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Is Sensitivity Always Preferable? April 15, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Teaching.

L.A. Times had an op-ed debate April 15 you may find interesting: Do students have a right not to be offended in college? Or should the college experience be challenging to the students’ preconceived notions? Greg Lukianoff (a constitutional lawyer and a blogger at the Huffington Post) and Michael Shermer (the publisher of Skeptic magazine) explore the issue: Lukianoff cites a number of cases where professors and students have been disciplined for “offensive” speech and actions, and concludes,

 If you limit speech to only that which students and administrators find “comfortable” (a category that seems to get smaller daily), academic freedom and free speech on campus will die. If colleges and universities have any “customer service” obligation, it is to expose students to diverse views, not to censor them. Higher education’s function is to serve as a forum for serious debate, discussion and intellectual innovation. Done correctly, feelings will be hurt, beliefs will be challenged, and sacred cows will be barbecued. Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged, and if you make it through college without ever having been offended, you should ask for your money back.

 Shermer, on the other hand, argues that colleges and universities are marketplaces with the right to set up their own rules and speech codes:

 I will make a free-market case for treating universities and colleges as corporations that offer products and services (education and diplomas) to potential customers (students). As such, each academic corporation sets up a mission statement about what it stands for, what it offers and especially what it expects from its customers when they are on company property; that is, its rules.

 But is this telling the whole story? I think not. Marketplace dynamics is one thing—but what Lukianoff is talking about is not the right of colleges to shape their own standards, it is a questioning of a trend throughout all higher learning institutions today. I’d be curious to hear from our students: Many of your instructors have syllabi which prohibit offensive speech and actions in class (such as my own syllabi), and most of your instructors are mindful of the sensitivities of students. Do you favor this trend, or do you long for the old days of less politically correct speech on campus? Do you see those days as intellectually challenging, or simply offensive?

 (The op-ed debate for April 14 was about political bias on campuses—no less interesting! Maybe we can return to that topic.)



1. Huan - April 16, 2008

Really depends on what kind of offensive speech it is I guess. If it’s just to prevent people from outright being disruptive and ruining discussions by all means. Though if it’s going to censor the challenging of certain beliefs held by certain students, I’d agree with quote number one.

I’ve seen political correctness being a limiting factor to discussions in various classes, many times even affecting which theories professors will choose to lecture. I find this ridiculous, as long as it isn’t some outright biased claim without proper explanation, I want to hear it! Regardless of racism, sexism, religious preferences, political partisanship, whatever it is if it has intellectual roots it shouldn’t be censored.

2. Nina Rosenstand - April 16, 2008

I should clarify that the “challenging” teaching Lukanioff is avocating does not imply the name-calling and jargons of classic bigotry/racism/sexism; at least I didn’t find that in the op-ed piece itself. I believe Lukanioff worries about precisely the phenomenon that you describe, Huan, the reluctance among professors to address certain issues for fear of being accused of insensitivity. Thanks for bringing the ambiguity of my blog piece to my attention. This of course leads to a further question: Where do we draw the line between the “challenging” speech and the name-calling? Is it in “the eye of the beholder”? Which explains the professors’ reluctance…

3. Dwight Furrow - April 19, 2008

It seems to me that this debate about offensive speech has gotten out of hand because the concept of “offense” cannot do the work that speech codes are designed to do. It is hard to see why anyone has a general right not to be offended. People are offended at all sorts of things. The concept refers to a purely personal and often idiosyncratic response. The idea that a set of rules could regulate speech that provokes such anamolous responses is beyond ridiculous.

Concepts such as “intimidation” or “harassment” are perhaps more useful. Although these concepts also refer to subjective attitudes, which may be idiosyncratic, they at least suggest some objective harm to a person’s interests. But the cases of misguided prosecution described by Lukianoff often invoked these concepts as well. I doubt that there is any way to write codes that will get it right.

The problem is that rules and codes can at best be guidelines that must be applied with sensitivity and judgment; and bureaucrats often cannot find the time or lack the capacity for such nicities. The parody of affirmative action at Tufts may have been a statement about the policies of the university. Or it may have been an attempt to intimidate students who benefited from affirmative action. Is that different from a student who wears a swastika to class? Is the student who wears a swastika to class making a personal statement of belief, an ironic statement about persistent racism, or is he trying to intimidate other members of the class? It requires lots of attention to detail to know.

All of the cases of misguided prosecution described by Lukianoff share one feature–they refuse to take the intent of the alleged perpetrator into account. They are all attempts to avoid confronting another human being’s moral address by focusing on the letter of the code. If some behavior could be construed as harassment or intimidation it was so interpreted, regardless of whether a living, breathing person was really harassed or really intended harassment.

Getting rid of speech codes will not eliminate the real harm done to victims of genuine intimidation. But having speech codes does not eliminate the need to apply them with care and responsiveness to context.

As for Shermer’s solution to treat students as consumers who can choose which speech code they want to subscribe to, this is among the more pernicious ideas in circulation. But that is the subject for a post of its own.

4. forrest noble - April 20, 2008

Hi all,

I’m familiar with Shermer’s work and respect his work including his Skeptic’s Magazine and organization. In this case however, his opinions don’t seem appropriate. As to the rules for a private college, they pretty much can make their own, as long as they don’t violate federal or state statutes.

A public college is not only governed by State and Federal law, but by their school boards which represent both the tax payers and alumni of the community and college respectively. That’s the way I think it should be because different communities have different morais that are rightfully reflected by their school boards. Also if these students don’t learn how to follow rules and take discipline, how will they be able to hold a future job. It seems to me that one of the failings of today’s society is the lack of respect and discipline that students can’t learn if they are not rightfully challenged when their behavior is thought to be inappropriate and/ or disruptive.

your friend forrest

5. Nina Rosenstand - April 21, 2008

Dwight, I agree; one of the more problematic aspects of the entire sensitivity issue coming out of the 1990s is precisely that it is the subjective perception of offensive behavior that sets the standard, rather than the proven intent to offend. In defense of that approach one could say that it is precisely the traditional insensitivity toward perceived insults and stereotypes that has been highlighted by focusing on perception rather than intent, but even in our legal system there is a difference between breaking a law on purpose and out of ignorance. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, we all know that, but it is certainly worse to commit a crime intentionally. This difference is often lost in the speech code debate. What is also lost is the cathartic element of eliminating ignorance through education–in other words, when the insensitive, ignorant offender is made to understand the perceived offense (all depending on its severity), then a heartfelt apology should be the end of that story, and everybody wins. As Aristotle says, bad consequences resulting from an act of ignorance should be forgiven if the agent is truly remorseful. I’m sure a long line of otherwise decent people caught with their foot in their mouth would appreciate such an approach, instead of perpetual vilification without any road to rehabilitation. As you point out, this equates the occasional ignorant/oblivious offender with the ones who regularly intimidate others with malicious intent, minimizing the true offense. The old “fallacy of the suppressed correlative,” in fact.

6. forrest noble - April 21, 2008

Nina, yeah — depending on the offense, a truly remorseful apology would often suffice. For additional offenses however, discipline must follow to maintain order and respect, in my opinion.

Although a serious dilemma in today’s schools, this problem seems to me to belong more as the subject of sociological behavior analysis as it relates to student populations and related governing systems, as apposed to the considerations of alternative philosophical perspectives.

your friend forrest

7. Huan - April 21, 2008

I personally wouldn’t apologize if I was a Professor and was teaching a new study on race, sex, or religion that was offensive, as long as it was a well backed study. I think the prevalent idea that all of such offensive remarks are instantly deemed untrue and unworthy of academic settings. This makes it so that if one of these studies are actually true, they’ll be left unheard and harshly criticized.

I mean if you’re gonna attack me(the imaginary Professor), attack the theories and research, don’t attack the fact that I’m bringing up a touchy subject. Can we honestly say that all theories that sounds racist or sexist are untrue?

8. forrest noble - April 21, 2008

Hi Huan,

I agree. The school has given the prof the authority to teach a body of knowledge using certain curriculum. Only if the prof veers outside of these boundaries in a discretionary manner, might an apology be even considered. Otherwise the student must appeal to the administration if they think inappropriate material is being presented.
It is then the administrations job to make a determination.

If a student, on the other hand, were involved in “offensive” speech or behavior, then the applicable predetermined rules of the college should be used to decide the outcome.

your friend forrest

9. Pieisgood - May 6, 2008

I think ‘politically correct’ speech is special treatment under the blanket of objectivity and equality. If a subject that could possibly be offensive to some people is brought up in a class discussion then they should listen intently. If a student is offended, then I see that as their own issue and not a part of the argument. They are one student or even many students but they are not larger than the argument at hand.
If there is a discussion concerning religion in schools and people are offended by the arguments for or against it they have no right to say “i’m offended, we should stop talking about this” it merely stalemates the argument and no progress is made.
This is also only if the argument pertains to the class discussion and curriculum. If someone is bringing up a topic that could be offensive and it has no substance for the class then it has no place being discussed, but if it does then it shouldn’t be ignored because it could be offensive.
If the argument is applicable then it should be argued. I find it more offensive to persist ignorance by stating offense than arguing a sensitive issue.

10. Kim - May 12, 2008

Although I believe in exercising certain degree of sensitivity I do not think we should just stick to what is “safe”. Colleges are institutions that are supposed to prepare young adults for the real world, and as we all know, the real world is not always politically correct. To only address issues that do not illicit any type of emotions, good or bad, limits the thinking of students. As pieisgood stated, these topics can be open to discussion where students can express how they feel and why. This way the whole classroom can get different views on a topic and perhaps become more educated. Often times people change their viewpoints when they become more informed, and even if they don’t change their stance, they got the opportunity to learn more. And isn’t the purpose of college is to learn?

11. Sean Clark - May 15, 2008

I am with Kim in that I think college is a place where students go to learn and experience new ways of thinking. However, I feel that there are professors out there who take advantage of their position and sometimes push their personal views on young impressionable students.
My idea of a good professor is one who gives both sides of the arguement whether it is politics, religion, or whatever. A student shouldn’t be able to tell where their professor stands on views such as these after taking his or her class.

12. Cache Heverly - May 15, 2008

I believe in the free will of exercising our own personal thoughts. If a professor wants to make an opinion that some people don’t agree with, both are in the right. Almost everything now days is offensive to someone so a speaker can never please everyone. I personally wish that teachers could express their own thoughts more bluntly and not have to worry or regret something that they said. As a student I never take anything a teacher says to heart and I have heard some offensive things in my classes. Everyone has the right to their own opinions and I don’t understand why some students and teachers should bite their tongue when it comes to their thoughts on the issue. Sparking a good debate isn’t bad and letting people say their ideas about whatever the topic may be is important.

13. Jessica Humphrey - November 5, 2008

There are a great many ideas that offend me, most particularly the idea that I must be protected from the ideas that offend me. Speech is expression of thought, to censor speech (however blatantly offensive it may be) is to censor thought. If I am offended by the speech of someone I can elect not to speak to them, if they are offended by me they are welcome to contradict my speech or to disassociate themselves from me, but I do not want either of us to be prevented from voicing our views for fear of offending the weak willed or emotionally juvenile.

14. Nina Rosenstand - November 12, 2008

Well said, Jessica. I sometimes wonder what happened, in these times, to the idea expressed by Patrick Henry (sometimes attributed to Voltaire) of disagreeing with an opinion but being willing to defend, to the death, the other’s right to express it…
Come back and share your views with us anytime!

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