Why Liberal Students are Terrifying
Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied.
–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Edward Schlosser’s* article on Vox, “I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me,” has been shared on social media close to 200,000 times. What Schlosser finds terrifying is an arch brand of political correctness, one sensitive students are using to shield themselves from bad people and bad ideas. Vox also published a rebuttal to Schlosser, albeit it a tepid one, written by former human rights lawyer and professor, Amanda Taub. Her response wasn’t notable for its counter-argument, but rather for its gossamer weight: Taub typifies the newly (and questionably) privileged, a professor with a bigger stake in befriending students than in holding meaningful opinions.
Why did Schlosser’s article go viral? The answer can be summed up in one word: fear.
Campuses are experiencing waves of personalized protests, some targeting accused individuals and others the institutions that won’t punish them. A recent ruckus at the University of London, however, shows signs of some push-back. Bahar Mustafa, a students’ union diversity officer “found herself at the center of a racism row after requesting white men to not turn up to an event,” saying she “cannot be racist because she is an ethnic minority woman.” Apart from the fact that Mustafa looks as Caucasian as I do, there’s the niggling problem of her prejudices and her failure to contain them. While refuting accusations of racism, Mustafa elaborated, apparently without irony, that “reverse racism and reverse sexism are not real.”
Linguists and nitpickers might take issue with the word “reverse,” but its use here is clear: corrective measures against racism and sexism have overshot their goals and become prejudicial themselves. This is a reality activists like Mustafa are aware of and the freedom it gives them to insult and injure without penalty is what makes professors like Schlosser uneasy. There are also worries about the potential scale of a conflict and the size of the audience it might attract.
How does this happen? What Taub blithely describes as contentious classroom debates can become precursors to complaints, which can become precursors to protests, which can then become precursors to globally witnessed events. All it takes is one misstep or a less than yielding personality. And while dealing with a whisper campaign on campus is one thing, it’s completely another when that campaign is disseminated to the wider world. Just ask Justine Sacco, the young PR executive who tweeted a pre-flight joke about Africa and AIDS. Despite a paltry 170 followers, it only took hours for it to go global and net her the wrong kind of attention. When her plane landed in Cape Town, Twitterers awaited her at the airport, cameras in hand.
I recently revisited Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, her essay articulating the difference between true interpretation and what I like to call making shit up. As someone who occasionally writes about art, I’ve always appreciated Sontag’s perspective. She had the courage to question the premise of a large body of work and to state bluntly the parasitical relationship of critics to their subjects. If one respects her principles, especially after she describes and then dispenses with the dreck, it soon becomes apparent that writing about art and literature well is difficult. Writing about it badly, apparently, is not.
More profoundly though, what Sontag’s elucidation of our relationship to art reveals is this: we all have desires to interpret and tailor reality to our liking, to conjure narratives with slim evidence. In a campus context, it’s no secret that for students whose imaginative capacities are cavernous, these desires can nurture neuroses. School shootings are evidence of this. Other neuroses, stuffed into appealing narratives and shared publicly, can become highly contagious, can become the objects of mob justice. When the narrative is an especially potent one–like David and Goliath–that mob can indeed become terrifying.
As a young professor, I had my own brush with this phenomenon. At my first college, the administration had sent out a memo warning us that bogus doctor’s notes were circulating and that students were using them to create more manageable test schedules. The source was thought to be the college’s student union and, as it turned out, the head of that union was in one of my classes. When he attempted to rearrange a third (of five) tests using a doctor’s note, I declined.**
Besides obvious objections about his dishonesty, there were other concerns. The college was heavily populated with what we in Québec call allophones, students whose native tongues are neither English or French. At that time, many had arrived in the midst of their high school years, part of a recent wave of immigrants originating from the Eastern Bloc. According to Québec law, they were required to study in French–a requirement which meant they lagged in English language skills. However, most were diligent and took their tests as scheduled. So when I was challenged by the union head, I was conscious of those students and their hardships and said no.
Sounds sensible, right? But despite my good intentions, and by some strange alchemy, this young man managed to make my name synonymous with cold institutionalism and corporate greed. In short order, I became Goliath.
I like to joke that the only thing this student and his supporters didn’t do was burn my effigy in front of the college, but that it was probably coming. In the end, the conflict dragged on for months until his parents threatened to sue. At that point the decision was out of my hands and a colleague took over and administered a test designed to my specifications. In the semester following, a group of student union members showed up in one of my courses and tic-tac-toed their way through my test schedule with doctor’s notes. I said nothing because I knew it was pointless: they were too convinced of their victimhood.
…it’s truthy: it offers a conclusion that feels as if it should be true, even though it isn’t accompanied by much in the way of actual evidence. In this case, that truthy conclusion is that the rise of identity politics is doing real harm — that this new kind of discourse, whether you call it “identity politics” or “call-out culture” or “political correctness,” is not just annoying or upsetting to the people it targets, but a danger to academic freedom and therefore an actual substantive problem to be addressed.
I’m not sure how long Taub’s academic career lasted, but one thing is clear: she does not understand the current state of higher education. The experience I just described took place in the 90s, when I was untenured. The college was supportive and my job was never threatened. However, if I saw an untenured professor wading into a similar conflict today, I would counsel her to drop it and for a host of reasons, the most important being that the climate on most campuses no longer supports this degree of integrity. It’s been quashed by the consumerist notion that a higher education should be like a trip to the mall, a development that’s convenient for activists whose purity of heart immunizes them–apparently–from anything with a whiff of unfair advantage.
Which leads me to one final point. As the daughter of postwar immigrants (WW2) and a scholarship student myself, I invested a great deal of emotional energy into succeeding on merit. I suppose it was the strong presence of war in my house–manifest by ridiculously large stocks of food–that pressed upon me the desire to succeed where my parents had not. Both had been adolescents during that time and had their educations (and lives) comprehensively derailed. They came to Canada, separately, because as they sadly admitted, after the war “there was nothing left.” This was in the 1950s and when they arrived they were treated to a standard level of contempt, that one saved for immigrants the world over, especially those fresh off the boat. It was a contempt I sensed rather than experienced: my parents kept discussions of it below my horizon, only whispering about in bed, late at night. These were whispers set to the tune of sadness, grief and occasional astonishment.
I was affected nonetheless and so when I made it to an esteemed institution, scholarship in hand, I was determined not to be a charity case. I once cried over an essay grade of 66, but then decided to work harder, which I did. There were also odd choruses of cheerleading I had to contend with. For example, I was frequently urged to capitalize on my “identity” as first generation Canadian and watched in confusion as others like me did just that. My arguments against it–that it felt narcissistic and made life too easy–were met with cold stares. This was Canada after all, a multicultural haven where dual identities were now celebrated. That these celebrations felt forced on me just gave me the appearance of being a bad sport. So I spent those years sighing a lot, wondering why my interests in Shakespeare and Alice Munro weren’t good enough.
I believe it’s fine to be proud of one’s heritage but less fine to use it as currency. And that’s what troubles me about students like Bahar Mustafa. Their certainty–that they are on the bottom rung of society–obscures the fact that others, including those not of colour, may have spent time there too. And this is how identity politics can fail. Like those who mistakenly saw me as Goliath, students who rely on identity politics can be terribly wrong. Surely it’s our job as educators to teach them this?
We in the academic world would do well to emulate the principles held by those at Charlie Hebdo. Whether one agrees with their ethos or not, there’s no disputing the fact that they know how to stand their ground. The global rallies in support of the publication reflect our collective sense of belonging–of belonging to a world where speech is free. But free speech should not be mistaken for fact. That’s a conflation that’s harming our institutions by eroding the standards and vigour with which we pursue our truths.
* Edward Schlosser is a pseudonym. Click here to read his article.
** The doctor’s note was written by a physician relative of this student’s.