Shock Tactics versus (True) Freedom of Speech in Academics

I recently decided to take the rest of the summer off and start up my college work again in the Fall. I found the idea of returning so soon depressing in the extreme. (And I've got a family reunion coming up.) Whether distance from the academic environment has made me more objective or hardened my response to that environment is difficult to say. Probably a mixture of both. But I can now recognize patterns that escaped me when I was attending class day in and day out--getting reading done, writing papers and fiercely disagreeing with various opinions and approaches.

A common pattern for a class discussion goes like this:

Class begins with a discussion of a non-fiction text/document. The text's unreliability is then raised, specifically how the text is actually a narrative constructed by its writers to meet the needs of an audience--the narrative of the pilgrims' first Thanksgiving, for example. In other words, the text may not be 100% historically accurate. 

My personal feeling is that grad students should know, by the time they enter grad school, that narrative, reality and belief are not seamless threads that match in every particular. Nevertheless, the difference between the text/narrative and the reality (or, rather, the facts as we know them) is raised at which point some students are shocked and some are appalled while others are offended and ever so surprised because presumably they were born in a bubble on Mars without any human contact until the last fifteen minutes.

The class then moves on to discussing what the narrative says, and things are fine until the difficult question of "why" is broached.

"Why is the text/narrative different from the reality?" for instance. Or, "Why has this particular narrative been perpetuated?"

Now, I have a problem with this question because I think the only way you can know the answer is to ask the writers or the "perpetrators" or the publishers or the supporters of the narrative. The idea that a bunch of grad students sitting in a room postulating theories will arrive at THE cause of this rather ordinary day-to-day handling of history is, to my mind, rather unlikely. That kind of speculation is fine for late night conversations with one's friends (or e-mails with one's family, or one's blog, for that matter!) but a waste of money otherwise especially since the modus operandi in these cases is to completely ignore the writer's perspective and biography. Not to mention, there is often an awesome and guileless lack of recognition that we grad students are currently doing exactly what we are criticizing (that is, we are reducing the text to a message rather than reading the text).

Economics is often proposed as THE cause for the text-cum-narrative as well as class structure (hello, Marx), religion, race, gender; just about anything except choice and free-will is tossed into the vague postulatory cesspool. In the way of such discussions, it can be fun and interesting if non-productive.

Yet at some point, the conversation shifts, no matter how much the professors move to rein it in (and to their credit, they often do), towards, "Who can we blame?"

It is inevitable, I suppose. Marx, in particular, is an ideology that demands a leveling of blame, and it's so easy to blame the rich since precious few of us consider ourselves rich to begin with. So the wealthy are blamed and capitalists and Christians and the fundamentalist Right, if anyone can maneuver them in there.
By the end of the class, the students are split into three factions.

The first faction is hell bent for leather on blaming somebody. Perhaps it gives them a sense of satisfaction to have the enemy pinpointed. Perhaps they think it solves some contemporary problem (since most contemporary problems are as complicated as historical ones, this is wishful thinking). They may have an axe to grind. Quite often, they have mistaken blame and debunking for learning, which it isn't. (I call it The Shock Method of Teaching, and I think it is the single stupidest teaching method ever invented, not to mention the laziest.)

The second faction doesn't want to blame anyone. However, they're not sure how to move the conversation away from the issue of blame, partly because they think the issue of "why" is important (and the only way to truly move the conversation is to stop fussing about "why") and partly out of fear or respect or wariness of the first group. Words hover but are never spoken: "censorship," "bigotry," "prejudice." It is just as well, I think, that these words are avoided.

While the third faction keeps silent, either from boredom, disinterest, shyness, or a wish to avoid the desultory crossfire.

I normally side with the second faction until the complete pointlessness of the exercise hits me and then I relapse into a brown study. The language of blame never varies, and yet, as I grow older, it begins to unsettle me how easily this language is used to demonized flawed conservatives at the same time as it justifies terrorists as if the sins of both were equal in severity.

But political correctness is not the object of this post. I am not addressing "freedom of speech" in the sense of "the freedom to say what one wishes without reprisals" but "freedom of speech" in the sense of how much language can say but so often doesn't. It seems to me (in retrospect) that the relatively conservative Christian environment of my undergrad school, BYU, had more to say about more things than the supposedly liberal, agnostic environment in which I now participate, and I think the "why" of that difference resides in this business of narrative: how text, reality and belief don't always match up. One of the assets of a theological training (however superficial) is that one learns this basic fact of life fairly early on (and fairly aggressively). Granted, there are plenty of people who ignore it. But religious training is, to a point, an attempt to handle the paradox of faith and materialism, the problem of textual truth against the problem of historical veracity. (All of this dealt with through the mindfield of personal experience.)

Once it is accepted, once one acknowledges that the text may or may not adequately reflect the historical reality, once one overcomes the adolescent desire to assume that all narratives--because of their distance from the facts--are lies, the questions and issues become so much more interesting:
  • What is the author trying to say? (Personally, I think just trying to figure out what the author intends is enough for a whole class.) 
  • Why does the the author say he/she wrote it? 
  • Why do other people say she/he wrote it? (This is not about why we grad students think the author wrote the narrative, it's about us learning everything we can about the text.) 
  • What kind of symbolism is operating in the work? What motifs? 
  • How do those motifs speak to the human spirit? (And do they speak differently to different cultures or similarly?)
  • What long-term impact has the narrative had? How is it reflected in our culture? 
  • How are our own narratives/texts similar? 
  • What have we learned from the text? 
  • Has our understanding, our compassion, our love been increased? 
  • What other authors have used this work? How did they respond to it? How did they disagree with it? 
  • Does the work capture any aspect of historical reality? What aspects of historical reality does it get right? (A much more interesting question than "What does it get wrong?") If it gets the "facts" wrong, does it get the "feeling" right? (A really difficult question; ask yourself, Which Harry Potter movie captures the "feel" of the books the best?) 
  • What research went into the work? 
  • If society has "debunked" the text, have they gone too far?
There is no need for shock, for debunking, for alarm, for offense. Those high-profile emotions have little to do with understanding, compassion, love, tolerance. They do not lead to a larger view of the world, of history, of people, of life. They encourage rutted reactions: the clasped heart, the head-clutched swoon. Learning is lost in the epiphanies of reaction. And possibilities of speech are lost in overused paths of speculation and blame.

May the true freedom of speech never be lost.

July 4, 2005

1 comment:

Henry said...

I'm surprised by the scapegoating instinct myself, but it seems to be human nature. It's biblical.

It's terribly easy to work oneself into a state of anger, but even as a sometimes short-tempered person, I still don't understand the capacity to maintain the state as a constant. Letting anger wash through you is one thing; turning your soul into a cistern of anger is another.

And from the enlightenment point of view, not only is scapegoating unpleasant; it's boring.