Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

If I Ran the Zoo

content warning: Brief anecdote about inadvertent and nonmalicious -- but repeated -- misgendering. Discussion of moral-obligation-heavy social justice messaging.

While we were on finals-induced break...
(if you wish, skip over this news review)

College-Distributed Advice on Race Discussions Divides Students

At the close of a semester that saw a surge in racial tensions on college campuses nationwide, Harvard outfitted a number of dining halls with laminated guides printed with what purports to be advice for students discussing issues related to race and diversity with family members, but that some undergraduates decried as telling them what to think politically.

Adapted from a similar guide [link mine] published by an activist group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, the placemats address controversial topics including student activism about race at Yale and other colleges, the debate over whether the U.S. should welcome Syrian refugees, and Harvard’s recent decision to change the title of its "House master" position. (...)

Says Jasmine M. Waddell, resident dean for Elm Yard, as reported in the Crimson article:

"This is a way to say, 'You've been exposed to a lot of different ideas, and particularly in this moment when there’s a lot of discussion about various topics, you’re going to go home and you may or may not be able to speak the same language,'" Waddell said. "It's not that you have to believe in what's on the placemat, but it gives you some tools to be able to have productive conversations."

Waddell added that the Freshman Dean's Office decided against emailing the placemats directly to students, instead installing them in Annenberg without comment as a piece of "passive programming." (...)

As might be expected, this 'passive programming' went over, well, really quite swimmingly:

Harvard Administrators Apologize for Controversial Placemats

Harvard College administrators apologized for the creation and distribution of controversial placemats that advise students on how to discuss topics of race and diversity with family members, saying the materials failed to respect principles of academic freedom.

In an email sent to undergraduates on Wednesday night, Dean of Student Life Stephen Lassonde and Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 wrote that while they believed the guide had well-intentioned goals, it was "not effectively presented" and "failed to account for the many viewpoints that exist on our campus."

"On behalf of the Office of Student Life and the Freshman Dean's Office, we offer our sincere apologies for this situation," they wrote, acknowledging that they had received feedback on the placemats in the few days since their distribution.

University President Drew G. Faust also criticized the placemats in an interview Thursday, calling the initiative "a really bad idea."

"I don't think the University should be directing people—students, staff, faculty—what to say or what to think," Faust said. "The University is a place that ought to foster robust discussion and disagreement, and welcome all perspectives, and that did not seem to be consistent with the message of the placemats." (...)

Among the anti-placemat voices were eighteen UC representatives, along with the informal support of the UC president- and vice-president-elect, and Crimson columnist Idrees Kahloon in an excellent op-ed.


The only piece of the aftermath that was honestly surprising to me is that the College administration actually bothered to apologize. The media had the usual field day -- the conservative wing with gleeful cackling; the liberal wing with carefully a measured distancing from the form and retrenchment of the ideas of the content. So far, so expected.

But I can't help but think that there was a real missed opportunity here, to talk about what we can do here at the College to address the fact that sometimes, "you may or may not be able to speak the same language" as people you're with when you're not here.

And I absolutely get that it's hard. An anecdote on a different front: One of my older relatives repeatedly misgenders my cousin, and I can tell that it makes every one of us from my generation uncomfortable, but often no one steps up to correct them (the older relative) because we shy away from confrontation and awkwardness. And this despite the fact that my uncle (my cousin's father) sent out an email explicitly reminding the entire family of the proper pronouns to use. aaaaaaargh!

And I'm incredibly lucky, as far as families go; even my republican and democrat uncles can talk about politics without things getting uncivil. I'd be willing to bet real money that my grandparents are pretty progressive even compared to the median grandparents of Harvard students. And I still flinch away from the idea of opening up an incredibly relevant conversation about gender identity, much less a conversation about race in America.

The Office for Diversity and Equality's placemats don't help one bit. Christmas Day lunch in the Yoo household saw no fewer than six Harvard students and alumni, some of whom remember Harvard as it was in the 80s, and others who remember being an immigrant in the American midwest in the 60s. I guarantee you that our discussions of Yale activism or the House Master title are not going to go the way the ODE expects.

My grandmother immigrated from a war-ruined country in an unpopular part of the world where the US was tired of fighting wars. I guarantee you that our discussions of Syrian refugees are not going to go the way the ODE expects. Our political discussions are usually held between informed people who have actually heard these arguments before. I guarantee you that they are not going to go the way the ODE expects, and the condescending answers of the provided placemats would be utterly out of place around our table, thank you very much.


Here's the thing: At the end of the day, 'convince' is a verb. Conversations are not about having the right responses to express the correct moral convictions; they're about understanding your counterparties' views well enough to express yourself on their level, minimizing inferential distance just as much as you possibly can. If you can't clothe what you really mean in words that are tailored to the person you're talking with, then you have very little business trying to bring your racist, gender-binarist, or otherwise confused family member around to your views on race/gender/&c. You're most likely to just make the problem worse.

aside: I do actually understand that not everyone agrees with me on this point, that "Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever." But it is one of the foremost and essential theses of my blog, as ought to be apparent to any reader who's stuck around for long enough. If you can't get on board with it -- sorry, but this ship isn't changing course.

If you accept the premise that providing resources to help students have productive conversations with their families over break is a useful endeavor (and I do, mostly), then I argue that these cheatsheets for answer-response pairs were one of the least effective ways you could have gone about that goal. If you honestly cared about enabling students to have useful political discussions, they don't need cheatsheets -- they need practice.

What I'd like to see instead is a safe space for students to practice exchanging, interacting with, and -- yes -- expressing uncommon or unpopular opinions. (Remember that if you're ever in the placemats' intended audience, your ideas are the ones that are going to be uncommon and unpopular in context.) This would have to be a place where ideas aren't dismissed just because they're clearly wrong or even because they're clearly harmful; after all, discussions around the family dinner table don't always work like that. Instead, in the real world, people must be convinced out of their harmful views.

Maybe then we'd have a little more practice at convincing people out of harmful political views.

Maybe then we'd be better at it.


Of course, and right up front: This would not be a comfortable space for everyone. It couldn't possibly be. If some have it easier than others, in general and for whatever reason, they'll likely find it easier to come into contact with abrasive opinions. No one should be excluded by rule (obviously -- I hope), but many will want to exclude themselves by choice.

And that's okay! If we steelman[?] the pro-safe-spaces movement, we see that it revolves around the idea that people with different comfort levels for different things should be able to self-select into different spaces with different cultural norms -- e.g. some founded in strong ideals of empathy, consideration, and care; others in honesty, charity and good faith given and assumed. It's not that either of these is superior to the other; it's that both are necessary, as the yin and yang of discourse, and that each of us, at some point, may find one or the other more appropriate for our needs.

This one, the it-is-safe-to-practice-disagreeing-with-people space would have to be a very yang space, a space where people can speak frankly about what they believe or are confused about, and not suffer social penalty for it. The absolute, uncompromising axiom would have to be: assume no offense intended, no matter how unfortunate the phrasing, and anyone caught defecting from that rule (i.e. by actually meaning offense) ought to be kindly informed that they're making the space unsafe. But if you, say, wanted someone to explain something that you're confused about -- without assuming unkind things about you because you didn't get it the first time -- or wanted an honest answer to your "But doesn't..." question that might just be dismissed as the ignorance of privilege in another context, you'd have a place to go.

And even if you believe that certain opinions or views or confusions have absolutely no part in a civil society and should never be uttered, this would not be the place to enforce that. "This is a place," say the rules, "where we practice interacting with people with different views, and where it is okay to be wrong, even in the worst possible ways, so long as you're here to be wrong in good faith."


To be triply clear, I'm not suggesting this as a norm that we need to spread everywhere -- there are obviously times and places where it's not okay to be wrong, and it's unreasonable to demand that everyone assume good faith in others all the time. I'm suggesting a clearly defined and delineated social space where we put these norms into effect, and put forth honest effort to hold to them while we're there. There might even be placemats with some helpful pointers written on them, but in the spirit of prompting the practice of skills rather than delivering pre-packaged material, I'll let you imagine them yourself.

That, I think, might have prepared a few students to go home and have useful, productive conversations with their families over the holiday.