How now down brown, Take 2: The state of campus discourse

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We received this anonymous question and since we are not sure if the person is a student or faculty/staff person on a college campus, we decided to answer the question assuming it’s a student, though what we have to say can apply more broadly:

“I have become quite concerned with the state of social/political discourse on campus. There does not seem to be any room for any viewpoints which are not decidedly progressive. Even a mostly liberal viewpoint with a caveat is condemned. In many spaces on campus, the only acceptable viewpoint is the 100% fully liberal one with no caveats or references to complexity of the issue at hand. An example of this attitude: any difference between a privileged group and a marginalized group is 100% due to oppression/discrimination and if you suggest any other potential factor, you are complicit/unenlightened/inconsiderate. Only a portion of people perpetuate this culture, but they are the most vocal and end up dominating discussion spaces. What can we as a campus do to improve the state of our social/political discourse?”

Dear Quite Concerned,

Thank you for your question; we appreciate your concerns about the state of social and political discourse on your campus. As we began discussing your question, it became clear that it was open to different interpretations and expectations. We decided to  intersperse our answer with the moments of conversations we had as we discussed it.

First we want to try and unpack your question. The one thing we see in how you start and end is that you’re framing your concern as an institutional one–you’re concerned about the state of campus discourse. The middle, however, is chock-full of frustration about not being heard. In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between how you try to help us see the issue and the way you are experiencing the issue. The phrase “state of social and political discourse” is so broad. Are we talking about classroom culture or lunchroom conversations? Where is this discourse taking place? We emphasize this because, of course, there isn’t one “state of discourse” on any campus; rather, there are multiple spaces of discourse with multiple goals and norms. For example, if I’m in the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus and my goal is to advocate for gender neutral bathrooms, that is not a time when I want to have a conversation about whether someone thinks trans identity is “real or not.” Maybe at that point, someone trying to have that particular conversation would get shut down. In other words, we think it’s important to consider different discursive spaces and their expectations. In what contexts are diversity of viewpoints welcome and necessary and for what purpose? We’d go so far as to suggest that a diversity of viewpoints does not necessarily equal a “good” or “healthy” state of political and social discourse; it all depends on the particular discursive space and its –oftentimes unwritten– expectations.

Both of us have gone through trainings to help us lead dialogues, so one of our first moves in discussions about identity and politics, if someone brings up the possibility that we are complicit, unenlightened and inconsiderate, is that we try to take a step back and consider whether we are complicit and inconsiderate. We try to see these moments as learning moments and not necessarily about proving our progressive credentials. We’re wondering if you’ve done that; have you been able to really listen to the stories that matter to people as they reject your point of view?

We ask this because the example that you give, “differences between privileged and marginalized groups,” is vague. We wondered what exactly you meant by that phrase. What differences are we talking about? We can imagine a conversation about, say,  racialized differences in educational outcomes where someone suggests that we should think about “cultural factors” or “IQ” without attending first to societal and structural factors. We would see this suggestion as being complicit in continuation of oppression because there is a long history of people ignoring historical and structural disadvantages. Because of our disciplinary training, we both see larger structural factors as having better explanatory power for the social, economic, and cultural differences we see among groups. We also think that we’re all always complicit in oppression–as individuals, we are embedded in structures and thus help to maintain and reproduce those structures of oppression, regardless of our positionality.

As we thought through your question and considered the ways in which conversations about oppression and privilege require us to consider our own individual complicity in these structures, we surmised that perhaps there are times when you feel a bit browbeaten by these interactions because you are recognizing that complicity.

You can see perhaps that we think it is important for individuals to consider their own resistances and tensions to conversations about power, structure, and racial/class/sexual/gender formations. But all that said, there are times when discussions can feel unproductive and unhelpful on campus; from our viewpoints as faculty,  some student-focused discussion spaces for students, in particular, seem to have become very fraught and divisive. From conversations with colleagues at other colleges, this seems to be a common refrain, reflective of the state of discourse at the national level.

Here’s how we proceed in these kinds of spaces: we recognize that we cannot change what is happening to us; we can only change our reaction. After all, we cannot necessarily change how another person engages in a discussion, but we can become better at listening.

We both believe that all of us can work on listening more closely and with less personal investment in any conversation that is about social justice, about structure. Listening helps us move away from shaming towards naming structures. In other words, shaming others or ourselves does no good when we are trying to understand. At the same time, we need to get better at recognizing when we have positions of power in institutions and societies, this naming of structure can feel personal. Especially for those of us with identity-based positions of privilege, we need to develop that ability to not react right away when you feel like something is challenging you.

One emotion that tends to paralyze a lot of people is anger. While we are worried that people aren’t able to talk to each other because of anger, we deeply believe that we all need to get better at listening to anger and why a person might be angry. People have stories and experiences of discrimination that they need to share, oftentimes without wanting or needing analysis or counterpoint. In one of the groups that we are both a part of, we use meta-language to mark the kind of conversation we need–“this is NOT a problem-solving conversation”–as a way to let our friends know that we want their empathy, not their fixes.

Perhaps we move towards having more productive conversations through such signaling of intent and, in general, if we got better at not just needing to make our point in a conversation– “No, but it’s not about oppression!”–and  just ask questions about stories and experiences.

Adriana: Yes! It’s about dialogue! Ask questions.

Anita; Yeah, but what if somebody says when you are doing all the right things, “Fuck you! You’re complicit!” what do you do at that moment?

{long thoughtful pause}

Adriana: I think a response to pain has to be empathetic. It has to be as open as possible. I’m struck by that moment in the documentary from Stir Fry when the White man says to the woman of color, “I just don’t understand your pain. I really feel terrible, I just don’t understand.” And she says, “Just sit with me. Just sit in my pain with me.” I think the difficult thing about what you were asking me right now is that I can imagine scenarios where someone is super angry with me and I’m just not getting it, I’m unenlightened. I don’t see it yet so I can’t apologize because it wouldn’t be authentic. It would be fake for me to say “I’m sorry” because I need to understand first, but that person can’t teach me because they’re not in that space. So I need to acknowledge that in some way what is happening, where I say, “I hear your anger and I’ll sit with you.”

Anita: Maybe the move you make  when you feel attacked is to listen more, rather than needing to respond more. The thing that we do sometimes…I do it all the time [we all do it!], I think about all the arguments I’ve had where I should have been better at stepping back, taking a breath, and sometimes, yes, I did, but also there are many times when I didn’t.  It’s hard to tell from this question where this person is coming from. I would want to ask them: Have you always been at places before coming to this campus where your viewpoints have always been validated? Imagine going through 12 years of schooling where you’ve had very few people validate your experiences and your perspective. Maybe this campus is the space, for whatever reason, that finally does feel like a space where you can take up more space than you have been able to before. Imagine that when people shut you down, sometimes it’s terrible and they should do better, but other times, where is that coming from? Can you have this moment of empathy, especially if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced being shut down before coming to this campus?

We don’t know, from your question, what campus you’re on, but we’re going to imagine you here at Carleton. We’ll imagine that you think of yourself as liberal. You’re going to all these events and you’re realizing you’re not as liberal as you thought. And you see that there are critiques of the liberal logic of the world which make it seem like this campus has no space for you. In the between-the-lines of your question, we hear that you want to feel like your voice matters too. And a lot of what we’re saying is that sometimes your voice doesn’t matter and that hurts.

But what we’re saying is perhaps your voice doesn’t always need to matter. For example, if people are talking about differences between privileged and marginalized groups, why do you feel the need to bring up other factors? Are you trying to solve a problem? Are you trying to think about other ways to change things?  As we mentioned earlier, we’re both structuralists. To us, saying that we need to change cultures or people, without changing oppressive structures, seems to us to be replicating a colonialist model that blames people for their own circumstances.

Because your example is vague, we thought through a hypothetical example that would apply to our positions as faculty.

Let’s say there was a review of tenure cases in the past 25 years, and we see a trend of faculty of color getting tenure at lower rates than White faculty. When the two of us would talk about it, we’d start by talking about the structures on campus that might be making it harder for faculty of color to get tenure. If another faculty member at that meeting said, “Well, maybe we should think about how faculty of color aren’t as good teachers. Maybe faculty of color have inferior publication records,” we would feel that this person was missing the point. We’d argue that they’re justifying discrimination against faculty of color and reinscribing minority status because we’re starting with the assumption that faculty of color are as qualified as White faculty. We probably would react with emotion, perhaps anger, and while that might make that faculty member feel like we’re attacking them, we’re actually just pointing to the fact that we need to get to the structural factors before jumping to the “faculty of color are deficient” narratives. We’re also well-versed on a large body of research on the long history of tropes of people of color not being as qualified as explanations for why there are so few people of color in institutions. We’re always trying to work against that kind of narrative.

Finally, the other thing we hear you saying is that making the case for structural factors/discrimination is a “simple” one. We would say that to talk about structural factors as we would in this faculty tenure example is to discuss a complex set of a factors that coordinate to reproduce the position of these faculty of color.

We want to end by commending you for caring so much about having these conversations, and trying to figure out what that can and might look like. In a future post, we plan to discuss our thoughts about call out culture in the age of social media and the possibilities of coalition politics. For right now, though, we’d just remind you and our other readers that face-to-face conversations matter. They’re hard. When you have them, you’ll see the look on people’s faces when you call them names or get really angry, you’ll see them shut down, and you’re hopefully going to think about whether that’s your end goal. If you just want to shut people down, go right ahead. But if the goal is –as we hope– to generate new communities and new systems of justice and a better future, we need to recognize that we live in a fucked up system, but we’re not going to make it any better by using the same fucked up ways of engaging with each other.

P.S. A quick note about how we would address this question a bit differently if it comes from a faculty member: We would say that we have institutional power, so if a student is saying to us, “you’re a terrible person” we don’t have to take it so personally. We have to have more sympathy and empathy and even when we might feel attacked, our job is to listen. Also, in our classrooms, we can set up discussion norms to make sure no one is dominating for whatever reason. We can use our power wisely!

P.P.S. If you want to submit a question, you can do so here.

 

2 thoughts on “How now down brown, Take 2: The state of campus discourse”

  1. Forgive me. I do not come from the same academic background, so these concepts are difficult for me.

    I am not sure what being a “structuralist” entails; and I am uncertain that the only two option are “colonialism” and “structuralism”. It is people who produce structures. You can change the structure, but if the people do not change (i.e., if their attitudes and beliefs remain exactly the same), then another (bad) structure will inevitably replace the previous structure. Both individuals and structures have to change, which is exactly why discourse needs to improve. By talking to each other in beneficial ways, we come to understand each other. The hope is that such conversations will cause real change at the individual level.

    I am also not sure what you mean by saying that individuals are necessarily complicit in oppressive structures. There are always ways of opting out, though sometimes it requires serious sacrifices to opt out. A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing — e.g., Rosa Parks. Again, it seems like the way forward is both individual and structural change, because one bad structure will inevitably mutate into another bad structure, if people’s beliefs and attitudes remains fixed. (I apologize if I am misunderstanding something basic!)

    Also, I think a big reason why campus discourse is so poor is precisely because “ideas” are framed as progressive/liberal or conservative. These packages of views are just ideologies — ideologies that are not particularly well argued or even coherent. Real discourse will only happen once we break free of these cookie cutter ideologies and recognize that these labels are not very useful anymore (as evidenced by the sorry state of political debate). I find it really odd that people cannot even envision having a deep conversation about societal issues without taking a party stance. I would not be surprised if a “conservative” finds she shares more beliefs with a “liberal” than another “conservative”!

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