Resisting the Politics of Offense Taking

The foundation of a concrete form of gender categorization could be challenged in such a way that the basis for a particular gender identity could seem problematic and the legitimacy of the associated political project threatened. Complaints about the critique could be framed as bias and hate. For example, questions raised recently by a feminist concerning the character of the gender construct led to her being labeled “transphobic.” Imagine using her article in a classroom on gender issues to provoke discussion. Transgender students could bring a complaint that transphobic ideas were being taught in the classroom, that they felt intimidated or threatened by the feminist’s critique, and the administration could, instead of educating the students about the rights and importance of academic freedom, flip the complaint switch and set the disciplinary machinery in motion. Even the possibility that this could happen could lead to the teacher not including that article and thus depriving the class of an important discussion.

A critique could be made of the claim that essentialist notions of race form the basis of expression of racial identity. Such a critique could be said to be offensive because it suggests the possibility of plausibly denying the reality of constitutional differences and thus the power of interpretation to efface a concrete and politically-useful meaning of race. Consider an argument positing that race is a sociohistorical construction and that, even when used as the basis of a politics by historically-disadvantaged group, it’s function is to reify race and maintain an artificial separation of people that harms the groups who are using it in struggle, calling into question the efficacy and thus the legitimacy of their politics. Students could claim that this critique felt harassing and threatening in that it had direct bearing on their racial identity and practice. They felt called out by the reading and lecture. They felt intimidated by the materials and were afraid to speak to them. But why shouldn’t this frank and searching critique be pursued in a classroom?

A criticism of a religious ideology that compels parents to cut the genitalia of their male offspring in a way that reduces their experience of sexual pleasure and marks them as a member of a group expressing beliefs to which they did not voluntarily subscribe and will suffer consequences for rejecting (which won’t bring back their foreskin in any case) could be perceived as an attack on the identity and deeply-held beliefs of more than a billion people. Or suppose a critique made of modesty rules, such as the wearing of restrictive clothing. The complaint would be that these beliefs and practices are fundamental to an identity and that criticism of those beliefs and practices defame an entire group. However, the criticism proceeds on the basis of facts and appeals to understandings of liberty that bear directly on the problem of religious oppression and control, whereas the objection to the criticism seeks to excuse these understandings by advancing a self-serving and irrational interpretation of religious freedom. Imagine being brought up on charges of academic misconduct for criticizing religious belief and practices in a classroom. Imagine being brought up on charges of academic misconduct for offending Christians by criticizing religious arguments against marriage equality. Imagine being subject to the blasphemy rules of a religion to which you do not subscribe – in a public institution in a country that separates church and state.

This is why academic freedom must be boldly defended by the institution where the relentless interrogation of ideas and practices is supposed to take place – the university. Allowing students and others to shut down speech on the basis of offense taking is an attack on the principles of the enlightenment and the human right to express controversial opinions without fear of punishment. Every time the university fails to stand up for faculty and students over against demands to stifle the discussion of controversial topics, it contributes to a culture of trepidation that leads to de facto suppression of important lines of discourse. Such a culture is contrary to the purposes of the academy. Students should be told to expect upon entering the university that their most cherished beliefs may be subject to critical examination and that, while they have the right to disagree with their professors and their peers, and even the right to complain, they shouldn’t be surprised when they are told that this is what freedom feels like.

Being able to tolerate criticism of opinions, even the most deeply-held ones, is part of being an adult in a democratic society.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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