When a protest on a college campus occurs over an issue, an explosion of articles appear, arguing why one position is right and the other is wrong. Tensions rise when no semblance of agreement is reached, and a second wave of essays appear, which take the form of what Michael Sandel calls a “shouting match.” Each side screams at one another instead of engaging with each other. These recriminations shut down any chance of reasonable conversation. How do you react when someone calls you an idiot?
In a small hookah lounge in the East Village in New York, I regularly meet with a close friend to discuss all things political and philosophical. Recently, as we sat blowing smoke rings together we found ourselves digging into some of the political correctness controversies arising on college campuses — things like sexual harassment in academia, trigger warnings, and microaggression policing.
The two of us had taken a philosophy course together in undergrad, and so naturally we examined these topics through a philosophical lens. We went back and forth debating the value of trigger warnings, and whether a policy of policing microaggressions could be a good thing. We disagreed strongly. I held the view that trigger warnings and microaggression policing should (at least) not be required as a matter of policy, and he argued the opposite.
After about three hours we hit an insurmountable wall. Both of us had exhausted what seemed like all possible arguments for and against our positions, and still remained unconvinced by one another. Worse still, we left that day with a bitter taste in our mouths — why couldn’t he just see how my arguments clearly had more force? The smoke-filled air must have clouded not only his vision, but his judgment as well.
This discussion I had with my friend, and its effect on our attitude toward one another, is a small but accurate representation of what happens in political correctness discourse in the wider public sphere. This state of discourse, which revolves around the question of who is right, makes it easy to overlook the fact that these college debates and protests continue to occur, and universities still face the difficult decision of deciding what to do when two groups persistently disagree.
I suspect that the reason we discuss who is right more often than the question of what the universities should do when two parties disagree is because we think that our answer to the first question is simply the answer to the latter. The universities, with protesters filling their lawns, should simply read the arguments, recognize who is clearly correct, and draft their policies (or not) accordingly.
But it simply is never clearly correct who is right. After all, these debates are frequently about moral disagreements, and if you have ever sat in on a graduate course in applied ethics, or watched professional philosophers debate ethical issues, you will have noticed that well-informed, nuanced, intelligent people disagree over basically every moral dilemma.
It might seem clearly correct to me that microaggression policing should not be a matter of policy, but that doesn’t make it clear to everyone, or even the majority of people. Just ask the thousands of protesters waving their signs in front of the administration, or my friend in the hookah lounge for that matter.
There is an even stronger reason why universities should not simply do whatever they deem to be correct. Namely, it is impractical. If they decide to simply ignore the requests to implement microaggression policing policies, they will still have protesters disrupting the daily student life, and if they do implement the policies, they will just be trading one kind of protester for another. Those against microaggression policing will take to the streets and demand change, and the shouting match between opposing political parties will not cease; the hostility between disagreeing parties will only continue to escalate.
So I think the answer to the question of what universities should do in the face of persistent disagreement, and an inundation of protesters, must be answered in a way that minimizes the anger between opposing factions. I have come to believe that the only way to do this is through negotiation — an attempt to reconcile competing parties’ interests as much as possible, though neither party will get exactly what they want.
Let me first illustrate with an abstract example — suppose you come across evidence suggesting that African Americans have a lower average IQ than Caucasians, and that there is a genetic basis for this. You present this evidence and one person says they object to holding such a morally dangerous belief despite any amount of evidence, given that it is likely to be used to cause harm. A different individual says we should be open to going wherever the evidence takes us, because we seek true beliefs.
After recognizing these competing values, the best solution, I think, would be to increase one’s standards of evidence for adopting this morally suspect belief — demand more evidence than you would normally require. In this way you have taken an action to respect one person’s moral concern, by raising standards of evidence, and have also left open the possibility that the IQ claim could be true.
In this negotiation, neither party will be fully satisfied. The person in favor of being open to what the data support might feel that they shouldn’t have to raise their standards of evidence, and the person who is against holding such a morally dangerous belief doesn’t like the very idea of holding such a view, no matter what the evidence tells us. But what matters is that they will both leave feeling that their interests have been heard, respected, and acted upon. The virtue of negotiation is that it requires that both parties listen and hear the reasons and values motivating their positions, forcing everyone to listen to each other, and not shout at one another.
Universities should do something like this. In fact, Emory University recently engaged in just this kind of process with their students. After protests on campus took place where activists assembled to ask for change to improve the racial climate at the university, students sent a list of demands to the administration. Ultimately, Emory decided to host a retreat with 100 people — 50 student activists, and 50 administration officials who had the power to implement policy changes. The students spoke to the administration about their demands and timelines. One demand was that students be able to report bias in classrooms. The administration pointed out that a large number of the faculty who teach controversial material, in which bias is most likely to be reported, are faculty of color. At this point the students recognized this concern, which they might not have considered before, and began taking a more middle ground approach — discussing ways of informing faculty about ways they can instruct students in a more sensitive way.
One striking fact is that despite the fact that the students didn’t have all of their demands implemented, they reported being very pleased with the outcome of the process, feeling that their concerns were heard and that their values were respected. The hostility on Emory’s campus significantly faded away.
If universities made this negotiation route available to students as a matter of policy, campus activists won’t have to wave their signs and tread on the grass as their default action. In this way, the negotiation route solves two problems. At the back end it has the potential to end protests peacefully and reduce political tensions, and on the front end it can prevent protests from occurring in the first place.
Of course, these negotiations may fail, but again, at least in going through the process; both sides will hear the values and reasons that are important to them. Until we make negotiation our default way of handling conflicts on campuses, debates are likely to remain static, with both parties attempting to gain ground through a shouting match of name-calling and demonization, and in such a state of dialogue, one can only observe that everybody suffers.
Daniel Tippens is a research technician in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory at New York University School of Medicine, and co-founder and editor of the philosophy web magazine The Electric Agora.