Civic Spaces and the Illiberal Desire to Subvert Them

Update (May 22): I am updating the blog to share a real-world example of the hypothetical I posed in this blog. My hypothetical involves the required revision of a proposal in a team-taught class because the student ran afoul of the teachers’ antiracism. The project was deemed “white supremacist” because it rejected the assumptions embedded in critical race theory. In this real-world case, the teacher gave the student a zero on her final project proposal because she used the construct “biological woman.” Follow the thread on Twitter, as there more videos of this student explaining the situation. Then come back here for my analysis, which follows the posted tweet.

From a strictly grammatical standpoint, the phrase “biological woman” can be seen as tautological or redundant, as the term “woman” inherently refers to an adult human female, which is a biological category. The adjective “biological” does not add any new information or modify the term in a meaningful way because womanhood is already understood to necessarily contain a biological component. Of course, language and terminology are not solely defined by strict grammatical rules. In certain contexts, people may use the term “biological woman” to emphasize or distinguish the biological aspect from other considerations, such as gender identity or social roles. It can be used to contrast with the concept of a “trans woman” (a male who identifies as a woman), which is what this student did here. If this were my student, I would have let that slide and approved the project.

However, the teacher said that the term “biological women” is “exclusionary” and further “reinforces heteronormativity” and is therefore not allowed in the class. The syllabus for the class says that students will not be graded on their opinion as long as opinions “do not create emotional or mental harm to your diverse classmates or espouse bigoted or anti-scientific views,” a ridiculous rule since, by emotional and mental harm, the teacher means offensive speech, and that could refer to the unanticipated effects of an array of opinions that could be uttered the parameters of which will likely always be undetermined—and because, as the student points out, it’s the teachers who is being anti-scientific in her views.

Heteronormativity refers to the norms and practices that assume heterosexuality as the default sexual orientation, an obvious default since mammalian species ares dioecious, meaning that individuals are either distinctly male or female (anomalies aside), and sexual reproduction requires the contribution of gametes (reproductive cells) from both sexes. Without heteronormativity, the species does not effectively propagate the genome and risks extinction. (This has no bearing one the reality of homosexuality, which appears in nature across many mammalian species. Rather heteronormativity means that the normative pairing is heterosexual and that this is reflected in culture and history.) As the student notes, the teacher is the one apparently assuming the anti-scientific standpoint by punishing a student for differentiating between a biological category and a social construct produced by a quasi religious ideology.

The classroom of a math teacher at High School in NewYork, a Pride flag and a Progress Pride flag visible.

Last fall, a Long Island teacher was forced to remove two Pride flags from her classroom after students complained that one of them, the Progress Pride flag (that’s the one on the far wall in the above photo), left them “feeling uncomfortable.” Why? It had more colors that the traditional Pride flag. Sarah Ecke, a math teacher at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, refused to take down the flags. In response, the district issued a directive banning all flags except the US and state flags, citing its policy that employees should not engage in political activities in school.

The LGBT Network speaking about the incident.

The problem of public school teachers engaged in political activities at school isn’t the actual problem. Teachers should be able to engage in political activities at school as long as those activities don’t involve proselytizing children. While they don’t have the authority to indoctrinate child, they do enjoy the same right to free speech and conscience as the rest of their fellow citizens. If a student can wear a “Let’s Go Brandon” shirt, which he should be able to, then a teacher can wear a pink and blue decal somewhere on her body. Rather, the problem is a public facility appearing to endorse an ideological position. If flags or other movement symbols appeared on the teacher’s body or belongings, or maybe even her desk, that’d be one thing; but, as you can see, the symbols appear on the walls of a civic space—and that’s another thing altogether: in light of the First Amendment, public schools should maintain classrooms and hallways as spaces free of political-ideological symbology and inducements.

A civic space is a physical or virtual place where individuals and groups come together to engage in public discussions, exchange ideas, learn new things, and participate in democratic processes. Civic spaces take many forms including community centers, libraries, public parks and squares, and social media platforms. Crucially, public schools and universities are civic spaces—indeed, in many respects, these represent paradigms of such spaces. Yet, today, across the nation, these civic spaces are festooned in movement flags and other symbology. Alongside the visible symbols of ideological commitments, official endorsements of particular political positions, administrators and teachers have been busy developing and implementing a constellation of rules that constrain the range of the discussable and thinkable. These rules have spawned a pervasive culture that makes thinking certain thoughts automatic, punishable, or unthinkable.

I will illustrate my point with a hypothetical. Suppose a team-taught class at a public university designed to encourage students to develop, refine, and articulate political opinions within the theme of democracy and justice. To these ends, students are required to produce a final project, which is submitted to the class for discussion, asking them to work from a particular position. Suppose one student is of the opinion that the criminal justice system is not racist, contradicting claims made by the instructors of his class. The faculty looks down on the project because it assumes what they regard as a bigoted and reactionary position. One faculty member objects on the grounds that the language in the proposal expresses “white supremacy” by raising the problem of black-on-black crime. The professor demands the student revise the project. The other faculty members agree.

The student might not think to ask whether there is any way the language of the project could be revised to engage the controversy without risking being labeled a white supremacist. If he did think to ask, and he was to discover there was not, then we may conclude that there can be no debate about this topic in the class. The side claiming that the criminal justice system is racist and that blacks are an oppressed group is the only side allowed. A consensus over the validity of critical race theory and the antiracist standpoint it informs has become so valorized that contrary opinions become racist. It would be the same if hegemonic white supremacy were the character of the university and anti-racist opinion disallowed. When did society decide that a crackpot postmodernist theory of race relations represents the intellectual foundation of civil rights? It didn’t. But the university is a space siloed from society, and the clerics there work as if they charged with protecting the sacred doctrine from contradiction.

There is the obvious problem that the facts the student wishes to make known not only contradict the lectures delivered by the professor but also reveal that either the professors know these facts and want to censor them or don’t know these facts and are therefore in need of educating. Put another way, either the professors knows they have no argument, or they don’t know enough to make one, and so they answers with disreputational smears which ensues continuation of both. The faculty do this to avoid having to give up their position, which is sustained only by tenacity to doctrine, and to avoid appearing to not know what they’re talking about (the egos of university professors are massive). So the student is censored and shamed. (Professors bully students in this way more often than one might think. See The State of Cognitive Liberty at Today’s Universities; Science Politics at the University of Wisconsin—Deliberate Ignorance About the State of Cognitive Liberty and Viewpoint Diversity on College Campuses; Death of the Traditional Intellectual: The Progressive Corruption of US Colleges and Universities.)

If faculty set the parameters of an assignment such that the project must support critical race theory, or gender ideology and queer theory, multiculturalism, transnationalism, or whatever, while excluding opposing viewpoints, smearing contrary opinion as bigoted, etc., then faculty are no longer engaged in the practice of teaching but rather have rigged the situation in such a way as to facilitate the pushing of an agenda and the indoctrination of students. This is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen in public university. The university system is rooted in the Enlightenment and liberal values of freedom of speech and conscience. These values demand that contrary opinions get a hearing in civic spaces, which the university is supposed to be the paradigm. Yet the illiberal desire to exclude unfavorable opinions prevails. Rights are violated and civic spaces corrupted.

Civic spaces are crucial for advancing democratic values, fostering social cohesion, and promoting civic engagement. The reengineering of these spaces to accomplish the opposite—to undermine democracy, disrupt solidarity, and redirect student energies—should strike those who care about human freedom as a truly distressing development. Civic spaces should provide opportunities for citizens to connect with one another, learn about the issues that affect their communities, and work together to address common challenges. By creating an open and inclusive environment, civic spaces promise to reduce social tensions, promote understanding and tolerance, and build a sense of shared identity and purpose. Instead, they have become spaces of ideological warfare where what is discussable and thinkable is determined by those controlling those spaces. Those who should be protecting our civic spaces from ideological conformity have become instead the commissars. Instead of upholding their duties as defenders of liberty and democracy, they have become the gatekeepers of the corporate state.

This is especially troubling because civic spaces are not always freely available or accessible to everyone. Often, those who seek them have to pay to enter. For students having to encumber debt to obtain the college degree they’re told they must have to enjoy a decent standard of living, finding that the space to which they have gained access is not always ideologically-neutral, not only in the political actions of administrators and teachers, but in the very architecture of the spaces themselves, can be quite demoralizing. The threats to the liberal purpose of civic spaces are found everywhere: corporate control over information, government censorship, and social marginalization. Ensuring that civic spaces remain open and accessible to all is essential for maintaining a healthy democracy and promoting social progress. And this can only be accomplished by establishing and enforcing rules protecting free expression and conscience and promoting a culture in which free expression and heterodox thinking is encouraged.

However, a competing narrative has emerged characterizing freedom of speech and conscience as the political-ideological projection of white Christian men, who use their power to legitimize and protect the speech they use to oppress others. “All knowledge systems, including those of modern science,” writes postmodernist philosopher Sandra Harding in her 1992 essay “After the Neutrality Ideal: Science, Politics, and ’Strong Objectivity,’” published in the academic journal Social Research, “are local ones.” The dominance of Western science across the planet is “not because of the greater purported rationality of Westerners or the purported commitment of their sciences to the pursuit of disinterested truth,” but “because of the military, economic and political power of European cultures.” Harding casts science and ideologically-neutral spaces as “politics by other means.”

For thinkers of Harding’s ilk, the content of Western civilization—liberalism, rationalism, secularism—is an imposition on the rest of the world; its ideas have not won because they are better, but because those who espouse them—white Christian men—are imperialist. Debates and discussions about critical race theory, queer theory, etc., are portrayed as hateful speech perpetuating oppressive systems that bigots justify by wrapping themselves in the First Amendment. CRT, queer theory, and other critical theories are, in contrast, essentially correct on account of the “epistemic privilege of the oppressed”—and it they’re not entirely correct, it is not up to white Christian men to correct them; that is a bigoted act that those with power impose on those without power. Only those who are have asserted an oppressed status, based on a particular theory of power, can debate amongst themselves questions concerning the nature of their oppression, with one definite premise determining their conclusion: white Christian men are the bane of human existence. Given this, there is no reason to proceed with the ethic of neutrality. Indeed, it must be rejected since it “depoliticizes science” by “dissimulating power.” This basic idea, these notions of sociological relativism and the epistemic privileges it affords those who make claims about their marginalized status in a university that accepts the terms that accompany the religion, is what animates Wokism.

When asked by John McWhorter to define Wokism on a recent episode of the Glenn Loury Show, Mark Goldblatt did so in this manner: “I think that Wokism in generous terms is a cluster of advocacy positions that are designed to promote an understanding of and equity for historically marginalized people historically marginalized communities and I think on that level it’s impossible to object to it. It’s the methodology by which that promotion proceeds that is the problem with Wokism because Wokism is a religion.” He explained: “Fundamentally, the methodology employed by the woke it is a sort of direct assault on the Enlightenment values of rational inquiry, socio-religious tolerance, and individual rights. Doing that puts it in a kind of position of bullying, for lack of a better term, when you have decided that reason, that evidence, objective evidence and rational inquiry and standard modes of logic are not decisive in public discourse, then you are in a position of ‘I’m more powerful than you are therefore I can take what I believe to be true and impose it upon you’ and I think that that’s the sort of underside of Wokism, it’s the problematic side far more problematic side.” 

McWhorter wondered, “Why are these people fighting the Enlightenment? Who does this? What makes them feel like they’re on the side of the Angels, these parishioners, which is indeed what they are? Why are they doing this?”

“I think because arguing on the basis of empirical evidence and logic is hard and your side will not win if you don’t have the best evidence and if you don’t have a coherent logical approach,” Goldblatt responded. “On the other hand, if sentiment is raised as a methodology to counter empirical evidence and standard logical modes and anybody can play and, more importantly, I think what that position, what the woke position does, is it changes the nature of the search for truth. That is, it posits that the identity of the person making a truth claim not only influences but can guarantee the truth of the claim itself, that the truth value of a proposition is related to or a function of the identity of the speaker makes the claim.”

What underpins Wokism is the postmodernist epistemic (closely related to deconstructionism). I am in agreement with the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas concerning the problem with the postmodernist standpoint (if it can even be described as such). Habermas sees as a threat to the Enlightenment values of reason and human emancipation. Habermas argues that postmodernism is characterized by a rejection of universal truth claims and a skepticism toward metanarratives or grand theories of history and society. According to Habermas, this skepticism leads to a fragmentation of knowledge and a loss of faith in the possibility of rational, critical inquiry. Habermas also criticizes postmodernism for its emphasis on language and discourse, which he sees as leading to a relativism that undermines the possibility of universal moral standards and objective truth. He argues that postmodernism ignores the role of intersubjective communication and social interaction in creating shared norms and values. Predictably, the postmodernists criticize Habermas for his appeal to Enlightenment values and his faith in the power of critical rational inquiry to achieve social progress.

To be sure, the concept of neutrality is problematic and rightly contested. Even the most neutral-seeming spaces are influenced by implicit biases and power dynamics that can shape who is included and who is excluded from the conversation, as well as how people see the world. These corrupting forces must be taken into account to maintain maximally objective spaces.

However, following Harding, there are those who argue because of this that civic spaces should actively work to promote certain values, such as human rights (as they define them) and social justice (as they define it). Some see civic spaces as opportunities to transgress the social logic that underpin these spaces (ignoring the possibility that that social logic roots in the norms of human rights and social justice). They see opportunities the subvert the norms of free expression and inquiry, as they see them as excuses for bigotry and hate. For them, a college classroom is not a space where students learn how to hone their arguments and better express their opinions, but a space in which deviant student thought is reformed, purged of opinions that reflect oppressive sentiments as theorized by the clergy.

Consider an analogy I have used before: the appropriateness of hanging a Christian nationalist flag in a civic space. To be sure, this depends on the context and purpose of the space, as well as the ethical and legal considerations surrounding the display of such flags. If the flag is displayed to talk about the ideology of Christian nationalism, and those involved are allowed to criticize that ideology, then the educational purpose of such a display is explicit. If ethical and legal considerations surrounding the display of the flag is consistent with the First Amendment and universal human rights, then the result at which those defending that civic space arrive should be valid.

In general, civic spaces are intended to be inclusive and welcoming to all members of the community, regardless of their religious or political affiliations. Displaying a flag that promotes a specific religious or political ideology may be seen as exclusionary or divisive, and could potentially create a hostile or unwelcoming environment for those who do not share those beliefs. There needs to be a legitimate purpose, then, for displaying the flag.

Christian nationalism is a controversial and polarizing ideology that has been associated with authoritarianism, white supremacy, and xenophobia. If this ideology is accurately conveyed and those participating in the discussion are permitted to criticize that ideology, then there is educational value. Otherwise, promoting such an ideology in a civic space is a violation of the principles of democracy and human rights. The same is true of the Pride and Progress Pride flags.

The difference between hanging the United States flag and hanging a Christian nationalist flag or a Pride flag in a civic space is significant in terms of the values and meanings that are associated with each flag. The United States flag is a national symbol that represents the nation as a whole, including its culture, history, and ideals—among these the rights to conscience and speech. While there may be different interpretations of what those ideals are, the flag is generally seen as a unifying symbol that represents the diversity and unity of the American people.

On the other hand, the Christian nationalist flag, or the Pride flag, represents a specific religious and political ideology that is associated with a particular segment of the population. This ideology promotes the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, or that there is a consensus on the matter of gender ideology and seeks to impose certain values and beliefs on the country’s laws and institutions. These ideologies have been associated with exclusionary and discriminatory practices towards individuals who do not subscribe to Christian nationalism or gender ideology. In discussing either flag, those in that space must have a robust discussion that allows without consequence relevant and contrary opinions.

The town hall of a city or the capitol of a state can be considered civic spaces, as they are public buildings that are intended to serve the community and provide a platform for democratic engagement and participation. Town halls are often the seat of local government, where elected officials and administrators conduct public business and make decisions that affect the community. They may also serve as venues for public meetings, hearings, and other events where residents can voice their opinions and concerns, and engage in dialogue with their elected representatives. Similarly, state capitols are the seat of state government, where lawmakers and officials make decisions and conduct business on behalf of the state. They may also serve as venues for public events, rallies, and protests, as well as for public education and historical exhibits. Here, flags other than the state or national flag should not be allowed to fly.

Civic spaces are supposed to be neutral in the sense that they should allow all people to participate, regardless of their gender, political, or religious affiliation. However, civic spaces are created by people and people come with biases. As a result, it is impossible for any civic space to be completely neutral in practice. But there are some things that civic spaces can do to promote neutrality. They can make sure that all voices are heard and that no one is discriminated against.

One model for defending the purpose of civic spaces was developed by Habermas. Habermas introduced the concept of the “ideal speech situation” in his 1981 two-volume Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas argues that social order is created through communicative processes that involve the exchange of reasons rather than through the exercise of authority and power. The ideal speech situation is a necessary condition for communicative action to be genuine and undistorted by power imbalances or other forms of social inequality.

The ideal speech situation is a construct Habermas developed to describe conditions necessary for genuine, free and open communication to take place. Here, all participants are free to express their opinions and ideas, and they do so in a way that is not influenced by power dynamics. All participants are assumed to be equally knowledgeable about the topic being discussed, and they are all committed to the pursuit of truth and understanding.

In an educational setting, not everybody will always be equally knowledgeable. Here the person organizing dialogue in the space must take special care to uphold the commitment to the pursuit of truth and understanding in enlightenment. It’s cliche, but the idea is to teach people how to think, not what to think.

Habermas was no idealist. He understood that the ideal speech situation can only be approximated in real-life communicative contexts; however, the model provides a useful ideal to aspire to in order to promote genuine dialogue and democratic deliberation. The idea is that by striving for the ideal speech situation, participants create a more open and inclusive public sphere, where all voices are heard and all perspectives are taken into account. Indeed, civic spaces should be open to all people, regardless of their ideology.

When a civic space is organized ideologically, it can create a hostile environment for people who do not share the same beliefs. This can make it difficult for people to participate in civic life and to share ideas. Civic spaces are not meant to be echo chambers; they are meant to be places where people can come together to discuss different ideas and to learn from each other. When civic spaces are organized ideologically, they stifle debate and prevent people from hearing different perspectives.

We need to create civic spaces that are open and truly inclusive—which requires viewpoint diversity. We need to make sure that everyone feels welcome and safe, regardless of their opinions, not by excluding or punishing opinions. We need spaces where people can come together to discuss different ideas to build a more just and equitable society.

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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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