Saturday, February 14, 2015

Academic Freedom and Political Correctness

The problem with the current debate over political correctness - the most recent flareup of which occurred at Marquette University - is that it conflates two distinct issues: the right to disagree with others, and the right of others to live in ways with which we disagree.  The incident at Marquette is particularly telling because the disagreement took place during a discussion of philosopher John Rawls, whose theory of justice is the backbone of a classically liberal democracy.  The fundamental principle of a classically liberal democracy is this: all its members should be able to exercise their liberty freely, provided that they don't hinder their peers from doing the same.  I can choose to chop down the tree in my yard, so long as it doesn't fall on your house.  Rawls envisioned the members of liberal societies reaching a kind of equilibrium in which each of them achieved the maximal liberty possible without stepping on each other's toes.

In the context of the current debate over academic freedom and political correctness, the right in question is the right to disagree.  Members of American society like the student discussed in John McAdams blog feel silenced by the politically correct, since their opinions are rejected out-of-hand as "bigoted," "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," etc.  This is a serious problem.  Academia is meant to be an open space for the free exchange of ideas, not a place of ideological censure.  Students must feel free to disagree with each other and with professors.  Yet the question remains: disagree about what?  Disagreement, by its nature, has an object, and again the Marquette example is illustrative.  In the transcript posted on the Atlantic's website of the dialogue between Abbate and her student, the student opens with the statement "I don't agree with gay marriage."  Yet Ms. Abbate's question was not whether the students agreed with gay marriage as a kind of endorsement of it, but whether they thought that it fit with Rawls's Equal Liberty Principle, the topic of their class discussion.  In other words, does a gay man or woman's right to marry impinge on the freedom of others?  If not, then Rawls's principle can endorse it.

Unfortunately, the conversation between Abbate and her student did not take this course, and instead the student was discouraged from expressing his personal views because they were "homophobic."  Yet the student's failure to address the question actually posed by Ms. Abbate should not be ignored, for it is this miscommunication that is at the heart of the current debate over political correctness.  Individuals like the student with whom the Marquette incident transpired frequently confuse two distinct questions: "do I disagree with what another person does," and "does what the other person is doing constrict my liberty in some way?"  It is hard to come up with any argument against gay marriage in terms of the latter: that two consenting adults have a right to marry does not affect the exercise of anyone else's rights in any significant way.  Yet to work to withold the right of marriage from gay individuals is to answer "yes" to the second question, when it should really be an answer to the first question.  The right to disagree with someone does not entail the right to restrict them from doing whatever it is you disagree with, at least not in a society that aspires to be a classically liberal democracy.  It entitles you to voice your dissent, and to attempt to persuade others not to exercise their liberty in the manner you disagree with.  But mere "disagreement" with others - read as refusal to endorse their exercise of liberty - is not a sufficient reason for restricting the rights of others.

If the conversation about academic freedom and political correctness, and really the treatment of each other as members of the same society, is going to move forward, we must disentangle the ability to disagree with others from the need to limit the freedom of those with whom we disagree.  So long as the two remain entangled, disagreements about identity-centric topics like gay marriage will inevitably be disagreements about who gets to be a member of our moral community, of who gets all the rights of a first-class citizen (and in our society there should be no other).  These are high stakes, and it is no wonder that the conflation of the aforementioned ability and need has caused those who disagree with gay marriage (or abortion, or etc.) to be met with a vituperative, squelching backlash.  If disagreement involves the likely limitation of rights, then anyone whose rights are up for debate will understandably want to squelch the disagreement, leading to the unfortunate ramification of squelching disagreement altogether.  Both the politically correct and their dissenters have something to be upset about.  We can only move forward together once we disentangle the nature of our disagreement.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious?

To be spiritual is to have faith in the sacredness of life and being itself, to think of our existence as neither something is totally devoid of meaning, nor imbued with one particular meaning.  It is the certainty that we create our lives, but create them from within the particular milieu in which life has situated us - time, place, relationships, language.

To be spiritual is to believe in spirit - the non-corporeal, intangible, elusive nature of the world that shapes us as we shape it.  It is a belief, a faith, a trust, a hope, an interpretation.  It does not claim to know the future, nor can it always look with certainty upon the past.  It is presence, sensation, feeling, movement within that bubbles up into incandescent words that pop just before they're grabbed.

To be spiritual is not to lack conviction.  It is to affirm, within the deepest recesses of the self, the value of the self and others.  It is to hold in reverence the knots of life into whom we bump, from whom we buy, and close to whom we sleep.  It is to value the life that travels beyond chromosomal categorization, that is worthwhile simply to look at and enjoy, that moves us to climb it, to walk it, to row it, to celebrate it and protect it.

To be spiritual is to be content to breathe, to take in the world as it is in this moment, on this day, in this place.  It is to open a hand to others and world the world not only so that we might give, but so that we might also receive; what does life have for us this day?  To be spiritual is, ultimately, to live in this question.