Sunday, February 22, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 3

Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, singling out certain students as pariahs -- all these have long been part of school culture, as of adult life. Before shootings in middle-class, predominantly white high schools became a hot media topic, a certain amount of "boys will be boys" harassment and violence was considered normal background noise in school. 'Toughening them up' was even considered desirable: "The boy in America is not being brought up to punch another boy's head, or to stand having his own punched in a healthy and proper manner. ... There is a strange and indefinable air coming over the men: a tendency towards a common ... sexless tone of thought." That was the U.S. commissioner of education, an early advocate of Boy Scouting, in 1910; quoted in Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality (Random House, 2000), p. 23. This isn’t found only among boys, either: girls are capable of emotional and physical cruelty to each other, which also has been taken for granted as part of the way things are. (See for example, Leora Tannenbaum, Slut!: Growing up Female with a Bad Reputation [Seven Stories Press, 1999]; and Emily White, Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut [Scribner, 2002].)

Since inculcating social norms is part of education, teachers and administrators are expected to voice and enforce a normal level of bigotry. The infamous teacher who dissuaded young Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X) from his professional ambitions was certainly racist, but he was also reflecting and enforcing white American norms of the 1930s. The same was true in my own pre-Title IX high school days (1965-1969), when girls who got married were expelled, whether they were pregnant or not. (Not the boys who married or impregnated them, of course.) At my high school, one married teacher had to dig in her heels to go on teaching after her pregnancy began to show -- she was pressured to go on leave even earlier, but resisted successfully. God forbid students should see a married, pregnant woman: they might want to get married and have a baby when they grew up! What was really at stake was probably the social norm that respectable middle-class white wives and mothers should not work outside the home. In my parents' schooldays, a teacher would not have been allowed to work after she married.

Social norms change, however, and schools' and teachers' practices change with them. Today's bigotry was often yesterday's norm, but the process of norm enforcement continues, generally without acknowledging that change has taken place. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Four legs good, two legs bad.

Michael Bérubé, a professor of English and the father of a son with Down Syndrome, wrote (in Life as We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child [Pantheon, 1996], 26f):
One night I said something like this to one of the leaders of what I usually think of as the other side in the academic culture wars. ... Being a humane fellow, he replied that although epithets like "mongoloid idiot" were undoubtedly used in a more benighted time, there have always been persons of good will who have resisted such phraseology. It's a nice thought, the kind you usually hear from traditionalists when you point out the barbarism and brutality of our human past. But it ain't so. Right through the 1970s, "mongoloid idiot" wasn't an epithet; it was a diagnosis.
One of the most insidious aspects of diversity management is its erasure of the history of such change, by making it seem that bigots are just bad people who need to diversify themselves, unlike the respectable people and institutions that protect minorities' feelings. Awareness of this history might produce a becoming humility in the enforcement of today's social norms. But never mind the past. Never mind that earlier in his or her career, today's diversity manager might have expelled gay students or pregnant students or female students who simply failed to return to their locked dormitories before curfew. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. That was then, this is now. You can't change people's minds overnight. Four legs good, two legs better.

What happens, though, when a commitment to diversity and respect for other cultures clashes with other commitments, such as the protection of children against violence? Historian Lillian Faderman (feminist, lesbian, daughter of an immigrant Jewish single mother -- impeccable diversity credentials) cowrote with Ghia Xiong a book on Hmong immigrants in the United States, I begin my life all over: the Hmong and the American immigrant experience (Beacon Press, 1998). "In Laos," they noted, "for a loving parent to beat a child until he was bruised was considered an appropriate, tried-and-true method of teaching him. Hmong parents are puzzled when their American children accuse them of 'child abuse,' as they learned at school such treatment is called. They are devastated when the children threaten to report them to the authorities, as their American teachers informed them they should do if they are being abused." Faderman and Xiong seem to side completely with the parents here; and I have talked to diversity managers who seem to assume that in any conflict of norms, Old Country ways should always prevail against American cultural imperialism. (See also Susan Moller Okin et al., Is multiculturalism bad for women? (Princeton, 1999) and Vijay Prashad, Everybody was Kung Fu fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity [Beacon Press, 2001].)

Should American teachers ignore bruises on Hmong children, but not on white ones? Breaking the perverse wills of children is an explicit part of much traditional Christian teaching, carried on by James Dobson and other Christian-right gurus. Should Hmong parents be permitted to bruise their kids and still be regarded as "loving" by diversity managers, while Dobson must instruct his readers how to discipline their children without leaving visible marks?

The question of parenting came up on another occasion when I was on a GLB panel speaking to an undergraduate health class. One of the students in the class asked us whether it wasn't reasonable, if the majority in a community sincerely believed gay parents were bad for their children, to take those children away from their parents? I posed an analogy: suppose that in a primarily Episcopalian community, the majority thinks that conservative evangelical parents are bad for their children; or that in a Protestant community, the majority thought Roman Catholics made unfit parents?

The questioner and some of the other students became upset, accusing me of religious intolerance. One student tried to defend me, pointing out that I wasn't really advocating the removal of children from Christian heterosexual families, only following the questioner's logic to its conclusion; but to no avail. The instructor complained in e-mail to a colleague of mine that I was "too combative." Which I am, often, but not in this case. I don't see why undergraduates couldn't follow a simple analogy; that a graduate student couldn't do so is alarming. Perhaps, instead of trying to show the questioner the flaw in her logic, I should have adopted her tactic, becoming distraught and accusing her of religious intolerance. Maybe it would have won me more sympathy from the class and instructor (though it's just as likely I'd have been accused of playing the victim), but would it have taught them anything?

I don't have a simple answer to my questions here, but I'm not asking them rhetorically either. The kind of conflict I'm talking about here is not a new one, but "diversity" sloganeering doesn't seem to have a way to deal with it. We're told, properly enough, to be respectful of other cultures (though not of very similar traditions within our own culture); but we must also protect children against abuse (as long as abuse isn't a treasured part of their exotic traditional cultures). The pretense of impartiality that diversity advocates seek to maintain simply ignores these conflicts, which is not going to make them go away.