisome about the normalized nastiness is that it will surely discourage even more people from participating in public life, regardless of political persuasion. Nobody likes being called a racist, a loser, a fascist or even a neoliberal. And nobody enjoys being the object of mockery that is eminently retweetable.
The solution isn’t censorship or pious calls for more civility. Nor is the solution “rising above it all” to a “know-it-all position” that is smugly pessimistic because it is “all so smart.” The solution is to keep engaging on issues and proposing ideas that address real problems with full knowledge that one will be attacked for doing so. Fear of attack is no excuse for the failure to take a stand.
We must not abandon the public sphere to those who have successfully polluted it. It has always taken courage to take a public stand, and courage is still the best counter to nastiness.
University blocks student paper from publishing column criticizing Trump. Liberty says it acted because the piece was "redundant" with another. The blocked column may be found at the end of this article.
Can a syllabus be a form of sexual harassment? And should a professor know when he's being investigated for his extra-credit policy, use of triangles and declaring that his class is not a "safe space"?
The late, great sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote eloquently of what he called “the sociological imagination,” which involved the ability to connect our own biographies to the wider currents of history, to understand the various social and cultural components of who we become. That was a major corrective to the highly individualistic worldview of Americans -- our strong tendency to view ourselves in a historical vacuum, as if our goals, beliefs and attitudes are not powerfully shaped by the social groups of which we are a part.
His invitation to a broader, more sophisticated view of ourselves was extended midway through the last century, at a time when Americans had a compelling need to come to terms with recent chaos and violence on a world scale, along with major ongoing evils in our own society -- racism prominently among them.
While we can consider some of the more extreme ills of racism a thing of our national past, others are very much still with us. Some forms of racial inequality have, in fact, been growing worse in recent years -- for example, the level of racial segregation in many of our public school systems, which is linked to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our society. Such inequality plays out at our colleges and universities in a number of ways, including admissions statistics, the daily experiences of students on our campuses and graduation rates.
As we think about which aspects of racism higher education institutions can most effectively address and how the sociological imagination fits into such a project, we might begin by noting that the word “racism” is often used rhetorically, particularly by college students, as a cover term for a range of things that differ significantly in their level of seriousness. Consider the following, for example:
Some white college students dress in racially insensitive costumes for Halloween.
The white presidential candidate of a major political party asserts that a Mexican-American judge cannot fulfill the professional and ethical standards of his vocation.
White police officers kill black men in incidents that are unlikely to have occurred if all parties were white.
Lumping these situations together under the general category of racism is hardly helpful in terms of what it will take to address each of them.
Institutions of higher education have sought to address racial inequality in a number of ways, including efforts to diversify their faculties, student bodies and staff. Their strongest suit would seem to be their potential for fostering robust communication across the racial and ethnic boundaries that divide members of what should be a community. For those who have not suffered from racism themselves, that will probably involve the risk of revealing some unattractive opinions or replacing denials of racism with the intention of making the racist unconscious conscious. For those who have suffered, it will involve forbearance and perhaps a taste for irony. It presupposes intellectual curiosity and emotional openness on the part of all.
A major obstacle to that has been a growing tendency toward what we might call “identity fetishism,” or seeing a specific dimension of social identity -- race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity -- as a terminus rather than a point of departure. American colleges and universities thus risk becoming places where the sociological imagination has gone to die.
The “safe space” movement, together with an it-takes-one-to-know-one mind-set, can operate to create barriers where there should be bridges. To be sure, it is good to spend comfortable, supportive times with those who are close fellow travelers through life. And achieving a deep understanding of those whose experience has been different in significant ways is a task to be approached with humility. But moving out from the familiar is a core goal of higher education.
Barriers between racial/ethnic groups in campus social life have had a curricular side as well. Separate departments or programs in African-American, Asian-American or Latin American studies, while offering belated, much-needed perspectives on groups that have long been hidden from historical research and teaching, have had the downside of not forcing a fuller, multiperspective approach to American studies itself. The use of the label “ethnic studies” as a cover term for these more group-specific programs, moreover, has been an unfortunate choice: are some people “ethnic” and others not? Was not the upshot to leave European-Americans an unmarked category of just plain folks? Some have sought to correct that with proposals of white studies programs -- hardly the best solution.
Ethnic studies programs are understandably of special interest to the respective members of the groups themselves; they have thus had something of a self-segregating effect in terms not only of students but also, to some extent, of faculty members -- an effect amplified by a tendency to merge the goals of faculty diversity with those of curricular diversity. The result can be a typecasting of faculty members of particular ethnic-racial groups. While an African-American historian can make distinguished contributions to scholarship and teaching in the field of African-American history, another can certainly make distinguished contributions to the field of medieval European history.
And, speaking of faculty, a general question is where have they been in the increasing diversity-related troubles we see playing out on our campuses? Some have been constructively engaged. For example, in the aforementioned Halloween costume example, faculty colleagues came to the public defense of a lecturer who found herself in the eye of a student activist storm by suggesting that we should not overreact to such behavior -- an episode that attracted an extraordinary amount of news media attention. Others have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- for example, by making ill-considered, even trollish statements in online media. Fortunately, that will sometimes be an occasion for pushback from their colleagues.
For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism. Students seem to be stepping into a leadership vacuum that pits them directly against administrators.
As we know, faculty members have more than enough problems of their own these days, what with increasing adjunctification and presidents who come to their jobs without understanding the business they are in -- to name just a couple of the most obvious misfortunes. But intellectual leadership is an essential faculty responsibility.
For openers, faculty members can bring the intellectual capital of their respective fields to bear on current debates. Those of us who are anthropologists, for example, have chosen a vocation based on moving beyond the stance that it takes one to know one. Though requiring a self-critical perspective on how well one can know an “other,” it centers on a quest to understand as much about others as we possibly can. Moreover, what we might call the anthropological imagination also presumes that an outsider’s perspective offers its own advantages; at the same time, a detour through another world is a path toward better understanding dimensions of our own, which would otherwise remain below our self-conscious reflection.
Beyond our own particular disciplines, departments and programs, faculty members are also part of a wider academic community with a shared dedication to core educational values. Those of us who believe that diversity is not just about social justice, as important as that is, but is also tied to the intrinsic goals of a liberal -- and liberating -- education have our work cut out for us. Outlines of that work can be found, for example, in the contributions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, especially through its LEAP initiative (Liberal Arts and America’s Promise). Essential learning outcomes associated with that initiative include cross-cultural sophistication and civic responsibility.
In brief, we need to help make our colleges and universities ideal places for cultivating the sociological imagination. That means exploring with our students not only where we have come from but also where we might be going.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.