Snippet of a classroom discussion at Al Quds University on chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.”
Khawaja: So are there any topics that are taboo in Palestinian society, that people refuse to discuss?
Student: Yes, but there really shouldn’t be such topics. We should be able to discuss anything.
Khawaja: I see. But unfortunately, there are such topics?
Student: Yes, there are, like homosexuality and gay rights. These are topics that need discussion, but in our society, people act as though they can’t be discussed.
Khawaja: So what would you want to say on that topic?
Student: I’d prefer not to discuss it.
Heh. “Well, what are some things that you imagine other Palestinians would like to say, but don’t say?”
This is really hardly surprising. In my experience, some of my students are unwilling to say what they really think about certain topics for fear of disapproval. They mostly figure out pretty quickly that they can feel comfortable talking to me, but some of them still aren’t willing to say certain things in front of their fellow students. These are usually students who have certain opinions that they believe are anathema to radical left-wing people like professors and their peers, opinions that millions of Americans share and express everyday in mainstream fora like television and newspapers. No surprise that it would be far worse in the Palestinian context.
Yeah, that was exactly the dynamic at work here. I’ve actually simplified the structure of the conversation in an artificial way. What happened was that I asked the opening question, and the first example batted around in the conversation was the use of force to resist the Israeli occupation (which has become a taboo topic in “respectable society” since the accession to power of the Palestinian Authority.
In the middle of that conversation about force, the student above introduced the topic of homosexuality (i.e., the first couple of lines of the dialogue in the post), which interrupted the flow of the conversation on force. So I asked him to put homosexuality on hold so that we could finish the other conversation, on force. That conversation started to get breathtakingly dogmatic, with students invoking very rigid taboos on having conversations of any kind on the topic. When we finished with the discussion of force, I went back to the student who had brought up homosexuality, and tried to re-visit that topic. That’s when he suddenly said, “Well, I don’t want to discuss it.” He realized that he was outnumbered about 8 to 1 by students who didn’t share his views on liberty of discussion.
My transcript of the conversation is funnier and easier to follow than what actually happened, but misleading.
Hmm. Well, at least he was responding to actual displays of unwillingness to tolerate discussion of certain topics. In my limited experiences with students who are hesitant to share their opinions, there has never been any real expression of intolerance or disagreement; it’s just the expectation of it. When students do express views that are unpopular or contrary to what many of the others in the class think, it never goes badly. I suspect that sometimes there are many students silently passing judgment on each other, but I’ve never had a student get openly upset with another for what’s been said, and on several occasions there have actually been discussions that would serve as a fantastic model for how to carry on rational discussion. Last fall, for example, I had one Dawkinsian atheist type and one student who is now a Jesuit novice arguing about the success of Augustine’s solution to the problem of evil; all I had to do was sit back and listen, occasionally interjecting to see if anyone else had anything to add or to suggest a clearer formulation of some idea. They were both very eager to make their points and try to convince each other, and I suppose they were a little more animated than usual, but there wasn’t a hint of animus or condescension in either — in fact, each seemed to really be enjoying it. No doubt it helped that the topic was somewhat abstract and not, say, whether homosexuality is wrong or whether the Palestinians should use force against the Israelis. But they really were arguing about things they really believed and were central to their views of the world. It was an unusually good discussion, but given that the same kind of thing tends to happen whenever students in my classes actually disagree with each other on similar topics, it’s telling that many are still reluctant to take strong views on controversial topics. Maybe I’m misdiagnosing it as self-censorship driven by fear of ridicule, and it’s really more a kind of intellectual modesty. But I think it’s usually the former. I can only imagine how it would be in classes where a majority of students really were vocal about being unwilling to have a calm discussion about a given topic.
So, unsurprisingly, it is easier to teach controversial topics to well educated American kids in expensive private universities than it is to Palestinian kids in Palestine.
Then again, I did have a former student tell me a story about being in a history class with a kid who stood up in the middle of a lecture about the exclusion of women, blacks, and other minorities from voting in American history to shout, “Look, I’m sorry, but white men built this country! They deserve some respect!” He was promptly met with expressions of shock and ridicule. That was at the University of Texas, though. Go figure.
David, your distinction between imagined disapproval/shunning from others (expectations) and an actual climate of disapproval/shunning (in the university classroom setting) is a good one (though functionally, at least in the short term, these two things are identical). I suspect that you are right that the former is often a bigger motivator than the latter in most classroom settings. One explanation of this is that the expectations developed in other settings that comprise more of a student’s experiences are more actively intolerant. I suspect that, at many schools, there are reasonably severe social penalties for non-left heterodox ideas in the realms of campus advocacy (student newspaper, etc.) and social life (being accepted or shunned due to having or not having “politically correct” views). Similarly for many segments of ordinary life in a college town and in most sophisticated, cosmopolitan settings.
Moral passion that is on the same page in a group easily slides into at least a subtle Borg-like norm-assimilation machine (in which only people who enjoy conflict and pissing people off, don’t mind being a bit socially disadvantaged or cut off or are just hopelessly strong-willed in their heterodox idealism – are likely to register dissent). Being too sensitive to real and imagined disapproval (or just not wanting to rock boats and cause conflict) can lead to a not-so-Borg-like moral consensus seeming quite Borg-like. An ethic of intellectual freedom and tolerance needs to reign in the Borg-like moralistic tendencies of groups and encourage both dissent and the somewhat-thick-skinned idealistic character that voices it. Ironically, both conservatives/libertarians and racial/ethnic minorities on many college campuses face similar internal and circumstantial barriers to social and intellectual inclusion (and, to some extent real and to some extent imagined/expected, Borg-like norm-assimilation machines). My experience backs up what you say about classrooms settings themselves often being adequately encouraging of the airing of heterodox moral and political positions.