An angry discussion has broken out about the self-infantilizing character of American university life (and beyond). The basic argument is that contemporary American universities have, in the name of an infantilizing form of pseudo-therapeutic psychobabble, come to stigmatize the very idea of discourse or debate that hurts anyone’s feelings. The criticism comes mostly from the political-academic right (in some sense, however vague) and targets the political-academic left (in the same vague sense). Here’s a piece on the subject in Intercollegiate Review. Here’s an overview from Inside Higher Ed from last year, and a much-discussed one from The New York Times this past March. Here’s a critical commentary from Salon inspired by the Times article. Here’s a more aggressive take on the same from Reason magazine. Here’s the take at the Breitbart site. Here’s the most recent take from BHL.
I basically agree with “the right” on this one, at least in a qualified sort of way. I agree that discourse at American universities is, across the board, irrationally constrained by pseudo-therapeutic rather than truth- or justice-guided norms. We care far too much about how people will feel than how they think, or how they should be thinking. We also care too much about how people will feel than we do about how good our arguments are, how much evidence supports them, or for that matter how rhetorically persuasive they would be to a person of psychologically normal sensibilities.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should be insensitive to people’s feelings or special sensitivities, or to go out of our way to offend them. There’s a balance to be struck between candor and tact. But the balance cannot involve the outright sacrifice of alethic to therapeutic concerns: “sensitivity” can’t dictate that nothing be said out loud that might be construed as insensitive or “triggering” for some person or audience.
I reached the absolute limits of my patience with the “sensitivity” phenomenon when I was obliged last year (along with the rest of the faculty and staff at my institution) to take “sensitivity training” designed to ensure compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws, as follows:
As a Catholic/Franciscan institution of higher education, Felician College unconditionally rejects all forms of discrimination and acknowledges our obligation to safeguard and enhance the dignity of every member of our College community. As part of our commitment to create and to maintain an environment free of discrimination, intimidation, humiliation and harassment of any kind, and in compliance with both federal and state recommendations, all members of the Felician College faculty and staff are required to complete training on identifying and preventing harassment and discrimination in the workplace. …
It is a legal requirement that we provide harassment training annually. Since it is very difficult to get everyone together for a lecture format, we have contracted with Workplace Answers to provide online training for Felician College. The basic module for faculty/staff should take no more than 40 minutes, the supervisory module (if required) about 20 minutes. The FSI Corporate Compliance module is self-paced.
Feel free , incidentally, to take a look at the website of Workplace Answers to try to figure out what they’re all about. At best I think you’ll learn that online harassment training is a big and lucrative business involving the marketing of a lot of vacuous cliches.
It sounds innocuous, doesn’t it? It isn’t. If you actually endure the training, you’ll discover that the entire “compliance module” is a systematic assault on the norms of inquiry, discourse, and academic life. Here’s an actual example taken verbatim from the module: it is (we are told) unlawful harassment for a professor to hang a poster inside his office of the word “War” with a red slash through it, because the extremist anti-war message involved could be construed as “threatening” to, “discriminatory” against, or “harassing” of military veterans. (I can’t reproduce the actual graphic, because it’s protected by copyright.) The tacit reasoning seems to be: opposition to a political policy can be construed as “threatening” to those who (presumptively and stereotypically) may be thought to support the policy (e.g., veterans can be presumed to support war); meanwhile, passive acquiescence in the status quo, however unjust, is legally obligatory and “professionally appropriate” behavior.
One implication here seems to be that while combat veterans can handle combat on the battlefield, they cannot be expected to handle ideas like war in a university. Presumably, all returning military veterans suffer from a form of PTSD so intense that they will collapse into a dysfunctional heap at the mere mention of the word “war”–from which it follows that the word must never be spoken in their presence (except, I suppose, to praise it).* A second and more general implication seems to be that “professionalism” in the “corporate” (=academic) context requires us to avoid discussing anything that might offend anyone’s sensitivities, even if doing so is central to the academic enterprise.
As I said before, most of the criticism of “academic infantilization” has targeted the left from the right, but one group, essentially located on the right, seems to me to have taken the infantilization of academic discourse to a generally undiscussed extreme. The group in question is the anti-BDS movement (or more pedantically, the anti-BDS counter-movement, since it opposes BDS, which precedes it).** In saying this, I don’t mean to be pronouncing on the correctness or incorrectness of BDS as a strategy for dealing with the Israeli occupation. That’s a complicated topic on which I reserve judgment, and which I’d like to think through here over the next few months. What’s clear, however, is that whether BDS is right or wrong–even if it’s entirely wrong–its critics and the movement they represent are a threat to the academy and to political discourse as such.
Two tactics are essential to the anti-BDS repertoire and particularly subversive of rational discourse: (1) gratuitous recourse to the race card, in the form of reflexive accusations of anti-Semitism as a means of discouraging debate; (2) resort to the (literal) use of force through “lawfare” in order to put BDS out of commission by force of law, and thereby put an end to debate that way. Many groups (especially ethno-religious groups) employ one or the other or both of these tactics, but few have done a “better” job of combining them in a single integrated assault on the norms of discourse. In doing so, the anti-BDS movement has, on American university campuses, become the discursive equivalent of the “price tag” movement in Israel: they’re among the vandals of our intellectual life. I find it instructive that right-wing critics of infantilized/trigger-warning discourse have almost nothing to say about this brazenly obvious example of the phenomenon they deplore. But they don’t.
One task on my agenda here in Palestine is to clarify my own views on BDS: I’ve been asking everyone I meet here in Palestine (and will ask anyone I meet in Israel) what they think about BDS. Personally, I’m in favor of divestment on the Princeton model, agnostic about sanctions, skeptical about boycotts, and generally opposed to academic boycotts. I realize that that sentence by itself will cost me friendships across the entire political spectrum. But that’s where I stand, at least for now.
In favor of BDS: I worry about anti-Semitism and about double standards within BDS, but I’m also uncompromisingly opposed to the Israeli occupation/settlement enterprise, and frankly have lost patience with views of a sort that permit opposition to the occupation but proscribe doing anything about it. That’s led to nothing but five decades of occupation, subsidized and supported by the American taxpayer. In a sense, it’s led to something worse: our acquiescence in the idea that it’s our fate or role to support the morally insupportable by insisting that it’s somehow a moral imperative to do so. We’ve become mere means to the end of the Israelis’ making the Palestinians mere means to their ends. And that has to end. BDS looks like the only viable option for hastening the end, or at least doing what’s in our power to hasten the end. So in principle, sign me up.
Skepticism about B and S: Though divestment seems relatively uncontroversial to me, non-targeted boycotts and sanctions potentially seem indiscriminate in their punitive features, and counter-productive in the sense of attacking the very parts of the Israeli public most sympathetic to Palestinian rights. So I can’t sign on the dotted line to the whole package, but am not willing to dismiss BDS out of hand, either. (I can, however, think of both American and Israeli companies and institutions that deserve to be boycotted.)
That said, one can’t even begin to think clearly about any of that in the atmosphere of hysterics generated by the anti-BDS movement. Hence the need for an initial blog-based “ground clearing” operation. In the next part of this series, I’ll talk a bit about the anti-Semitic “race card,” and its effects on discourse about Israel. In a third part, I’ll talk about the attempt to deal with BDS through “lawfare.” I don’t mean either discussion to be comprehensive; it’s a complicated topic, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it periodically after this initial series is over (uncharitable interpretation: “Khawaja has an unhealthy obsession with that topic”). So there will be indefinitely many parts to this series as a whole.
*I teach at a “veteran friendly” institution, and have taught and taken classes with former combat veterans for years. They certainly do have special needs and sensitivities, but they also tend to be among the most mature and engaged students in a given classroom. I find Workplace Answers’s depiction of them frankly stupid, and I suspect that the veterans I know would, too.
**For vehicles of the movement, see The AMCHA Initiative, the BDS section of the Anti-Defamation League’s website, BDS Cookbook, Buycott Israel, Divest This, Divestment Watch, Engage, Israel Action Network, Israel On Campus Coalition, The Israel Project, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. See also Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm’s The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (2015). The title of the Nelson-Brahm book is a classic case of falsity in advertising: despite the title, the book is a wholesale critique of BDS as such, not just of academic boycotts. Despite the protests of a single author (Michael Berube), seven authors in the book go out of their way to argue that the BDS movement as a whole is anti-Semitic–a view clearly shared by the editors.