This fall has been unseasonably warm, but there are snowflakes in the air.
As educational institutions return to normal operations, a series of incidents around the country have also revived a familiar pattern of provocation, offense, and condemnation. At the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, back-to-class controversies are occurring with greater predictability than the transition of climate-changed seasons.
These events have been a windfall for conservatives. It’s hard to imagine less effective ambassadors for the left than thin-skinned students and their administrative allies. That’s why even writers sympathetic to their cause worry rallying against curriculum decisions or party invitations is counterproductive.
Sensitivity isn’t limited to one side of the political spectrum, though. Where they’re in charge, Republicans cater to the most easily offended. Some anti-Critical Race Theory laws passed earlier this year ban instruction that causes “discomfort” or psychological distress associated with students’ race or sex. More recently, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has made parental objections to sexually-explicit course materials the centerpiece of his campaign.
There’s a simple explanation for the apparent inconsistency. Being offended makes people angry and angry people vote. Taking on school officials who’ve embraced an aggressive conception of “inclusion” and “equity” while demonstrating serious negligence of their basic responsibility to protect students’ physical safety has energized Youngkin’s campaign, which is now virtually tied.
The success of Youngkin’s political strategy doesn’t answer the educational question, though. Is the risk of offense a sufficient reason to change teaching strategies or class assignments? Youngkin’s choice of surrogates suggests he thinks so or is willing to pretend he does. One his ads heading into the last week of the race features Laura Murphy, a Virginia mother who campaigned to prevent classroom use of Toni Morison’s novel Beloved.
Full disclosure: I was required to read Beloved in high school, didn’t like it at the time, and continue to think it’s overrated. Still, it’s widely assigned, revered by some critics, and seems appropriate for an AP English class like the one Murphy’s son was taking. In her campaign against the book in 2013, Murphy argued literature classes should meet the same standards as Virginia’s sex ed curriculum, where parents have the right to opt out of certain topics and classes. That’s a mistake: fiction that deals with sexual themes is not equivalent to a morally-charged curriculum that purports to instruct minors about their own intimate lives.
Murphy’s reaction wasn’t mere prudishness, though. While it appeals to conservative sensibilities, Murphy’s opposition to Beloved was based on a widely-shared sense of entitlement to emotional comfort that also encourages left-wing attacks on academic freedom. “It was disgusting and gross … it was hard for me to handle,” Murphy’s son Blake reported.
Why should emotional responses determine the curriculum? To find the answer, we need to look beyond today’s culture war skirmishes. In his 1981 book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair Macintyre argued that the reduction of ethical judgments to psychological conditions is the defining feature of contemporary discourse. Rather than appealing to shared standards of right and wrong or beautiful and ugly, we simply describe how certain acts, works, or ideas make us feel.
Because they are descriptions of internal states rather than persuasive arguments, such statements cannot be separated from the subject who expresses them or subjected to rational criticism. Even if one disagrees with a particular reaction, it’s an incontestable account of the way that person experiences the world.
You might expect this tendency to encourage toleration. If we have irreducibly different responses to the same phenomena, there would seem to be no alternative to agreeing to disagree. In practice, though, what MacIntyre calls “emotivism” raises the stakes of controversy. To challenge my subjective experience isn’t merely an expression of disagreement. It’s tantamount to rejecting me.
The personalization of disagreement helps explain why being offended has become the dominant motif of our educational disputes. Rather than opening discussion that can lead in unpredictable directions, it’s a way of ending conversations before they begin. Do works like the Laurence Olivier version of Othello or Beloved have aesthetic or other qualities that outweigh the discomfort they might cause? The emotivist premise denies that the question even makes sense.
If philosophical critics are right, the sources of this premise predate the familiar script by centuries. In After Virtue, MacIntyre argues emotivism was a response to the failure of the “Enlightenment Project” of identifying a purely rational foundation for morality. As an alternative, MacIntyre encouraged a rediscovery of premodern conceptions of exemplary character. So-called virtue ethics is an ambitious project that still occupies scholars more than four decades later.
Alternative schools that try to put these ideas into practice are gaining ground around the country. Still, it will be a long time before they seriously rival more conventional institutions. Meanwhile, there are a few strategies that teachers can use to challenge emotivism, at least at the college level (which advanced high school courses are supposed to replicate).
First, we can recover the traditional emphasis on technical qualities of art or argument. In other words, we can try to show students how they “work” as well as what they “say.” That was the goal of the old-fashioned study of language, rhetoric, and composition, which tended to separate formal achievement from personal enjoyment or moral endorsement.
Second, it’s a good idea to explain why challenging materials were selected and are worth studying. Despite its superficial similarity, this practice shouldn’t be confused with the misuse of “trigger warnings.” By announcing the possibility of discomfort without making the case that it’s necessary, trigger warnings appeal to the emotivist premise that subjective responses are decisive. Not every book or assignment needs to be justified, but instructors tend to underestimate how arbitrary even the most thoughtful syllabus can seem to students and parents. When trying to head off predictable disputes, a little explanation goes a long way.
Finally, we can explicitly confront the assumption that being offended or distressed is necessarily bad. After at least half a century in which spurious innovation has dominated intellectual and artistic life, provocation has become tediously conventional. Yet there’s no way around the fact the some great art and great ideas are genuinely challenging. We like to think we’re more open-minded and inquisitive than the dead white males of benighted past. Just try teaching Plato’s description of reproductive communism.
These suggestions are far from panaceas. As Aaron Sibarium reports in The Free Beacon, the most important reason to avoid offense is regulatory: Civil rights laws make educational institutions liable for ever-expanding categories of allegedly harassing or abusive expression. Unless those laws are modified, it’s hard to blame teachers for being careful. Instead of mobilizing offense for their own advantage, maybe some politician will take up the cause of legally disarming it.