Thursday, August 25, 2016

Warning Against Warning Against Trigger Warnings

A recent letter sent by the University of Chicago to its incoming students has generated quite a bit of attention for its verbiage on that ever-present collegiate bugaboo, "trigger warnings":
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called "trigger warnings," we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
One point of contention has been whether this statement, fairly read, means that the U of C now bans its professors from issuing trigger warnings. I'm inclined to doubt this is the case, but if it is so it most certainly is an intrusion on the academic freedom of Chicago professors to manage their own classrooms. Hopefully, we can all agree that the issue of trigger warnings is one best left to the sound academic discretion of individual professors -- it should not be mandated or forbidden by academic administrators.

But leave that aside, and turn to the advisability of "trigger warnings" as a pedagogical tool. Ilya Somin offers his "Warning against Trigger Warnings" that he delivers at the start of his Constitutional Law course.
I don’t believe in trigger warnings. But if I did, I would have to include one for virtually every day of this course. We are going to cover subjects like slavery, segregation, sexism, suicide, the death penalty, and abortion. There is no way to teach this course without discussing these issues. And there is no good way to cover them without also considering a wide range of views about these subjects and their relationship to the Constitution.
This is, to reiterate, framed as a statement against trigger warnings. But it seems to me that it functions ... basically as a trigger warning. It tells students, accurately, about some of the content they'll be reading, and notes that much of it deals with issues of deep injustice and controversy. It explains why that material is there, and why it needs to be addressed forthrightly. We see things like this a lot. Jerry Coyne argued in The New Republic that while perhaps it is appropriate of professors to prospectively inform students of triggering content, there most certainly should not be a trigger warning -- heaven forbid! What they do in disclaiming trigger warnings is for the most part not far different from what many, though not all, trigger warning advocates are asking for.

What, exactly, is going on here? In part, many people seem to ascribe to "trigger warnings" a function they are manifestly not designed for -- to avoid teaching sensitive topics. But that's silly -- if you don't want to teach a sensitive topic, you don't put it on your syllabus. The very fact of including a trigger warning indicates that this material is present on the syllabus and being taught.

What else? Well, clearly what many people have in mind when they think of "trigger warnings" are not the mild cases outlined above, but more extreme versions where every ticky-tack element of the syllabus is meticulously sorted through and warned over to appease the most sensitive theoretical student. Perhaps cases like that do exist -- I'm sure one can find some obscure sociology professor at Southwest Oregon State Technical College who's hard at work making a 12 page list of potential triggers on his syllabus -- but certainly they don't represent the main. And in any event, that's a difference of degree, not kind.

So we can certainly say that certain extreme manifestations of trigger warnings are ridiculous, pedagogically and otherwise. But this argument cuts both ways -- it seems to me that there are cases where something like a "trigger warning" would be universally agreed to be not just prudent but the only pedagogically responsible course of action.

I was talking with a colleague at another law school who teaches First Amendment law. As part of the course they discuss various anti-pornography ordinances, and as part of that unit she shows a clip in class of graphic rape pornography of the sort targeted by the ordinance. And the class before that class, she tells her students that this clip will be shown and asks them to prepare to discuss and react to it. In short -- though she doesn't use the term -- she provides a trigger warning.

We can of course debate whether it is wise to show such a clip in class at all. But given that she does so, I imagine all of us think it is wise that her pedagogical tact is not "surprise! Rape porn!" Of course you give students advance notice that it's coming. Anything else would be recklessly irresponsible. Does anyone disagree on that score?

The other argument against "trigger warnings" that might apply even in a case like this is the appeal to the "real world". In the real world, this argument goes, people are exposed to disturbing or hostile events without warning. It will happen, and it is important that young adults learn to cope with it. The proponents of this view sometimes recognize that people really do have deep-seated aversion and anxiety to certain topics, but, they suggest, the way to resolve it is through some version of "exposure therapy." We expose people to their fears under safe and controlled conditions so they learn to cope.

This argument really just does not grasp the professional and pedagogical role of a university professor. To begin, I am not my students' therapist. I am not professionally trained in getting students to overcome their anxieties. If I were forced into that role, however, my instinct would be that exposure therapy would exist alongside "trigger warnings" and even some of the more controversial forms of university "mollycoddling" that conservatives like to condemn. As my friend Kate Manne observed, we do not cure arachnophobes by randomly tossing spiders at them. If we do exposure therapy, it is in controlled environments, with advance warning and significant support to help the subject recover when they're (understandably) rattled.

But there's a deeper misunderstanding here. Just as my job as an academic is not to be a therapist, likewise it is not to be a generic life coach offering exposure to the various hard knocks my students will inevitably encounter as they walk through life. Yes, it's true that my students will "in the real world" encounter disturbing or distressing material without warning. It's also true that my students will "in the real world" most likely have a supervisor who is a jerk. Does that mean I should be a jerk to my students? They'll have to get used to it to survive in the real world! No, of course not. My job is not to offer a buffet table of life's prospective misfortunes for my students. My job is to teach the material I offer in the most effective manner possible. The advisability of a trigger warning, as far as I'm concerned, depends wholly on how it meets that criteria: will it aid or impede my students in the learning process? That will be a matter of individual judgment on individual cases, and it strikes me as fairly ridiculous to try to sweep more broadly than that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

SHOCKED To Find Out There Was Gambling!

A Sheldon Adelson backed anti-BDS group has distanced itself from one of its grantees after it launched a poster campaign identifying pro-Palestinian student activists as "Jew-haters." 
The Maccabee Task Force issued its disavowal of the poster campaign Monday after the Los Angeles Times reported the link between it and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, which launched the campaign in February. 
The David Horowitz Freedom Center is a conservative foundation based in Los Angeles. 
“The Maccabee Task Force did approve a modest grant to the David Horowitz Freedom Center to focus on the true nature of pro-BDS organizations, but we did not ask for or approve the poster campaign that targeted student activists, and were not aware that our money had been used to support it. It should not have been,” Maccabee Task Force Executive Director David Brog said in a statement issued Monday.
“The Maccabee Task Force does not believe that focusing on student activists who conduct themselves civilly is an appropriate or effective way to combat the BDS movement on campus. Focusing on the true nature of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic groups like SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine), however, remains a core component of our approach and we will continue to fund efforts that expose those organizations and their leadership,” Brog also said.
Holy shit, you're saying that giving money to David Horowitz might not result in an advocacy campaign that scrupulously adheres to principles of civility and political justice? Who could have known!

In any event, this statement by Brog is worth nothing unless it is followed by (a) the Task Force cutting off Horowitz from any further grants and (b) the Task Force taking cues from those Jewish organizations which managed to fight BDS on campus and condemn vicious political stunts like this at the same time.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XXX: Sadiq Khan Endorsing Owen Smith

Sadiq Khan is the Mayor of London, the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a major Western city. Khan is also a member of the UK's Labour Party, which at the moment is embroiled in a major anti-Semitism problem many lay at the feet of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is unpopular with the general public, but his numbers among Jews are especially abysmal -- approaching Trump-among-Latinos depths. But Khan is relatively well liked by his Jewish constituents (London is a major center of the UK Jewish community). His campaign for mayor was characterized by an impressive level of outreach to the Jewish community, and following his election he has walked the walk. Khan is proof that Jews are perfectly happy to vote Labour if Labour offers a choice that incorporates them as part of Britain's multicultural tapestry and offers them respect and solidarity. The problem with Labour is that Corbyn-style Labour is not making that offering.

In any event, Corbyn is currently being challenged for his post as head of Labour by another MP, Owen Smith. And Khan has just come out hard for Smith, though his focus was not on the issue of anti-Semitism but on Corbyn's general lack of leadership, particularly on the "Brexit" vote. All of that information is background for this:

Five minutes. That didn't take long at all (the photo, incidentally, is genuine -- Khan really did eat Matzah at a Passover event during his campaign).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Post-Contemporary Roundup

Yesterday, I had my first Ph.D subfield exam (in contemporary political theory). It was a delightful smorgasbord of Rawls, Walzer, Rorty, Anderson, and Landesmore; thus (hopefully) proving I am a smart young man who knows things about contemporary political theory.

As one can imagine, this has been taking up much of my time (well beyond the six hours I spent taking the actually test). But now it's over, and I can enjoy my ... one week before the Fall Term begins! Anyway, here are some links that have been cluttering my browser over the past few days.

* * *

Glenn Beck has some surprisingly thoughtful and introspective remarks on Black Lives Matter. Good for him.

MEMRI says there has been a recent streak of articles in the Saudi press urging its readers to renounce and reject anti-Semitism. Sea change, or drop in the bucket? Who knows.

"For Israel, It’s No Jew Left Behind — Unless You’re Ethiopian".

Jeremy Corbyn must find it baffling how his friends mysterious keep on saying things to Jews like "F**k him, they should cut his throat."

Department of Justice to phase out the use of private prisons. Good news, though my suspicion (possibly unfounded) is that most private prison contracts are with the states, not the federal government.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Complicated Problems are Still Problems

When I teach a unit on controversial topics, I sometimes begin by making an observation about "hard" and "easy" problems. Many of us have a tendency to convert hard problems into easy ones. This can be a great skill at times, particularly for lawyers -- distilling a complex and multifaceted mess of a fact pattern into a simple set of issues that straight-forwardly demand victory for one's clients. As thinkers, though, it is a more problematic instinct. For example, I've argued that there is a peculiar left-right convergence -- some of the time -- regarding how they talk about issues of racism. Some persons on the left think racism is a simple matter, in the sense that once we've identified something as racist that's all we need to know on the matter. And some persons on the right will agree with that sentiment, but proceed to argue that since such-and-such case is not simple but rather quite complex and complicated, it therefore can't be racist (since racism is, by stipulation, something that is straight-forwardly wrong). These two views converge to box out what seems to me the far more plausible reality: racism being often a matter of great complexity and moral difficulty, an appraisal which in no way diminishes the seriousness or gravity of racism as a wrong. Complicated problems are still problems.

Having told this parable, I continue to tell my students that the instinct to make hard cases easy ones is troublesome for at least two reasons. The first one is perhaps obvious: when we do it, we almost always act to exclude morally relevant considerations that should be factoring into our analysis; nuances and wrinkles that make the case a hard case and so are written out. But there's a more subtle problem as well: When we make hard cases easy, we condition ourselves to think that only easy cases are solvable cases -- that hardness is a synonym for "intractable" or (worse) "apolitical". Sometimes this leads to a sort of quiescence around hardness (as in the case of the conservative who thinks observing the complexity of racial injustice is a sufficient response to claims of racism). Other times it leads to a suspicion of hardness (as in the leftist who thinks observing the complexity of racial injustice represents a failure to take it seriously). Either way, it is a path that leads nowhere, and so I conclude by telling my students to "lean into the hardness." 

All of this came to mind when reading the penultimate paragraph of Daniel May's contribution to the MBL/Jewish flare-up, which discusses the issue of "complexity" and credibility. May offers up a list of some of the more egregious instances of Israeli injustices and then derides those who claim "that such realities must be understood in 'context,' as 'complicated,' or a tragic consequence of 'ha'matzav' (“the situation,” as Israelis call it)." 

May is articulating a real wrong here -- the conservative voice in my parable who thinks he has responded to an allegation of injustice by asserting "it's complicated." Yet there is the question of how we frame our retort. The shortfall of the conservative reply is not that the problem isn't a complicated one. The shortfall is that complicated problems are still problems. It is absolutely true that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is bound up in all sorts of immensely difficult nets and traps which defy simple solutions or easy finger points. None of that removes the fundamental injustices that exist where an entire population is deprived of the basic democratic entitlements to vote for the sovereign authority controlling their lives, where racist incitement against Palestinians continues to surge, where "price tag" attacks by Jewish terrorists occur with near-impunity, where a military occupation persists indefinitely while insulated from any accountability to the people in its cross-hairs. And those fundamental injustices, in turn, don't flatten or dissipate the complexity of "the situation" that produces them. We deal with hard problems by tackling them in all their difficulty and complexity.

There's a reason why I think the most powerful sentence in Stacey Aviva Flint's superb reflection on the Movement for Black Lives platform is also its shortest: "I choose discomfort". The issues posed by police violence targeting people of color, or Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, or the dispossession of ancient Jewish communities in the Christian and Muslim worlds, or continued vulnerability of Arab and Muslim communities to state-sponsored and individual acts of violence, or systematic racism, or ongoing global anti-Semitism, are not easy, comfortable issues. They are not morality plays and we are not blessed with simple and straightforward choices. Crafting a just social sphere is hard, complicated, complex business. That observation is part of the work; it's not an excuse to refrain from it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

It Is Not The Job of Democrats To Babysit Republicans

Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President. This has caused a giant crisis of confidence among Republicans who are committed to denying that Trump represents the Party which voted, by overwhelming margins, for him to be their standard-bearer (as Scott Lemieux observes, the best part of this narrative is when it claims that folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are "leading Republicans", as opposed to, say, Donald Trump). And that has created a small cottage industry of figuring out how to blame Democrats for Trump's rise. They cried wolf, Jonah Goldberg wails! Indeed they did, says David Graham. How could Republicans take the charge that Trump was a sui generis threat to American's democratic character, when Democrats always are calling Republican politicians terrible, horrible, no good very bad candidates for higher office?

If this complaint strikes you as pathetic, that's because it is. Obviously, Democrats are generally not going to like Republican nominees for higher office (if we did, either we'd be Republicans or they'd be Democrats). Republicans are responsible for their own nominee, if their nominee reflects poorly upon them, that says nothing more than that they are who we thought they were.

But the real question is why Republicans are supposedly entitled to rely on Democrats to keep them in check? We are not their keeper, after all. Why didn't their own self-generated political principles put the breaks on Trump? The answer seems to be that Republicans at this point, by their own admission, lack any self-generated political principles. As one commentator astutely put it at the end of Obama's first term: "[T]oday’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today: updated daily." The entire conservative movement today is one large exercise in ressentiment against urban coastal multicultural liberal elites, entirely reactive, creating nothing of its own. Of course it relied on Democrats to behave in such a way as to not "create a Trump"; Democrats -- indirectly -- create everything the contemporary Republican Party "stands" for.

Theirs is, as Nietzsche would put it, a Party beset by sickness. And while it's not the case that only a Party that sick could produce a Trump, it is the case that only a Party that sick could blame its opposition for forcing them into it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Left Left the Mizrahim to the Right

In June, the Education Ministry published the Biton Report, named for the head of the committee that produced it, prominent Algerian-born poet Erez Biton. It's a set of recommendations for reforming the country's Ashkenazi-centered schooling. Ashkenazi Jews have their roots in Germany and Eastern Europe. The report aims at including the history and culture of Mizrahi Jews—those from Muslim countries—and of Sephardim, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain. 
Reform is long overdue. It's a failure of the Israeli left that the issue was left for a right-wing government to champion.
The emphasis is my own,  because it is worthy of emphasis. The degree to which the Israeli left (to say nothing of the broader Jewish left, to say nothing of the broader international left) has left matters of Mizrahi equality and inclusion is a failure we must be held accountable for. That the right picked up the baton we dropped is likewise to their credit. It is our fault, our responsibility, that we did not tackle this issue on our own. We cannot therefore be indignant when a community we did not, for the most part, protect today mistrusts our politics (to say nothing of our egalitarian slogans).

The way you rectify that is by jumping back into the fray. I found this post on +972 searching for ways to reinvigorate efforts to promote restitution for Mizrahi refugees heartening (though, it must be said, my friends at JIMENA were less enthused). It's not quid pro quo, we're not "owed" anything for our (belated) backing. You do it because it's right, and hope that leads someplace better.

If You Like the Greens, You'll LOVE Donald Trump

The Forward manages to not only find the rare Jewish Trump voter, but, well, I'll let his justification speak for itself:
Let me be clear: I am to the left of President Obama on healthcare. I believe Bernie represents the best instincts of public service, though I find some of his views and certainly some of his supporters an anathema. I have spent most of my professional career in not for profit work around the country. 
I am Jewish, and this election will be no different than past elections. A very high percentage of my fellow Jews with whom I have identified, lived and worked among for my entire life overwhelmingly supporting the Democratic candidate. 
Yet, I will continue what has become a 21st century electoral activity for me: proudly voting for the Republican at the top of the ticket during presidential years. At the same time, you should know, I continue my equally stubborn sense of independence down ballot, and I have voted for at least one local Green Party candidate for Congress, though again I found certain of his views utterly distasteful. Ethics matter to me, especially when you have a very long track record. 
Donald Trump is a wild man and a populist. I believe both judgments are exactly what America needs. If anything, I hope he can fob off the corporate Republicans more worried about planning their taxes. I think he can; I know Hillary can’t shake off the yoke of Wall Street.
With leftist credentials like that, what's left to argue about? Trump is the only realistic choice for Green Party leftists concerned about health care, ethics, and reining in Wall Street. The good news is that those four paragraphs pretty much sum up all you need to know about both Trump supporters and Green Party voters.