Saturday, February 7, 2015

Why would privileged college students want to avoid debate?

There's a lot with which to take issue in this article: Safe space or free speech? The crisis around debate at UK universities, not least of which is the framing: if students don't have free speech, students are not safe. But I'd like to take a look at one passage in particular, which presents the view of Tim Squirrel, former president of the Cambridge Union:

“Safe space gets a bit of a bad rap,” he says. “Most of the people involved in advocating these types of policies don’t mind debate; they just they don’t want to do so in their homes with strangers.

“Every time you invite someone like Germaine Greer on to campus, or someone who disagrees with the rights of sex workers to do their work, or a racist or a homophobe, you’re not endorsing their views, but you’re legitimating their views as something that’s up for discussion. There’s a place for that discussion, but the question of whether it should happen in people’s homes is a difficult one. Greer doesn’t think trans women are real women. These are not abstract issues. They affect real people.

“I know someone in the debating circuit who used to say to teams: ‘If you think your case is offensive, you haven’t found the right case to make. You should go back and find another one which doesn’t appear prima facie to be offensive. There are ways of debating these things which aren’t hurtful.”

This statement represents everything that goes wrong when we treat higher education as a vacation for entitled rich kids, rather than a privilege for young people who want to commit to several years of intellectual exploration, with all the assorted responsibilities that should accompany such an opportunity.

1) No one is asking students to invite strangers into their dorm rooms for contentious debate, although damned if daily, spirited debates in every setting imaginable weren't part and parcel of my college experience - as I was there to think and grow. However, the entire campus is not a student's "home," nor is everyone there meant to coddle them. Going to classes and extracurricular events are part of a student's work, their intellectual work, which they are privileged to spend several years exploring, rather than heading off to the military, or minimum wage drudgery, or whatever else their less privileged contemporaries must get on with.

2) Of course offensive views are up for discussion. OF COURSE THEY ARE. Offensive views are being written into laws and policies the world over. If you do not learn to engage those views honestly and constructively, like thinking adults, how in the world do you think you will deconstruct them - and provide viable alternatives - in the real world?

During my final days at university, Charles Murray came to our campus, and I attended his presentation. Afterwards, I watched as -one by one and with calm composure- students rose to ask him detailed, pointed questions about his historical and statistical methods. These questions wrecked his racist suppositions. I thought to myself, with relief and pride, "My classmates are prepared to go out and do real good in the world."

If you actually care about social justice issues, spending four years in university plugging your ears and shouting buzz phrases will render you about as prepared for real social justice work as a soldier whose only skill on the battlefield is to yell "don't shoot!"

3) Then there is the real question: For whom are campus spaces supposedly safe? To whom are these debates hurtful?

Generally speaking, any debate on social issues threatens to highlight the rampant insincerity of campus social justice warriors.

If a student is unwilling to entertain debate on sensitive matters of race, religion, sexuality, you name it, my first thought is that they are unable to defend their stated positions. Hell, most of the students advocating for no-platform policies aren't even able to define their positions without the use of deliberately obtuse and polarizing language, language which they have parroted with no independent analysis of their own.

But the problem goes beyond intellectual superficiality. Unlike my undergraduate cohort, I doubt these students would welcome the opportunity to calmly and systematically refute racist theories, and I suspect this is because they actually believe those racist theories to be true, and they consider their willingness to lie about that, and to spew sanctimony at those who state out loud their own secretly held views, to be a form of moral righteousness. (And of course it is their own white righteousness that is most important, not any concrete action that could address the systematic exploitation, imprisonment and murder of people of color, from which all white people benefit.)

But more specifically, the recent no-platforming of (supposedly) controversial feminists is very obviously meant to protect male privilege.

There's a reason you see the no-platforming of feminists lumped in with the no-platforming of racists and homophobes - male privilege/female oppression is the only axis of power relations that is deemed unacceptable for investigation by the modern Left.

Just look at the language of the privileged white dude above: he describes a woman who supports the Nordic model as "someone who disagrees with the rights of sex workers to do their work." The Nordic model explicitly supports the decriminalization of women who sell sexual access to their bodies. At issue is the criminalization of men who feel entitled to buy sexual access to women's bodies - but apparently male entitlement to female bodies is not up for debate on the Left.

Also not up for debate on the Left: the thought-terminating cliche that "trans women are real women." Do women have the right to a word for adult female humans? Do we get a word for those humans who were recognized as female at or before birth, who grew up under a regime of oppressive feminine socialization? Do we get a word for those humans who went through the specific hell of female puberty in a rape culture? Do we get a word for that class of humans that menstruates, that is vulnerable to pregnancy, that does 99% of the work of reproducing the species? What does it mean for our protections under the law if we cannot even name ourselves? How can feminism, the movement for the liberation of women, continue to exist if men are allowed to re-define "woman" however and whenever they like?

Furthermore, who does it really protect to shunt "not-masculine-enough" males into the woman box? Could it be that as women have expanded our acceptable sex roles, men have lost access to their traditional supply of emotional, sexual, reproductive and domestic labor? Could it be that as women have become more independent of them, men have had to question their core masculine identities? Could it be that this idea of "real men" vs. women-in-men's-bodies is actually all about protecting male privilege? Again, none of these questions are up for debate on the Left.

Privileged, mainstream, anti-intellectual students regularly conflate homosexuality with transsexuality. Is this because they truly believe that gay men are actually women in men's bodies and lesbians are actually men in women's bodies? Does transgenderist brain sex theory exist to diffuse the threat gay rights pose to compulsory heterosexuality, which is central to male privilege? Shouldn't we consider how brain sex theory is putting gender non-conforming children of both sexes - our best hope for a more feminist generation - on the route to medical sterilization? Again, these questions are not up for debate on the Left.

These students don't want debate because they don't want to do the work of real change. Instead, they want a shortcut to claiming their place on "the right side of history." They do not care for the difficult, messy, fraught work that must be done to get to the root of any given social problem. They certainly don't want to question the extent to which their own privileges would be threatened by a more justly structured world. They just want to yell the most superficially right-on slogans and have that performance recorded for posterity on their social media platform of choice.

Engaging difference - rather than screaming buzzphrases - means acknowledging that difference might have an actual effect on your own life. It means putting your own understanding of the world - which almost always involves rationalizing your own privilege - at risk.

Fortunately for those on the wrong side of history, Leftist students now enthusiastically offer themselves up as enemies of the critical thought that is necessary to achieve the liberatory goals they claim to hold. Female students on college campuses face an epidemic of sexual violence at the hands of entitled males, even as they are banned from merely naming maleness and femaleness for the sake of "safe spaces." It is as it always has been: the only people entitled to either free speech or safe spaces are those people who were born and raised white and male.

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