Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's talk, but don't say "abortion is murder"

Todd Hartch, has written an interesting essay about what drove him to get involved in the gay marriage debate at his workplace. Many of us try to avoid the topics of politics and religion at our workplaces, but things are a little different for Mr. Hartch since he's a (tenured) professor of history at a public university. He's also a socially conservative Christian, and like many conservatives, feels that he's been pressured to keep his mouth shut by the fabled "campus political correctness".

I am probably the ideological opposite of Prof. Hartch, but I liked a lot of what he said in his essay, and my first impulse is to endorse his call for his political/ideological allies to speak up. Below are some of the key points of his essay, with my thoughts interjected:

Campus Political Correctness and the Costs of Free Speech

For at least two generations, Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and other religious conservatives have sought to “get along” with the prevailing American campus culture of relativism and moral license. We have dedicated ourselves to academic excellence, to fair and balanced teaching, and to keeping a low profile. We have kept quiet in department meetings, in the faculty senate, and on university committees. We have bitten our tongues when colleagues disparaged our religion, our morality, and our most cherished beliefs. We have convinced our colleagues that religious conservatives can be surprisingly thoughtful and urbane.

The above description matches my own impression of the situation in academia (at least in the sciences). I have a number of conservative religious colleagues who allow their religious identity to be known, but don't make a fuss when they disagree with others. Political comments are often shared among like-minded colleagues, though a few faculty members will make leftist/anti-religious comments to broader audiences and sometimes earn a rebuke for unprofessional behavior.

Overall, most members of the department follow the same strategy as Hartch described. It's just good manners. There is good reason to avoid this sort of confrontation with one's colleagues. At best, it distracts from work, and it may even make it impossible for colleagues to work together.

In the end, what have such actions won for us? ...Our jobs are secure and our careers give every sign of continuing success.

We have watched, though, as our campuses veered farther and farther off course. Sexual license is now taken for granted. Mentions of abortion, homosexuality, and even bestiality [I think Hartch didn't get the joke -R] hardly merit a second glance in our campus papers. Many students have never heard a rational conservative argument about any moral issue.
I agree that rational conservative voices are hard to find. At least, it's hard to find any who can speak meaningfully about social issues to a person who doesn't share their own religious and cultural identity (Hartch is only the second such writer that I've encountered).

This is something that conservatives should keep in mind if they want to engage in thoughtful discussions with others. Hartch was bothered by derisive comments targeted at his culture, but I think that conservatives most often are the ones dishing out derisive comments. Liberals may make snide comments about conservatives in their private conversations, but conservatives regularly announce to the world that liberals are degenerates who are destroying everything good in our society. Off the top of my head, I recall a Republican candidate for Congress who attacked his Democratic opponent for supporting "San Francisco values", and the Pope recently blamed atheists for Nazism. These are mainstream conservative Christians. To further illustrate the point, conservatives regularly use moral reasoning to justify criminal punishment of many actions that others engage in (e.g. drug use).

A thoughtful conservative will have to keep this in mind when he tries to hold a conversation with others: mainstream conservatism regularly denigrates the morality of others and even threatens others with physical punishment. The epitome is probably the rhetoric around abortion. Mainstream conservatives regularly equate abortion with murder and the holocaust. If you tell your colleague that "abortion is murder", think about what you are saying. This person may have had an abortion, or may know someone who had an abortion. In that situation, you would be calling that person or their friend a murderer. That's quite a loaded word, and even if you don't mean to say that abortion should be punished by imprisonment or execution, it isn't hard for another person to make that inference (at least at an emotional level).

Many conservative positions can be viewed as threatening, and must be thoughtfully worded if they are not going to start a fight. I've seen what happens when the words "abortion is murder" are uttered to the wrong person. So, if you want to have a thoughtful conversation, don't say "abortion is murder"; you may also want to be clear to distance yourself from anyone who does make those statements in public.

Perhaps all this might be justified if students were somehow benefitting from this atmosphere of license and relativism. The opposite is the case. Most students, even at the best universities, have no passion, no love of learning. Focused on careers, at best, or, more often, on nothing at all, they approach texts that have changed the world as if they were being forced to read the dictionary. Faced with the results of painstaking research, they yawn and check their phones. They do less homework than American students have ever done before because professors have relaxed their requirements. The result is that, amazingly enough, students are bored in their modern Sodom.

What is to be done?

It’s time to speak up. It is time to make a public case for truth, for human dignity, for academic standards, and for the joy of learning. I guarantee that students will not be bored when they see us defending the truth. (I should point out that speaking up is not a synonym for being rude.)
I agree that students typically don't appreciate the opportunities that they have at a university, and faculty have a responsibility to engage them in any way possible. If that means discussing politics and morality, then so be it. If there is anyplace where Americans can have a respectful political discussion, it is on campus.

We need to go into this process knowing that the risks are real....we risk our jobs. There’s not much that can be said to minimize this threat, but I can propose that if universities make it a common practice to fire their vocally conservative professors, it will publicize our arguments more than anything we could do on our own.

Interestingly, most calls to fire politicized professors (e.g. Ward Churchill) come from conservatives. David Horowitz has made it his mission to discourage professors from discussing political, moral, or religious issues with their students.

However, let's assume that universities manage to protect the free speech rights of everyone. Professors still must not appear to be prostletyzing to their students. Hartch has provided examples of how professors can participate in these discussions outside of the classroom, but even there the power relationship between students and professors still holds. A professor will have to be impeccably respectful of others in order to avoid intimidating students into silence on this issue. I think this will be difficult if a professor such as Hartch effectively says "my sexual impulses are healthy, while yours are worthless if not destructive".

[W]e need to dialogue with those most opposed to our ideas. Some professors and students will respond to our more visible presence on campus with anger and ridicule, but some will want to understand us. With this latter group we must make every effort to communicate clearly and to forge relationships of trust and respect.
Well, good luck with all this. Such discussions should have intellectual value, and they may even overcome some of the divisiveness of mainstream political discourse. Finally, a tradition of open discussion of issues outside of one's own specialty may allow truly fringe opinions to be expressed openly. Maybe the radicals will be a bit more visible. Maybe recent immigrants will become stronger advocates for their traditional religions. There is also the chance that the anti-religious expressions that Hartch wants to counter will become much more frequent and ubiquitous as more people feel comfortable discussing these issues.

As you may have noticed, my own opinions are well outside of the mainstream (largely opposite to Hartch's). As things stand, I avoid talking about a lot of my political and moral opinions. When I do discuss these issues, I take care to avoid direct contradiction of mainstream values (though I will openly question the value of voting). I was more open about my fringe opinions during my first couple of years in college, but as I entered a more professional environment, I kept my mouth shut more and more.

Whatever happens, part of the purpose of the university is to hash out these issues and clearly expose the purely idiotic arguments that are so common in public discourse.

For further thought: International travel is part of the job description for many academics. Would open discussion of sensitive issues interfere with their ability to travel, particularly to more restrictive countries? Even in the USA, one academic was denied entrance due to what he had said about drug use, and another may have been denied entrance dues to his political opinions (since visa's can be denied without any evidence, we can't really know).

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