Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Responding to hateful ideas

Patrick O'Donnell draws my attention to a pair of posts (one, two) by Mary Anne Franks at PrawfsBlog. The issue: "What role should one's own views play in the response to homophobic, sexist, or racist sentiments, expressed either by students or in the class material itself?" Doubtless this is a problem philosophy instructors sometimes encounter.

There are a number of considerations in the air in Franks' posts and in the comments. Franks contrasts two general approaches:
(a) To respond negatively to students expressing such sentiments would amount to expressing one's own sentiments, a violation of the detachment or neutrality instructors ought to manifest.
(b) Detachment or neutrality in the pedagogical sphere is impossible. Neutrality is violated simply by the texts we choose, the topics we address, etc. Thus, no special worry is raised by responding negatively to students who express hateful sentiments. In a sense, it would be ethically irresponsible and show a lack of integrity concerning one's own values not to respond negatively.

Franks associates (a) with Freud, (b) with Sartre.

I've got two (actually, three) thoughts here, but would be interested to know others' thoughts.

First, the central question, as I see it, is what is pedagogically justified here. Franks and the commenters mention this, but it gets short shrift in the discussion. Is there a way to turn the expression of such sentiments into a "teachable moment," for that student and for the others?

Second, my sense is that the discussion is grounded in a false dilemma:
Should we let hateful sentiments simply play out without personal comment, in the hope that the revelations themselves will bring about enlightenment? Or should we reveal our own personal commitments as a way of signifying and respecting the values at stake?
But surely there's a lot in between ignoring such sentiments and using the force of one's classroom authority to extinguish them. My own response to students' expressing racist or sexist views has been (1) to determine if they're even relevant to the topic at hand (often they're not, in which case I ignore them), and (2) if they are relevant, to critically engage them with the same level of seriousness or attention I would give any other relevant position or view. By treating these views seriously without privileging them, I try to show respect for the student and try to help the class determine whether the views deserve respect.  This is in the spirit of Franks' own remarks:
This is a complex endeavor, to be sure, and context surely matters...  Let us imagine an example - a criminal law class covering the topic of rape.  The professor begins with statistics on sexual assault from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).  A student raises his hand and expresses the view that women often lie about rape, and so we cannot take the numbers seriously.  Would engaging this view advance the goals of the class, or derail the discussion?  I can imagine a series of questions to the student, some interrogating the claim's relevance and informational value, and some analyzing its reasoning, e.g., On what do you base this claim? Do you believe the methodology of the NCVS is fundamentally flawed? If so, do you also take issue with the NCVS statistics on, say, robbery?
What I don't recommend is Marks' next move, going Freudian on the student:
If the answers to these questions are vague, anecdotal, or inconsistent,  e.g. "I just think it's really easy for women to lie," "This girl in my high school lied about being raped by someone," "No, I don't think people lie about robbery," then the Freudian question might be an important one: why are you invested in this claim, despite having little or no evidence to support it?  This question could be the departure point for a larger discussion of the social and cultural perceptions of rape and the effects these perceptions have on the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault.  
I think it would be a serious pedagogical mistake to personalize the issue in this way. For one, many students with 'controversial' views (in my observation) are attention-seeking, and this move keeps the student in the spotlight, rather than the issue. There's a real danger here that objective, impartial inquiry will recede in favor of armchair sociological or psychological speculation.

Lastly, one question to be considered is how other students react to the expression of these sentiments. In philosophy classes in particular, students need to have a thick skin. They'll confront unfamiliar, even threatening, views from their peers, and we shouldn't let that discomfort control the discussion. On the other hand, I've had students complain that such sentiments essentially create a hostile atmosphere, one in which other students disengage and avoid interaction.

(Small aside: Marks' original post mentions offensive course materials, which I think raise a different class of issues.)

How do you handle these issues — and what are the best approaches?


  1. Tough questions. Ignoring especially hateful comments seems risky, though it's worth remembering that in the context of a classroom, there's a lot that can be conveyed without speaking. Silence. Glares. When it's something obviously out of line (and not relevant to the class).

    Last semester, in a phil class on animals, I had some students griping before class one day about non-English speakers (or people who "pretend," as they put it, not to speak English when it's convenient). The conversation was nasty and inchoate, and I more or less cut it off by starting class, but I suggested, in doing so, that unless one had been an immigrant (or grown up in personal knowledge of that experience), one might not be in a good position to judge such things.

    The great thing was that an essay by William James came up that day (referenced in the main essay to discuss), called, "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings." In it, James discusses our difficulty in (and forgetfulness about) taking the perspectives of others--other people, animals, etc. So I got to add "the perspective of people who don't speak the same language as you"--with a slight pause for effect--to the list of examples of blindness I gave to illustrate James' point. They got it. There's no good strategic point there, so sorry. I just got lucky on that one. (And maybe I'm lucky that that's about the most awkward/nasty remark moment I've had lately that has stuck in my mind...)

    The point about asking for evidence/reasons/argument is always good if the nastiness is connected to the classroom issues. I agree that going "Freudian" after that isn't necessary. Especially in philosophy: give me a good argument, or let's move on. And depending on the case, the comments might just be of the sort that deserve the reply, "That's just not acceptable here."

    PS: You can Google the James essay. It's wonderful.

  2. I agree that the focus has to be on the pedagogy and the teaching objectives of what happens in the classroom.

    I also think it is too easy to fall into a position where we are making and conveying rules about "acceptable language" rather than engaging with the principles behind them.

    The examples you give are all views that are widely held and promulgated outside the classroom. Just saying they are "hateful" doesn't actually do anything but teach students how to present the right face in particular environments.

    Discussing things like evidence -- how do we know people are "pretending" not to speak English? Is there an alternative explanation for that evidence? -- and the construction of arguments -- If they are pretending, what benefit might there be to them? Why would they do that rather than something else? -- seems to be more pedagogically useful.

    There are also situations when interrogating changes in language over time, and the political and social forces that led to those changes, is a worthwhile tangent to go on.

  3. I think it is best to be direct and ask the 'offender' why he or she said what he or she said and why it was thought to be important to make that statement. I am not a big fan of labeling things as 'hate' speech (among many types of classifications that are now postulated). I think that doing so simply shuts off the chance for dialogue because it seems to make people defensive to their position and not open to trying to understand alternative viewpoints.

    Another resource that I think is relevant to these types of issues is Bennett's The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn. We can initiate the discussion of different types of speech acts as they relate to fellow-feelings, etc.

  4. I agree that the question is entirely pedagogical. But I think the pedagogical considerations pretty strongly favor an intermediate position between the "Freudian" and "Sartrean" ones.

    Basically my take is that there are three main problems with hateful ideas as students might express them in class.

    (i) They're morally bad.
    (ii) They're epistemically bad.
    (iii) They threaten the safe and respectful learning environment that all students need and deserve.

    I don't think (i) is a relevant consideration for us as instructors, for a lot of reasons. I don't think this a problem, because of all the work (ii) and (iii) do. Michael, I take it that most of your proposal emphasizes (ii), and I totally agree with what you say there.

    I want to respond to the question in the last extended paragraph, which I read as concerning (iii). I think (iii) is really important, especially in a discipline as (at least historically) unfriendly to women and racial minorities as philosophy is. There's a qualitative difference between discomfort that is philosophically healthy in a Socratic sense and the kind of discomfort that oppressive speech produces in its victims. The "thick skin" you mention concerns the first kind of discomfort, but not the second. This difference matters for two reasons.

    The first is that discomfort in the first sense should provoke a (sometimes impassioned or even defensive) response, but discomfort in the second sense is silencing. In an atmosphere where oppressive speech is tolerated, even in the sense of being treated as objectionable on (only) epistemic grounds, people who have been victimized by it can feel shut down; once they do, they check out of a class in a way that it is very difficult for instructors to reverse.

    The second is that students from oppressed backgrounds are unlikely to learn how Socratic discomfort can be important, and even empowering, unless they can clearly distinguish it from the other, oppressive discomfort that is familiar in many other parts of their lives. If they are told in philosophy classes that oppressive speech just deserves the same kind of open-minded critique that more or less any other sort of dumb idea does, they're unlikely to make this distinction.

    (One thing I like about drawing the distinction this way is that it brings out the way in which good philosophical pedagogy must sometimes be responsive to moral considerations without being itself, pace the "Sartrean" view, a form of moralizing. Another thing I like about it is that it justifies the (plausible) view that racism, sexism and the like deserve special attention in a way that, e.g. right-wing economic ideas do not, without thereby being committed to the (much less plausible, or at least more tendentious) view that racism or sexism are in some special way morally worse than right-wing economics. (If we took moral considerations directly into account, it is hard to see how we could avoid the second commitment.))

  5. I wonder if a distinction between two kinds of neutrality would be helpful. (I borrow this from Alex de Waal in different context.) 'Operational neutrality' means refusing to take sides or appearing partisan, while 'neutrality of principle' means applying your principles fairly i.e. assessing all by the same standards.

    I think the appropriate form of neutrality for the classroom is generally principled, and I think that it fits with what you say about your own practise "By treating these views seriously without privileging them, I try to show respect for the student and try to help the class determine whether the views deserve respect."

    But this also requires some critical reflection about what those principles should be, and their legitimacy. And that might be helpful in dealing with the kind of problems that arise from hateful ideas. For example, clearly defending people from "offensiveness" is not a principle that one can generally endorse for the classroom (unless one wants to commit to protecting Christians from David Hume's hurtful attacks). But it can be a problem if that isn't understood in advance by all. Similarly it is best to make explicit those positive principles of academic study, such as for civility and standards of critical analysis about facts, that should characterise the classroom. Then when someone goes over the line you can tell them so and everyone should understand it (and if it works very well then even teachers will be scolded if they get carried away on some pet topic).

  6. One strategy is to, if possible, let other students respond to the epistemic badness of the statement. For example, several years ago I had a student say, in more colorful language, that women shouldn't get abortions, and if they want to avoid this situation then they should refrain from sex. I was lucky, in retrospect, that several students (both male and female) engaged this student without personally attacking him but they did challenge his ideas.

    I don't always handle these situations as well as I would like, but I think that simply asking for arguments and evidence is the best way to go, rather than seeking to silence students without a due consideration of the merit of their views. This models how to argue without going ad hominem, and hopefully it is a teachable moment with respect to participating in civil society.

    Fortunately, truly hateful ideas don't possess sufficient epistemic justification, and we can show this to be the case.

  7. Great post and great responses. I agree that is a very bad idea to personalize and psychologize students, especially in public. This goes even when the student "started it" by getting personal. I think the best strategy is to make the point less personal and make it open to debate (by making it more abstract or appealing to principles). The one thing I wouldn't do is ignore it. It is tempting, I know. But if a student who is rightly offended by hateful remarks sees the professor ignore it, the student can feel even more alienated and alone. This can undermine the relationship between faculty and student significantly.

  8. Thanks for the great post and great discussion. I think that Becko is correct to say that we shouldn't ignore "hateful" speech in the classroom, partly for the reason she mentions, but also because our students are likely confronting this kind of speech in other classes. The cumulative impact of this kind of speech, especially if it is typically ignored, compounds the alienation and feelings of isolation that Becko mentions. Having said that, I generally agree with the general advice to discuss the remarks in terms of their epistemic backing and the norms of civil classroom discussion.

  9. There's a possible twist to this sort of scenario which I don't see any comments on, but which is a not uncommon experience for some of us: namely, what if one of the implied targets of the racist/sexist/homophobic speech is the professor herself?

    Of course, we're all anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc., and can be expected by students to respond in that way--so hateful comments are very rarely put out there neutrally. Nonetheless, when I have, say, male students in a feminist theory class comment openly that feminists routinely silence men and that women in a position of power use that power to prevent men from speaking their truth...well, my options are limited. If I ignore it, I have at best lost a teaching moment, and at worst lost face. If I engage it, I risk confirming the expressed view (at least for the student and any conspirators).

    I always hope to use humor as a way of defusing the tension before allowing such a student to dig himself (or herself, depending) in deeper--usually to a point where they realize they have to shut up. But in the moment, finding that humorous lever can be a real challenge.


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