Sunday, May 29, 2016

What DePaul's Shameful Week Says About Academia's Deeper Problems

This is more of a reflective piece on what happened at DePaul in the past week, and what I think it says about some of academia's broader issues:

I will not attempt to recap the whole controversy. You can read the coverage in DePaul's student newspaper here, here, here, and here. Instead, this is a series of thoughts about the event itself and about what it might say about DePaul and academia generally these days.
DePaul's College Republicans did the campus and themselves a disservice. How? By inviting and paying for a low-quality, inflammatory speaker to visit campus. There are plenty of intelligent, thoughtful, and provocative conservative speakers out there. Yiannopoulos is not one of them. There are plenty of thoughtful criticisms of feminism to be made: calling it a 'cancer' is not one of them. In short, the College Republicans wasted a decent chunk of money and a useful opportunity bring in a provocateur who offers little in the way of serious or original arguments.

But they had the right to be stupid. With the above point noted, it was certainly their right to bring Yiannopoulos to campus, and to waste their money in doing so. My DePaul colleague Scott Paeth speculates about whether Yiannopoulos crosses the line into speech that DePaul would have the right to ban as a private university. (Again, this is not a 1st Amendment issue; it is an issue of a private university allowing the use of its resources for an outside speaker).

I see the point, but then there is this: Yiannopoulos offers little original thought beyond repeating standard Republican/Trump orthodoxy. So, whether good or bad, he effectively represents the mainstream of one of America's two major political parties in this day and age. That is a good argument about how intellectually decayed the Republican Party is, but it also weakens the case for banning a speaker like him from campus. There is also the fact that feminism, 'microaggressions,' and the like are ideas with serious intellectual currency on campus today; even if it is uncomfortable for some, a responsible university has to allow them to be challenged--even in unpleasant ways.
The protesters who interrupted Yiannopoulos's appearance did everyone an even greater disservice. They were both foolish and wrong. They were wrong is a moral/legal sense to block the event from continuing. The behavior of the two main protesters in particular could be viewed as assault (grabbing a microphone out of someone's hands, screaming inches away from Yiannopoulos's face, etc). They were even more foolish in a tactical sense. Given his lack of original ideas, Yiannopoulos relies entirely on provoking angry responses, which then 'prove his point' about on-campus censorship. Well, he could not have scripted a better response by the protesters than the one he got.

What should the protesters have done? A far wiser alternative would have been simply to ignore the event as the unoriginal spectacle that it was and let it be an 'echo chamber' of DePaul's Republican student population and a few curious onlookers. If they had really wished to stage an effective response, handing fliers outside the Student Center entrance explaining why his ideas are flawed or misleading would have been far better. Instead, it is very hard to argue with Republicans' claims that they shut down the event because they were scared of its message.
Some heads should roll at DePaul, but not the president's. There were clear failures of management during the event, though I have no idea with whom the fault lies. Security should have removed the protesters and allowed the event to continue. Having paid their money and scheduled the event through the appropriate channels, the College Republicans deserved as much. So did the attendees, some of whom were likely there to challenge Yiannapoulos's ideas.

That said, the outrage directed towards University President Dennis Holtschneider is wide of the mark. Aside from the fact that he was not physically present and in charge of what happened that evening, his response in a campus email struck the right tone. The outrage from outside right-wing groups is mostly about scoring points, while the outrage from on-campus left-wing groups is misguided. Bringing me to...
Various faculty members and departments on-campus have also missed the mark in their reactions. In an open letter, members of the Women and Gender Studies Department condemned Holtschneider's response and called for tighter restrictions on on-campus speech. Other on-campus groups issued similar statements, some calling on Holtschneider to resign. This is misguided. While the urge to protect marginalized groups from offensive speech is understandable, it simply is not a solution. Speech codes are dangerous ideas, as they can easily be turned around on the user. And, in the end, these ideas (however misguided) exist in society. Does sheltering the university environment from threatening speech better prepare students to engage with it later in life, or weaken its presence in society?

My biggest concern about ideas of 'microaggressions,' 'safe spaces,' and the like is the infantilizing effect it has upon students. I think we see that in the response to events like this. Students do not need 'protection' from words. Instead, they need empowerment to tackle those words head-on and defeat them with their own ideas. 
This whole thing is about a relatively small on-campus minority (on both sides). 95% of DePaul students and faculty had nothing to do with this whole scene. Claims by either side that Tuesday evening's events are representative of some broader problem at DePaul are, in that sense, wide of the mark. In that sense, this whole controversy is a disservice to the broader campus community, who might actually have benefited from witnessing a serious discussion about feminism, prejudice, or whatever.

The extremes on both sides find fulfillment from this 'outrage dance.' In many respects, this whole controversy was like a perfectly orchestrated event. College Republicans, as a minority on the DePaul campus, arrange a deliberately provocative event. (A few years ago, 'affirmative action bake sales' were all the rage). The 'provoked' minority groups, drawing on the language of 'safe spaces,' demand that the event be censored and respond with outrage. Either the event being censored or the angry response of the targeted groups allows the College Republicans to claim 'free-speech martyrdom.' The targeted groups argue that the event shows what a threatening on-campus environment they face and demand remediation: a new speech code, added sensitivity/diversity training, etc.

All of this goes hand-in-hand with administrative bloat. University administrations, eager to avoid damaging controversies, are all too happy to respond to these controversies by creating new offices of inclusion, mandating new training/courses for students and staff, and hiring more administrative personnel to ensure that everybody gets along. Of course, the cost of all that is measured in students' tuition dollars and departments' lost faculty lines. And, in many cases, these newly-hired personnel tend to indulge the worst tendencies in students; any political scientist would recognize that individual and bureaucracies will tend to create activity to justify their continued existence!
A lot of university faculty are caught in an ideological bubble. This problem can easily be (and often is) overstated, but it is clear that university faculties in the social sciences and the humanities skew heavily to the left. I witness this all the time in discussions around campus, and there is a certain level of denial about the issue. My own impression is that this is worst in some of the newer interdisciplinary programs, which were created with explicitly left-wing aims (e.g., Women and Gender Studies) and which tend to include activism as part of their identity (e.g., liberating the oppressed). I also tend to think these programs produce less rigorous research, as they tend to rely on qualitative and narrative styles of scholarship that do not require clear standards of measurement, falsification, or the like. But that may just be the social scientist in me showing.

But the broader problem here is one of motivated reasoning. As we are all human, we tend to seek out information that reinforces our existing beliefs and identities, and to scrutinize contrary ideas or information more carefully. If we are not careful, this leads us individually and collectively in some problematic directions, where our scholarship and our teaching get caught in an increasingly narrow worldview. Does that lead to conscious efforts to 'punish' or 'censor' conservative students or colleagues? I highly doubt it, and I have never done or witnessed it personally. But it does run the risk of an unconscious process by which certain ideas are dismissed too easily while shoddier ideas that fit with the worldview are accepted.

In short, this controversy should provoke a lot of self-reflection, though I doubt that it will. Almost everybody involved came out looking pretty badly, and I do not think it unfair to say that quite a few who were involved acted with bad intent.

And, to a very real extent, everyone at DePaul has been played for fools by Milo Yiannapoulos. He gained the notoriety and whatever he got paid for the appearance before jetting off to his new appearance, while the DePaul community will be left to figure out what happened. That alone should be cause for reflection among DePaul's College Republicans.