Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trading a Virtue for a Vice at Yale

I'm currently reading Jose Medina's truly outstanding book The Epistemology of Resistance. I'm only through the first chapter, but one of Medina's core arguments is that the social position of privilege can (does not always, but can) lead to certain epistemic vices -- for example, close-mindedness or overconfidence. Privileged persons who do not often experience others challenging their views (or, when such challenges do emerge, are assured by other societal actors that these challenges are inconsequential) may be hampered in their ability to self-reflect and think critically about the merits of their own position. Since nothing forces them to engage in such (potentially distressing) behavior, they may simply abstain from it, preferring to bask in the comfortable security of "knowing" that they've got it all figured out. And accordingly, Medina argues, persons under conditions of oppression can (do not always, but can) exhibit certain epistemic virtues -- they may be more open-minded or curious about the world and positions not their own, simply because they have to be. They are not in a position where they can simply not listen to the views of others, they often have to grapple with and be fluent with perspectives and experiences that are different from their own.

Medina is no fundamentalist: he obviously does not think we must be radically open-minded and uncertain towards any and all beliefs we might hold (a position that would lead to epistemic anarchy, if not outright paralysis). Nor is he essentialist: he believes that plenty of oppressed persons can display the vice and plenty of privileged persons the virtue, and he clearly hopes that all of us will strive to do a little less of the former and a little more of the latter. But I worry that we're beginning to see the opposite. Instead of encouraging more virtue -- asking people to emulate the particular epistemic virtues of curiosity often fostered by oppression -- people are asserting a right to the vice. They want the power not to listen, they want to not have to think discomforting thoughts. The equilibrium seems to fall exactly where we don't want it to be.

In a sense, this is unsurprising. Virtues are very often no fun to live out -- that's if anything a cliche --and the virtue of epistemic curiosity is no different. It is uncomfortable and disorienting for one's worldview to constantly be under threat, to never be quite sure if one's views (including passionately-held ones) are on target, to always have to encounter and reckon with voices and perspectives that seem radically alien from one's own. How much nicer is it to occupy that space of privilege -- to not have to endure such challenges, to be secure in one's correctness, to be surrounded by fellow-travelers in solidarity. The virtue is not recognized as a virtue but is recognized as a burden; the vice is not recognized as a vice but is recognized as a comfort.

The recent controversy over Yale students protesting over a college assistant "master's" email critical of administration-promoted suggestions regarding proper Halloween costumes (the master suggested that students should not need or desire the administration providing such "guidance" because they should be able to come to good conclusions on their own; and if in certain circumstances they came to bad conclusions that would not be the end of the world) seems to resonate with this concern. The usual caveats apply: this incident did not occur in isolation, there is a long history of college students making poor choices (itself not the worst thing in the world), no social movement can be perfect all the time, and so on. But nonetheless, the conduct of the students -- surrounding the master and verbally abusing him, seemingly enraged that he might have a different view from theirs, finding it outrageous that one might think his arguments are "worth listening to" (I'm actually less concerned with calls that he resign from his post as master than with the verbal confrontation, oddly enough) -- seemed to be about trading the virtue for the vice. The email in question may be wrong, but it did not seem to be outrageously so, the sort of statement that was so obviously out-of-bounds as to warrant exile from the realm of legitimate discourse. It did not exhibit the markers that should have rendered a lack of curiosity (indeed, a sense of offense towards the idea that one might be curious towards them) about its claims a virtuous stance to take.

So what is going on here? Well, obviously a lot is, and again it is clear that this email alone was not really the critical factor in triggering this outburst. Nonetheless, I think it is possible to understand why these students seemed to frame their claims in terms of their right not to listen. Though Yale students come from a variety of backgrounds and many continue to face significant degrees of oppression (on and off campus), all have at least some privilege simply by virtue of being Yale students. And having tasted that privilege -- experienced how good it feels to just be instinctively, reflexively validated -- it's no wonder that they want more of it. If virtues are stereotypically a burden, vices are often a blast. And there is no reason to suspect that people -- when given a naked choice between living out the virtue or living out the vice -- will typically select the former. In many circumstances, epistemic virtue (like any other) must be inculcated.

Certainly, it is fair to say that it is probably ideal for both camps to move closer to other -- more epistemic confidence for oppressed persons, more epistemic humility from privileged ones -- but that leaves the question of where in the middle the two will meet. People who argue that the claim of marginalized persons to access this place of epistemic security are only demanding what the majority has long possessed aren't wrong -- somebody (I forget who) observed that the conservative freakout over Starbucks' red cups is nothing but a safe-space-style demand that their preferred worldview continue to be the unchallenged default -- but they do overlook that this majority-possessed space is not a virtuous one. The risk is what people will seek out is somewhere that's more on the vice side of the ledger, and that is not a desirable (nor, I'd argue, a sustainable) place to be. Not every college movement that seeks to alter the dialogic norms of the community does this, but some of them do, and the Yale case seems to be closer to a pursuit of the vice than the virtue.

Now, I think in many cases the problem here is misidentified as a "free speech" problem, when often it isn't: it's counterspeech. I've tried to delineate the difference in my posts on academic freedom vs. academic legitimacy (see the latest for links), and while arguably that doesn't apply in the Yale case (where one could plausibly maintain there was intimidation at play), often times people complain about "censorship" when in reality all that's going on is people expressing a contrary  message. The idea that certain ideas should not be socially accepted (so long as social disapprobation is all that's at stake) is entirely consistent with free speech rights. When students say (and do no more than say, though perhaps say quite loudly) "I don't want to listen to this argument" or "I don't think this speaker belongs on our campus", the potential vice in play (and it isn't always a vice) is not censorship, it's a lack of curiosity. This problem -- if it is one (and I think it is one) -- should be addressed on its own terms. And the solution -- whatever it is -- will need to balance the genuine need for bolstering the epistemic confidence of outgroups who are often mistrusted, while preserving the virtues of curiosity and open-mindedness that epitomize an ideal deliberative space.

UPDATE: Please see the follow-up I wrote to this post, which reconsiders some of the critical points and provides additional context.


Roy said...

While I find the general thrust of your post agreeable (this is probably an understatement), there is one thing that left me puzzled - Are you being purposely generous towards those protesting the master's Email? I would not presume to know your inclinations, but I follow you for several years now (and read your material even older than that) and it seems to me that, if you were a student there at this time, you would not agree with the underlining argument of the protesters... am I wrong?

David Schraub said...

From what I know, I would not endorse the specific arguments of the Yale protesters vis-a-vis the email in question. I would not have characterized my post as being "purposely generous" towards the students in question, though I would not view it as a bad thing if it were. I think being "purposely generous" is generally a good quality to have, particularly in circumstances like these where we are dealing with young people who are still learning how to voice grievances and when there are a variety of complicated institutional and social factors in play that clearly transcend this particular email.

One of the vices, after all, of the Yale students is that they seemed not to be "purposely generous" towards their interlocutors. How much better would our discourse be if we defaulted towards purposeful generosity towards our interlocutors? If anything, it seems like a virtue to strive for, so I'm glad to hear that I lived it out (even if accidentally).