Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Blog Is Not a Safe Space, part 4

I once heard a gay minister snidely dismiss freedom of speech issues in the classroom. This gives him common ground with many of his opponents, who would gladly keep him and other GLBT people out of even college classrooms, let alone secondary or primary schools. This same minister was among the IU staff, students and faculty who agitated against the First Amendment in September 2003, demanding that the University censor a faculty member's antigay web log. Some of them jeered at the First Amendment and the Constitution in general, dismissing them as a piece of paper for the benefit of rich white men only. Not long after, of course, many of these same cultured despisers of the Constitution were outraged that George W. Bush wanted to change the sacred Constitution to forbid recognition of same-sex marriage.

Freedom of speech in the classroom is a sticky issue. I don't think any court would invoke the First Amendment to support a student who disrupted a class by launching into a one hour sermon complete with scriptural references. The Christian Right, for its part, only supports student freedom and activism by its own children against competing sects or secularists; in general they prefer students to be silent and passive.

Preventing a kid from harassing another kid for whatever reason in the classroom, the hallways or school grounds is not an infringement of the harasser's First Amendment rights. Some bigots might argue informally that it is (like a jaywalker who defends himself by arguing, "It's a free country!"), but I don't believe such arguments would or should stand in any court. However, students' rights are already limited enough without trying to stifle them further.

I understand that where a teacher can't (for political or other reasons) make a teachable moment out of a bigoted remark, squelching certain terms in class may be the only available course. This does not make a safe space, though, and there should be no pretense that it does. It's a stopgap, a papering over that may be unavoidable, but it isn't education. Nor does it prepare students for life in a pluralistic society.

Rather than "safe space," we need to build institutions for teaching self-defense, to help children and adults deal with difference and disagreement, even offense, without panicking; but also to defend themselves against bigotry. More positively, we need to encourage everyone to know why they hold the beliefs they do, a kind of knowledge that requires understanding of opposing beliefs. We also need structures for conflict engagement -- horizontally (person to person) rather than vertically (authority to perpetrator). Teachers would function here as referees, monitoring procedures and preventing verbal disputes from turning into violence, rather than as coaches who are trying to produce a given outcome. I realize that my proposal won't go over very well with diversity managers and other professionals, because it will ultimately teach students to defend themselves against their teachers -- and their parents. I intend it to do so.

Some gay men in an Internet chat room I frequent argued against my self-defense approach. They said that teaching everyone self-defense would just produce better-equipped bullies. These guys were mainly concerned to rationalize a do-nothing attitude, but they did stumble on a valid point, which is that bigotry is a moving target. If we try to change the school environment, the children (and their parents, and teachers and administration) will not be molded passively like clay. They will respond creatively, unpredictably, to try to prevent changes in their accustomed environment. Whatever intervention we design had better include provisions for spotting and reacting to creative, unpredictable counter-moves. I believe that a self-defense approach, based as it is on dialogue -- which means listening seriously to the other sides -- leaves room for such a response, and makes it possible.

Frustrating though it is, this same resistance to indoctrination is one of the things that makes change possible. Because some people refused social indoctrination about race, class, sex roles and sexuality, change has happened in American society -- change for the better, in my opinion, though not everyone agrees with me.

Any program which fails to take resistance into account is not only doomed to failure, but wrong-headed. One of many things I like about Speakers Bureau is that we have no real authority. We can't tell people what to think, we aren't there to enforce anything. We're there to make more talk; not less speech, but more speech.

Let me try to make one thing clear: I am not saying that minority kids need to develop thicker skins, as some apologists for bigotry have been known to suggest. I think everyone needs to develop thicker skins, including bigots as well as, well, liberals. In a much-anthologized article, self-styled free-speech champion Nat Hentoff attacked "PC" and "speech codes" because "liberal students and those who can be called politically moderate ... no longer get involved in class discussions where their views would go against the grain of PC righteousness" -- that is, where someone might disagree with them too vehemently ("'Speech Codes' on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech", Dissent, Fall 1991; reprinted in Patricia Aufderheide, ed., Beyond PC: Toward a Politics of Understanding [Graywolf Press, 1992], 52). Hentoff quoted a cartoonist who got "hisses from the audience" for criticizing "PC" at a "free speech forum" at Brown University. Liberal white and black faculty are reluctant to oppose "PC" publicly, Hentoff claimed, because "they want to be liked -- or at least not too disliked" (53). Minority students, Hentoff argued, should fight hostility with "more speech," rather than being intimidated. If they do so, however, people like Hentoff attack them for "PC righteousness" and intimidating liberals and moderates; the contradiction looks pretty blatant to me. "Liberals" and "moderates" (two groups which Hentoff apparently thinks contain no minorities!), however, should not be exposed to unkind words or criticism, nor need they meet them with "more speech"; they -- but not blacks, gays, or women – can simply play the victim. (Hentoff’s complaint is really quite funny in its way, for in addition to its other self-contradictions it’s exactly the people he considers “liberal … and those who can be called politically moderate” who are denounced by the Right as the enforcers of “PC righteousness.”)

There is -- how shall I put this? -- a passive-aggressive element in this liberal and moderate withdrawal from discussion, a refusal to face the undeniably unpleasant anger of minorities: if they can't ask for their rights nicely, we won't listen to them. The African-American lesbian poet and feminist Audre Lorde was sharply critical of white feminists who want "to deal with racism without dealing with the harshness of Black women." (Sister Outsider [Firebrand,1984], 126)

As gay scholar Jeffrey Escoffier wrote in a valuable essay on multicultural public dialogue (in American Homo [California, 1998], 200), "Stoicism is necessary in public debate. No one enjoys being humiliated in public. Participation in public dialogue will not be fruitful if we do not learn to accept conflict, pain, and hurt feelings. Some of the detrimental effect of political correctness stems from the fear of being criticized or misrepresented in public. Expressions of anger and hostility should be expected." Escoffier also quoted African-American activist and singer Bernice Reagon (198): "We've pretty much come to the end of a time when you have a space that is 'yours only.'" Dialogue is the primary medium through which we can construct political coalitions and a multicultural project."

Schools are among the places where such dialogue should take place. In practice, totalistic safe space too often means that what makes the teacher uncomfortable will become unspeakable, and it is expected that the teacher will become uncomfortable very easily, as an example to students. I submit that teachers should rather be guides into new and sometimes frightening realms of ideas, showing by example that what makes us uncomfortable or even offends us will not disable us, let alone kill us, and that anything can be questioned, discussed, debated.

Recently while I was rereading Lawrence Block’s murder mystery Eight Million Ways to Die, I found this wonderful passage, set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:
Mary, one off the regulars at St. Paul’s, had said it. She was a birdlike woman with a tiny voice, always well dressed and well groomed and soft-spoken. I’d heard her qualify once, and evidently she’d been the next thing to a shopping-bag lady before she hit bottom. One night, speaking from the floor, she’d said, “You know, it was a revelation to me to learn that I don’t have to be comfortable. Nowhere is it written that I must be comfortable. I always thought if I felt nervous or anxious or unhappy I had to do something about it. But I learned that’s not true. Bad feelings won’t kill me. Alcohol will kill me, but my feelings won’t.”
Alas, many teachers (and others) do not believe this: they agree that what offends us will disable us, perhaps permanently. They are wrong. So let me close with this question to "safe space" advocates. If, as I've been arguing, totalistic safe space is incompatible with serious dialogue about serious issues, what do you envision as a proper place for discussion?