ashland.news
May 19, 2024

Relocations: The open society under attack by left and right

Source: targetgdpi
March 3, 2023

It’s getting increasingly difficult for people in the U.S. to talk with each other without risking wounded sensibilities and evoking self-righteous anger

By Herbert Rothschild

In our country, almost every people with a defined identity has, at one time or another, been subjected to offensive language. Even WASPs haven’t escaped; urban liberals, who would be horrified if someone in their hearing used the N word, often refer pejoratively to Southern or rural whites as “rednecks.” Further, people from every group have used such language of others.

Herbert Rothschild

It isn’t asking much to put quits to all this. I applaud institutions such as universities or corporations, which have diverse members, when they set rules of mutually respectful conduct. The most usual rule is a ban on hate speech.

One way to discuss divisive topics is to try to find a ground of consensus on which to build. I’ve just attempted that. Probably all of you who read Relocations have assented to what I’ve written thus far. Now, however, we must move on to less common ground, because it’s getting increasingly difficult for people in the U.S. to talk with each other without risking wounded sensibilities and evoking self-righteous anger. I’m going to argue that, in the public forum, personal sensitivity should not trump the expression of ideas.

I’ve spent my adult life in the public forum. A lot of that time was in the college classroom, which I consider both a public forum and a training ground for responsible participation in the larger civic forum. That understanding of the college classroom has been encoded in our national jurisprudence on academic freedom, which protects faculty and students from disciplinary action based on views they may express. I was the beneficiary of such protection during my first 10 years at LSU, because my work for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) out in the larger community put me at risk.

Back then, LSU students heard many things in the classroom that must have made them uncomfortable. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution, among other cultural disruptions, had ended the South’s long-standing social prohibition of controversial discourse. A significant part of my work with the ACLU was creating and protecting spaces for such discourse. By 1978, when I refocused my volunteer work, the South had mostly completed its transition from a closed to an open society.

But the open society is always under threat, and long-pent white grievance is expressing itself now in places like Florida by seeking to constrict the public forum once more. Focusing on blacks and LGBTQ youth, Republican-controlled legislatures are passing laws dictating what can be taught in public universities and, especially, in the public schools. The usual pretext for such intervention is that students shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable.

Thus, in less totalizing but meaningful ways, affairs have come full circle in parts of Dixie. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that in the interim, it was people of color and the political left — the very forces that opened up the South — who led attacks on open inquiry and discussion, especially in universities. The rationale — to the extent any rationale was given —was that certain expressions made some students uncomfortable. In many cases, though, such as guest speakers known for right-wing opinions, the only explanation for efforts to cancel their appearances, or to shout them down if they came, was that such opinions were unacceptable.

Regarding the latter, after several such incidents, my alma mater, Yale University, finally summoned the courage to prohibit such behavior. Students and faculty can protest before a speaker comes or outside the hall where s/he is speaking, but they cannot disrupt the talk. Many colleges and universities, however, haven’t protected the public forum. Hamline University, a college near St. Paul, Minnesota, recently fired an adjunct art history professor when Muslim students complained about her showing in class a 14th-century painting of Muhammad.

For an example of how bad things can get, I refer you to an article written by Vincent Lloyd about his experience teaching a summer seminar for gifted high school students. He writes, “(T)he seminar topic was ‘Race and the Limits of Law in America.’ … I am a black professor, I directed my university’s (Villanova) black-studies program, I lead anti-racism and transformative justice workshops, and I have published books on anti-black racism and prison abolition.” Yet, after four weeks, the 10 remaining students (they had already forced out two of the original 12), voted to expel their professor. “Each student read from a prepared statement about how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.”

I don’t wish to hold up this example as the norm for people on the left and people of color, any more than I would hold up Gov. Ron DeSantis’ war on “wokeness” as the norm for people on the right and white people. What I would say is that one mirrors the other and they feed off each other.

Getting our heads straight on this subject isn’t easy. The line between hate speech and repugnant ideas is not a solid one. With some justification, people may not want Charles Murray to come to Southern Oregon University and promote “The Bell Curve” (1994), which he co-authored with Richard Herrnstein and in which they argued that there were racial differences in IQ. That occasion would test one’s commitment to the open society. For people like me, the right response would be to do the work of exposing the serious flaws in the book, starting with Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasurement of Man” (1981).

Our best understanding of a subject doesn’t emerge by the exercise of power. Rather, it takes effort, it takes integrity and, in certain settings, it takes courage. 

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

March 7 update: Charles Murray’s first name corrected.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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