Actually teaching tolerance

There are currently discussions (a recent one at Hybrid Pedagogy comes to mind ) about being open with our students about ourselves in order to encourage tolerance, particularly of sexuality. To me, this is part of a much larger issue about values and responsibilities, and it is broadening the list of trends with which I, respectfully, disagree.

The sexuality issue connects with similar lines of “equity” that I’ve been struggling with in recent years. According to contemporary cultural norms, I have to be X to understand what it’s like to experience discrimination about being X. I receive social messages implying that whatever labels I apply to myself, or that society applies to me, should be made public to encourage tolerance (except that tolerance is now a bad word because it implies denigrating the ideas we’re supposed to be tolerant of). My own ideas are dismissed because I am what the culture now calls “privileged” — I am told I don’t understand, because my understanding is not the same as someone else’s.

Lately, people I admire try to tell me what to do and think. I am told that All Lives Matter means that Black Lives Don’t, that I can’t understand anything because I’m white, or female, or middle class, or whatever sexual orientation, or religion, or culture, that other people think I am. I was told by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright that I couldn’t support Bernie Sanders because I am female and he isn’t, and that I’m betraying my sex to not like Hillary Clinton.

A year ago, I saw a sticker on an office window at my college. It was triangular and featured a rainbow design with  “Safe Space” written on it. Thinking I understood (this is a safe space to be who you are), I asked how to get one, and was told to attend a training. So I did. And during that training, I was told that as a teacher it is my job to shut down intolerance in the classroom. That if anyone says anything anti-X (gay, trans, etc) I am to indicate that is inappropriate, and that people in the room might be X and be offended. I was further told that I should say that such views won’t be allowed in my class.

I raised my hand and pointed out that I want the bigot to speak, that I want him or her in my office speaking their mind. How else could I talk to them and convince them of tolerance? I was laughed at. People thought I was joking. Instructors whom I respect and like chuckled at my comment. At the end of the session, I thanked them and refused the sticker, saying I don’t stand for these values the way they are being told to me. I bought a rainbow flag and put it on my office window.

I have always been a proponent of teaching tolerance. The question is, how do we do it? Does revealing our sexuality, or religion, or culture, to our class teach tolerance and appreciation of difference? Does shutting down diverse views, especially those we find abhorrent, correct a problem? Or does it just use our authority, and our supposed role model status, to enforce a particular view of what constitutes tolerance?

My preference is for modeling tolerance rather than “teaching” it. I refuse to shut down conversation in my classroom, because my goal is critical thinking as well as an open mind and freedom of speech. My own speech tends to be egalitarian, and I always point out that what I say is my interpretation of the historical and scholarly sources. When I speak about anyone whom mainstream culture might consider unusual, I talk about them as if they aren’t unusual at all. And as a historian, I’m interested in understanding diverse points of view, because conflicts among them create not only our history, but our perception of our history.

I didn’t realize until recently that the trends I oppose are connected (call me naïve). I have long been against trigger warnings, except for blanket ones (i.e. you will encounter disturbing ideas because college is supposed to do that). I oppose adding my “pronoun” to my professional signature, because I believe such things divide us all even more, into smaller and smaller stultifying categories. I think that safe spaces, trigger warnings, shutting down the opposition, and latter-day political correctness are all manifestations of limitations on speech and academic freedom. These ideas about equity and safety were intended to do right and be inclusive, but in practice have become exclusionary.

Until recently I’ve felt quite alone in this position, as formal manifestations of the popular viewpoint emerge, fill up my college email, and are financed by my tax dollars. This week, however, The Atlantic published this article on How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students. Don’t be fooled by the title – it isn’t so much about religious students as about the appreciation of all points of view, not just the current set of what is accepted. And now I read that the University of Chicago agrees, and is telling its entering freshmen there will be no trigger warnings, that they will be exposed to, and expected to engage, diverse ideas.

And for those who think I’m a nihilist, I’m not. This is not cultural relativism. I don’t believe that all points of view have equal value, or that ethics are arbitrary. Rather, refusing to disallow objectionable speech is putting ethics into the context of civil discourse, rather than promoting a set of norms that can be used to exclude people. I agree with those who say that the extremities of our current national discourse are caused, in some part, by dismissing other people’s points of view as stupid, and by liberals (myself included) being smug.  It is entirely possible that the refusal to discuss objectionable ideas has led to the increase in the frequency and volume of those ideas. If we do not value civil discourse and actual inclusivity, we undermine the most precious values of our civilization.

I can only hope that my views will be…tolerated.

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