Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I Don't Get Internet Hate

This started off as a casual Facebook conversation. In the course of reading the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning, I came across this article:
What struck me as I read down the piece was not the apparently ironic coincidence between an announcement that a faculty member was leaving for another institution and that same person's having become the subject of some Twitter controversy. Instead, to me the heart of the article isn't the news story at all - it's the flow of tweets and internet conversations, from all sides, about this person. Some examples:





What strikes me here is the level of anger and hatred being casually slung around by people who do not know Prof. Robinson at all. This is vitriol for the sake of vitriol, some of which (particularly the call to pull all tax dollars from public institutions - because you disagree with one professor?) have a very burn-the-house-down-around-your-own-ears feel to them.

As a scholar of conflict, I understand intellectually much of what's going on here. I see the flag-waving by members of particular tribes. I understand that words and ideas take on symbolic weight that can be tied to a person's self-identity. I get that some folks may feel comforted or empowered by being able to lash out, in a safe and protected online fashion, at bogeymen images onto which they can project their fears. I know that this is not about who said what, it's about who is Us and who is Them. And I know that there are plenty of unscrupulous people who amass money or power (or both) by whipping up precisely these sentiments. The National Review and a great many other publications (on the Left and the Right) make a lot of money stirring this pot.

I just don't get it.

I don't understand, in my heart and my gut, how people can travel through life filled with so much fear, so much hatred, so much anger that words on a screen from someone they've never met and never will - someone whose impact on the larger world is really very small - can trigger this kind of outpouring of bile. I've no doubt that Prof. Robinson received far worse than this in her inbox - the usual collection of death threats, rape threats, threats to kill her children (if she has any), often delivered with graphic glee. But even the relatively tame stuff above I don't get.

People will say: well, that's just the way the internet is. It's inhabited, in part if not in whole, by trolls and monsters and people who do such things. Better get used to it, or get out. That's the Way Things Are.

And still I don't get it.

This is, I suppose, a far better indication of the brokenness of the world - the sinful nature of humanity, to borrow the theological term - than many I could think of. Politicians and pundits and (some) preachers pound their pulpits and point to Them as the embodiment of Sin, the reason why everything is screwed up, the Anti-Christs who threaten to drag us into 1000 years of darkness. I think it's much simpler than that. The brokenness of humanity is simply that so many of us hate each other, for no particular reason, and some of us actively and deliberately contribute to that hatred.

So yes, I understand. I just don't get it. And I hope I never do.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Gun Fallacy

It's been a while since I've written a blog post on a silly gun meme. The internet has been filled with weightier matters of late, generating a lot of interesting and new conversations. But sooner or later, the same old stuff comes back around. Thus it was that I found this in my FB feed yesterday:


This is a classic of the genre: pithy use of parallelism, powerful black-and-white image of a gun, not-so-subtle use of hot pink to suggest that one's opponents are pansies and wimps. It's just the kind of internet chum designed to fire up the gun-rights tribe.

Like most pro-gun memes, this one trades on a fundamental fallacy: that you either have a gun or you're defenseless. This is the fundamental mythology of much of the "gun rights" movement: that the only way to defend yourself is by possessing a gun. Unfortunately this is not only not true, it's dangerous. Consider:

• If I am attacked by anyone within arm's (or leg's) length, I am not defenseless. I may win, I may lose, but I have spent some years developing skills useful for self-defense. This doesn't make me special; it makes me quite ordinary. Anybody can develop the skills I have, given time, effort, and motivation. Bonus feature: my means of self-defense don't kill.

• If I am threatened by someone with a hand weapon (knife, stick, etc.) farther than 8-10 feet away I have two options: run, or let that person close to within striking range. Since they can't hurt me from that far out with a striking weapon, I'm still not defenseless. Running (another skill almost anyone can acquire with practice) is a highly effective defense.

• If I am threatened by someone with a gun from farther than 8-10 feet away, my possession of a concealed weapon (in a holster, purse, etc.) does me very little good until I draw it. If a gun is already pointed at me, it may very well go off the moment I produce my weapon. Unless the gun is already in my hand and I am prepared to fire it preemptively, a gun does not defend. It will not prevent me from being shot/stabbed/struck.

• If I carry my gun openly in order to deter attacks against me, I may very well invite preemptive aggression. I wrote a while ago about a story in which a fellow was attacked with a baseball bat, apparently because the attacker wanted to get his gun which he happened to be openly carrying at the time. Rather than providing a deterrent, carrying the gun made the man a target. And though he defended himself successfully, the critical skills he used to do so had nothing to do with the gun at his waist.

Folks who want to engage further in this debate will start playing the "what if" game. What if I'm a short woman? (One of my martial arts masters is a 5'3" woman who is ten years my senior, and she can wipe the floor with me any day of the week.) What if I'm alone and outnumbered? What if I'm in a dark alley away from help?

If you have enough time and are creative enough, you can always come up with scenarios in which having and wielding a gun would be a helpful thing. I've written about stories in the past in which having a gun did in fact make a difference. This isn't about whether guns are never useful for self-defense, although I believe based on the evidence I have that they are not helpful more often than not.

But the meme above, and most of the pro-gun argument behind it, aren't based on the argument that guns are sometimes useful for self-defense. The assertion is that guns are always the only option for self-defense. You either have a gun or you're defenseless.

This is not an argument promoted by people who are concerned about my welfare or yours. It's an argument spread around by a tribe built on fear, trading in quasi-religious doctrines that separate "us" (the righteous) from "them" (the heretics). My biggest objection (and the reason I keep coming back to this topic again and again) isn't that they're wrong, though that much is obvious. It's that the fear and division they spread are anti-human. I object to any sort of tribalism based on fear, anger, and hatred.

It's quite possible to be a gun owner and not belong to this tribe - I know folks who do. I hope they can help police the haters in their midst. And I hope that over time, the philosophy of fear and hate will wane. Until then, I'll keep picking on their silly memes.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Echo Chambers and Funhouse Mirrors: The Internet's Amplification and Distortion of Arguments

I had actually meant to write this a few days ago, in the context of the Charleston shootings. But today the Supreme Court of the United States, in a 5-4 ruling, has issued a major ruling on one of the most visible social issues of the day: same-sex marriage. Interestingly, what I wanted to say still applies so I will say it in this context instead.

Let me first say that I applaud the majority decision, I support it wholeheartedly, and I would have been surprised had it gone differently or, if that had been the case, that it would have stood for much longer. The tide on this issue has been rushing for the past few years towards marriage equality. I think that the outcome reflects, in a broad sense, where American society wants to go. And I am personally thrilled for my family members and friends who will benefit directly from this ruling.

So what I have to say has nothing to do with the decision itself. Rather, I find in our responses to it tendencies that I see in other major events that become the subject of national conversation.

My main lens on collective conversation tends to be Facebook. This undoubtedly has problems, but a) I don't have accounts on many other social media platforms (esp. Twitter), b) those I do (i.e. LinkedIn) tend not to be very "conversational", and c) I think that Facebook, being the most "mainstream" of our social media, provides a good snapshot of what people are talking and thinking about. So while many of my social science friends can critique my methodology, I think there's something to this.

There has long been a concern that social media have distorted the American social conversation because they create "echo chambers" (my friend Steve Saideman had a nice reflection on this recently). Because they are built on networks of friends, the views we see on Facebook (or any other platform) are often those of the people we agree with. Social media did not create this problem, nor are they the only contributor - viewpoint-specific "news networks" (Fox, MSNBC) and programs (Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, etc.) create much the same effect for folks who get all of their information from one source. Recent arguments have also suggested that we may be doing this in the physical as well as the virtual world, moving to communities that are less ideologically diverse so we can be comfortable around our neighbors.

Whatever the mechanisms, it is certainly true that we like to hang out with people who agree with us. But the problem with doing so, whether online or in person, is not only that we tend to hear our own views reflected back to us (the echo chamber). The problem also isn't that we never hear from dissenting viewpoints. We actually hear a lot about dissenting views - in a very distorted way (the funhouse mirror).

I saw this last week in the social media discussion of the Charleston shootings. Amidst the pain and grief and calls for dialogue to move beyond racism, a lot of my friends (a group that admittedly leans pretty liberal) shared articles about different views. Only they weren't sharing the actual views of others, but instead biased retellings of those views. There was a lot of angry mocking of Fox News, for example, for comments made by some of their guests or hosts.

In the wake of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality, I'm seeing bits and pieces of the same thing. The favorite target today seems to be Antonin Scalia, whom I have already seen referred to as "unhinged" and "rabid". What folks have been posting is not Scalia's dissenting argument, but a cascade of name-calling tied to a very selected (perhaps even distorted) version of his dissent.

Now, Scalia is both easy and fun to make fun of. His manner on the bench is often acerbic, and he's known to use turns of phrase (one of the favorites being "interpretive jiggery-pokery") that seem almost designed to attract mockery. But all of that is style, not substance. It doesn't speak at all to what he's actually trying to argue.

On a whim, I went and hunted down the entire set of arguments (both the majority position and the three dissents) to the Obergefell et. al. case. I read through Scalia's argument. And while it contains the occasional caustic remark, on the whole it is a reasoned legal and philosophical argument written by a highly intelligent man who gives every appearance of being sincere in his views. I don't agree with his argument as it pertains to this case, but the values that he espouses and the arguments he makes in his dissent are important ones that cannot be lightly dismissed.

This brings me back to our national conversational tendencies. I would guess that the vast majority of liberals, pleased with the outcome of the decision, will be content with using Scalia as an ideological whipping-boy from a distance. In past cases, I have seen my conservative friends do exactly the same - dismissing President Obama, or Elizabeth Warren, or any number of (to their minds) baleful figures with a mixture of snark and revulsion, without every actually listening to what those figures are trying to say. Not everyone does this, but a lot of us do.

When we substitute snark for listening, we destroy the opportunity for important conversations. When we rely on the Huffington Post to tell us "what conservatives really think" or the National Review or Rush to tell us "what liberals really think", all we are doing is driving ourselves deeper into our own ideological rabbit-holes. And then we look around and wonder why our nation is so polarized.

Moreover, we do very real damage with this kind of funhouse mirror discussion. We give ourselves reasons to hate and dismiss the other side. We amplify the very arguments we disagree with - which is counterproductive at best. And we pollute the discussion by recirculating only the most toxic stuff.

For a practical take-home, how about this: resist the urge to repost articles about "the other side" (whatever that other view is) written from your side's point of view. If you want to share, or comment on, differing views at least let them speak in their own voice. Let's do a little less back-slapping within our own tribes and a little more door-opening to let in The Others. We will probably still disagree with them most of the time. But we might learn something useful, and we might hate each other just a little less.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Forgiveness: Really Hard and Really Important

Recently I attended a series of seminars by a master teacher, one of the best I have ever seen. He was fond of saying about the subject at hand: "This should feel hard, and it should feel really important."

There is an aspect of the shootings in Charleston last week that feels very hard and also very important: the question of forgiveness. This is much bigger than one incident - indeed, I think it's one of the most fundamental questions there is.

What follows here are partly reactions to what others have written, but mostly musings of my own. Some of this will wander into theological territory, and some of it will bridge from the societal to the personal. It's also likely to be long. I'm not an expert in any of this stuff, so I can't stand on title or degree or authority. Take it for whatever you find it's worth.

Cases like the Charleston shootings tend to get reported in context of other similar events in the past. The most common recent case I've seen cited is the Newtown shootings, although other racially/religiously-inspired shootings (the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, for example) have also been referenced. These past cases serve as a means of identifying and defining what's happened - they form the boundaries of the present.

One mass shooting I almost never hear referenced is the Nickel Mines case. In October 2006 a man entered a small Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He allowed adults and boys to leave, but took a group of ten girls aged 6 through 13 hostage. A short time later, he shot all ten girls, killing five, and then turned the gun on himself.

The case was briefly a national story, in part because of the exotic nature of the victims (most Americans know nothing about the Amish, who keep largely to themselves) and in part because of what followed. After the initial frenzy had died down, the story came to focus on the response of the Amish community to the killings.

Within hours, members of the Amish community approached the gunman's family offering forgiveness and comfort. Those who had been victims reached out to the family of the perpetrator; many attended his funeral, and the gunman's widow was one of very few "English" invited to attend one of the funerals for the slain girls. The community responded with forgiveness and compassion far beyond simple words. A colleague of mine at the time, Donald Kraybill, and two other co-authors wrote a book, Amish Grace, which was later made into a movie. It is a powerful story almost wholly outside the mainstream American experience, which prizes vengeance far more than forgiveness.

Despite its power, the Nickel Mines story has largely vanished from public discussion. This is perhaps not surprising - the Amish exist largely outside American society and our categories. They are white, but we don't think of them as privileged whites. They eschew technology, yet aren't poor. They practice a radical form of both nonviolence and separation that largely keeps them outside our society. We don't know where they fit, and so they disappear (which, I suspect, suits them just fine).

Now we're faced with another shooting of innocents, in a religious context, by a white man. To early appearances Dylann Roof seems to have clearer motives than the Nickel Mines shooter did, which helps us put this event in the context of race and history which we already know. Some of the same questions are already being raised, about mental health and access to guns. But despite both similarities and differences in their particulars, both cases - indeed, ALL such cases - face us with the question: how do we respond? How are we to think about, and react to, the person who commits these crimes?

How we respond to the killer is important both for us and for the future. In the long run, responses of vengeance and anger shape us into vengeful and angry people bent on returning violence with violence. It is no coincidence that most major world religions have within their doctrines powerful injunctions regarding forgiveness, because the alternative is terrible: unending spirals of violence that spill blood for generations. We've seen modern examples from Jerusalem to Sarajevo to Chicago and Los Angeles. We know where that road leads. We forget sometimes that in the gospels, "An eye for an eye" is the start of a cautionary parable, not a prescription.

So in the long run, forgiveness and reconciliation are the only answers if we really want what we say we want: peace and justice for all. We know this is really important. We also know that it's really, really hard.

Stacey Patton in the Washington Post has beat me to the punch in bringing up the question of forgiveness towards Mr. Roof. Hers is a different take - she is frustrated at the speed with which blacks victimized by white violence are willing to forgive, at least in words. She points out that white America was not asked, and would not consider, forgiving al-Qaeda or ISIS - although the wars of vengeance launched by our responses there may not be the examples she's looking for. But she also writes this:
If we really believe that black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard, and expect accountability. White America needs to earn our forgiveness, as we practice legitimate self-preservation. [emphasis added]
Patton wants more anger from the black community as an expression of power - a means to force the white majority to come to terms with racism and take action to actually end it. Hers is a calculus of force, even if the force she envisions is rhetorical and political rather than lethal. It's interesting, in complicated ways, that the civil rights movement of the 1960s had this same debate, embodied in the twin figures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The latter seemed a bit more like what Ms. Patton is calling for, though the former is credited (rightly or wrongly) with having been more effective in bringing about change.

But can forgiveness be earned? This strikes me as a very slippery slope indeed. How much does the perpetrator of the offense need to do before forgiveness is owed? Is forgiveness a market transaction? We teach our children this script - one child offends and then says they're sorry, the other says "that's OK" or similar words of reconciliation. Then we watch them (and we watch ourselves) twist this script to our own ends. "I said I'm sorry!" "Yes, but you didn't mean it!" Asking others to earn forgiveness is really just a means of exerting power the other way, and can quickly turn into a form of punishment.

So demanding accountability and acceptable action prior to forgiveness isn't just putting the cart before the horse - it's connecting two things that really should not be connected at all. At the heart of Christian theology is exactly this kind of radical separation: the forgiveness of God does not come because of our actions, but in spite of them. We are not forgiven because we go to a priest or a pastor and say confession - otherwise God is nothing more than a magic Forgiveness Box waiting for us to push the button. God's grace precedes our action and does not depend on it.

This question, of course, goes far behind our response to terrible events like the Charleston shootings. We are faced with this question nearly every day, every time someone does something to harm us. Do we wait for the offender to apologize? Do we even allow them to apologize, or do we accept the apology at all? When we are hurt and wounded, this is really, really hard, even when the harm is social or relational rather than physical.

Yet even at this level, we perpetuate the damage when we don't seek and extend forgiveness. Relationships remain broken or fragile. Grudges can be held, hidden and waiting to surface later in another conflict. Potential is lost, work doesn't get done, and we miss out on the benefits of human connection at work, in the home, or in our communities.

This is not to say that reconciliation comes through a magic panacea. It's hard work on both sides. There's no push-button formula, where you say magic words ("I'm sorry") and I say magic words ("I forgive you") and we're done. Forgiveness, like everything else in human relationships, takes time and effort from both parties. I have failed to hold up my end of that bargain at times in my life, and I've been in relationships where I wanted to do the work but the other side didn't. Both end up hurting.

And all of that is in the easy cases, the ones where the offending party can recognize the offense and wants to do something about it. How much harder can this be, then, in cases like Charleston where the perpetrator of violence may not recognize his actions as wrong or harmful? What if there is no remorse, no apology forthcoming?

This is where it becomes clear that we need to separate reconciliation from forgiveness. The former is what restores relationships, not to their former state but to a functioning condition again. Reconciliation makes it possible for people to work together again, despite the harms of the past. Forgiveness is a necessary but not sufficient part of that process.

Forgiveness, by itself, is important not so much for the offender who is forgiven as it is for the victim who does the forgiving. If I am harmed by someone, whether that person repents or not I have only two choices: to forgive or not to forgive. By withholding forgiveness I am retaining the anger and the pain by choice. I think this is what Ms. Patton wants - she wants her community to hold onto that pain and channel it into power. In the short run, this can be a potentially effective tactic. In the long run, retained anger poisons the soul.

So by forgiving, I may or may not be helping the person who hurt me. But I am absolutely helping myself. This, I think, may be the motive behind the expressions of forgiveness seen in the last few days towards Dylann Roof. And though I understand (and to some degree share) Ms. Patton's frustration at the lack of change around issues of race and racism, I cannot share her need to tell those victims how to cope with their own grief or demand that they do so in ways to advance my agenda. Pain is personal first.

In this case, the harm radiates out in waves. There are the shooting victims (those that survived) and their immediate families. The members of Emanuel AME church. The members of the surrounding black community, and the broader citizens of Charleston. There are blacks, whites, and communities across South Carolina, and across the South in general. And there are Americans across the country, many of whom felt the pain of this shooting if only distantly.

People in each of those layers will have to decide for themselves how to respond in ways that suit their own needs and serve the needs of the larger community. There is strong consensus on much: the need to heal the racial wounds of our society, the need to prevent as many of these terrible acts as we can, the need to forge a better and more peaceful community. How we do these things is the subject of much debate. That they need to be done isn't.

So we're left with the original question: do we forgive Dylann Roof? Actually, I think this is more an individual question than a collective one. It's something we each have to face. For those of us at a comfortable distance from the shooting, it may seem like a trivial choice. But in reality, it's a choice we face nearly every day of our lives. We are constantly hurting, and being hurt, taking apart our relationships and communities and putting them back together. Forgiveness is an important part of the putting back together process. And like anything else, if we want to become good at it we have to practice.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Back from the Brink: Sweet Briar and the Changed Conversation About College Finances

I blogged a while back about the announcement that Sweet Briar College would be closing its doors this summer. At the time that news sent shock waves through higher education. It was the first time in recent memory (ever?) that the Trustees of a respected institution with a good reputation, a beautiful campus, acclaimed programs, and $80 million in endowment still in the bank had decided to shut down for financial reasons. Despite these apparent advantages the Trustees were convinced that closure was inevitable, and they chose to try to wind things down with some order and dignity.

It turns out that Sweet Briar may have a few years left after all. A deal has been reached with the Virginia Attorney General's office to change the leadership of the institution (new president and a largely new Board) and keep the operation going. Alumnae, many of whom were distressed and outraged by the decision to close, have raised some $21 million in pledges to help the college continue to operate. The AG has also agreed to lift restrictions on some $16 million in the college's endowment, allowing that money to be spent for any purpose that will help keep the college running (rather than on whatever specific purposes the original donors had intended).

This is certainly a happy day for those alumnae who have fought to keep the institution open. Sweet Briar still faces massive challenges, not least seriously diminished student and faculty populations (many have already transferred elsewhere). The college has been doing essentially no recruiting during the peak of recruiting season, so the incoming class is likely to be small. Whatever operations start up again in the fall are likely to be a shadow of the former institution, which was not that large to begin with. Nevertheless, the college now has a second chance at life.

The larger issues that led the Trustees to decide to close the institution still remain. The $12.5 million that alumnae have pledged initially is roughly equal to the college's operating deficit last year. It's great that former students are willing to lay out that kind of money, but what about next year? The year after that? One would guess that the $21 million in pledges raised by the organization Saving Sweet Briar represents a substantial proportion - perhaps nearly the entirety - of the giving capacity of the alumnae base. When that is tapped out, what next? The college was already burning off its endowment at 10% per year - that $80 million will disappear pretty quickly even if the state AG agrees to lift all restrictions on it.

The question here isn't whether the college will stay open for next year. The question is, can Sweet Briar build and run a sustainable financial model? Given the competition for students, the challenges of finding families who can and will contribute significant sums to their kids' educations, and the weakened borrowing power of those same families, where is the money going to come from? There isn't a clear answer. But if the new Board and president don't come up with a solution within the next year or two, we'll be having this same conversation in two years' time. If they do, this will be one of the greatest success stories in higher education and could pave the way for a lot of new thinking at institutions across the country.

One thing I do want to applaud the outgoing Trustees for: they have changed the conversation by calling the question. For too long, people both inside and outside higher ed have assumed that "real" colleges and universities - those with good reputations, status, and name recognition - could never really close down. Faculty and administration have always assumed that "we'll find a way" - even when that way involves shell games or unsustainable financial practices, hoping that "it's just for a few years". Now we know that failure is an option.

That knowledge should cause all of us, especially administrators and faculty inside the walls of academe, to take these matters much more seriously. Universities are mission-driven institutions where decisions should never be made "just to make money". But the money constraint is very real, and if we can't find a way to fulfill our missions in a financially sustainable fashion we too will ultimately close our doors. The message to the rest of us in higher education is clear: don't wait until the wolves are at the door. We should all be thinking about sound financial practices and models now. Because if we don't do it now, someone else will surely do it for us later.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Importance of Ideas: Higher Education, STEM, and the Liberal Arts

Those of us who work in higher education know that STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has been on a tear lately. Long the recipient of the largest share of research dollars, STEM has become the darling of politicians, pundits, and university presidents everywhere. If you're in STEM, or at a STEM-heavy school, life is good now - because who doesn't want to help create more engineers to solve tomorrow's problems?

I'm lucky enough to work in that environment myself. My employer has an excellent college of engineering & computer science and a strong enterprise in biomedical research - two of the hottest areas out there. We just opened at $30 million research building for neuroscience and biomedical engineering. Since all of these areas have graduate programs (both master's and PhD), I'm thrilled - it's my job to support our graduate education enterprise and that job is made really easy when we have programs that can ride today's hot trends.

In the shadow of all of this STEM mania, the liberal arts have had a tough time of it. Long the punching-bag for politicians, the attacks have gotten worse in recent years. When Time magazine asked "Is college worth it?", they weren't thinking about mechanical engineers and biomedical researchers - they were thinking about English and sociology majors. It's been tough being in the liberal arts (including my own intellectual native land of political science, singled out to get cut out of the NSF funding pie) in recent years.

And yet, I can't help thinking of last week's tragedy in Charleston, SC. I wrote on Friday that one of the key takeaways for me from that incident: ideas kill. Since ideas are what we work with in higher education, we have a particular responsibility to help make things better by engaging the ideas that lead to these kinds of horrific acts.

But we're not talking here about STEM anymore. As wonderful as engineering and science are, they won't solve our problems with racism, extremism, and violence. We could raise the NIH budget by an order of magnitude and add another $10 billion to the National Science Foundation, but we won't scratch the surface of these problems. Ideas about race, religion, identity, and society will continue to kill, unchecked and unfettered.

So as much as I love my STEM colleagues and support their work, this latest act of violence should remind us that some of the most important and meaningful problems won't be solved in a lab or with new technology. They are the problems that live in the minds and hearts of people - the kinds of problems that people in literature, theater, art, the humanities and social sciences have been grappling with for centuries.

If you want to cure diseases, fund biomedical research. If you want to invent cool new technologies to make our lives better, fund the engineers. But if you really want to address the persistent and wrenching issues of race, gender, extremism and violence - fund the liberal arts.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ideas Kill: Charleston and Our Failure to Talk About Race and Hate

A lot of words have been written in the last couple of days about the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. Interesting and important discussions have broken out about whether this act constituted terrorism (yes) or a hate crime (yes) or whether this is a manifestation of broken race relations (yes). Some have taken the opportunity to advance their favorite pet theories, perhaps the most absurd being  that pastors should arm themselves so they can be prepared to shoot assailants (I guess we should ask, "who would Jesus shoot?")

Smart things are being said, too, about the language we use to talk about these kinds of incidents. Why is it that whites who commit mass shootings are put in the "mentally ill" category when others (Muslims especially) who commit similar acts are labelled in other ways? Would reactions be different if a black man went into a white church and shot nine people as opposed to a white man in a black church doing the same? (almost certainly)

I don't have a lot to add to many of these conversations - a lot of smart folks are already saying smart things, and while it's fun to echo I suspect that many are only being listened to by those who already agree with them. That's one of the downsides of social media (says the guy who primarily uses Facebook to distribute his blog posts...)

Beyond human compassion for the victims and the affected community (which I hope we all share, regardless of our political, racial, or identity leanings), I want to offer a thought for consideration. Even this I can't claim full credit for - a friend of mine sent out a group email earlier today that got me thinking along these lines.

I often write about cases of gun violence from a self-defense point of view, as a student of interpersonal violence. In this case, I don't want to do that - the argument about whether pastors should be armed is to me so ridiculous as to not be worth engaging in. Instead, I want to approach this from the point of view of someone who has spent his life in higher education. From that vantage point, there is one important concept that I'm not sure has been fully grasped:

Ideas kill.

This is easy to say but much harder to understand. In our drive to both defend free speech and promote tolerance (both noble and excellent goals), we have neglected the much harder work of engaging ideas. Instead, we sling mud and names and labels at each other, pat ourselves and our friends on the back for our righteousness, and go out for a beer.

I started to address this problem after the Newtown, CT shooting in this blog post. The ideas I was talking about there were ideas about guns in particular. I think that post has held up pretty well, though most of the hard-liners in the gun debate don't want to hear it.

But what we appear to be seeing in Charleston is broader. It wasn't just Dylann Roof's ideas about guns. It was his ideas about race and society, his vision of the world as a whole, that led him to kill.

This is the part of the conversation we are terrible about. We've been talking about race in this country for centuries, but haven't made a lot of progress recently. To minorities - blacks in particular - racism is a major problem, but to far too many whites it's an annoyance, a "special group" issue, a side bar to the "real" problems our country faces. The problem with our conversations about race is that they're primarily conducted by blacks, Latinos, sometimes Asians, and a few sympathetic whites. We see this on our university campuses - chief diversity officers tend to be minorities, and the events they organize and the dialogues they hold tend to attract the attention largely of the minority population. For much of the white population, it's simply "not my problem".

So here's why we have to start taking this much more seriously: ideas kill.

Those nine people in Charleston didn't die because Mr. Roof is mentally deranged, though by some standards he may be. They didn't die because he had easy access to guns, although that was certainly a permitting factor. They died because Mr. Roof held ideas - ideas he learned and inherited and absorbed from a lot of other people - about race and American society.

This fact makes this a critical issue for higher education, because ideas are our stock in trade. If universities can claim anything, it is to serve as idea foundries - places where ideas are developed, tested, debated, tried, and shared.

This does not mean that universities should run out and frog-march their students and faculty into diversity sensitivity workshops so that their latent racism can be lectured out of them. It does mean that we need to pay much more careful attention to the ideas that lead to violence and killing, both as individual components and in constructed views of the world. We need to study these ideas, where they come from, and how they are spread, in much the same way that epidemiologists study diseases.

This is true not only of racism. It is also true of the ideas behind rape and sexual assault. It is true of the ideas behind religious extremism. It is true of any number of ideas and constructed ideologies that lead people to believe not only that it's OK to kill other human beings, but that it is necessary and laudable to do so.

These are difficult, difficult conversations. They are hard topics to tackle. If this were easy, we would have done it already. How do we separate ideas from people (because people tend to get defensive and, when cornered, will shut down or lash out) and how do we work together as people to deal with ideas? How do we do all of this without becoming coercive about it, which defeats the whole exercise? I don't know - I'm as guilty of anyone else of not trying very hard.

One thing I do believe is true: if this is going to happen anywhere in American society, it will happen in colleges and universities. Our politics are too fragmented and vicious and infected with cynicism for a public figure, another MLK, to force a conversation onto the national stage. But despite all the ridiculous rhetoric from people outside the academy, all the "sky is falling" predictions of how universities are going the way of the dinosaur, universities still succeed for the most part in creating environments and spaces for real and difficult conversations. And sometimes, they even succeed in leading them.

This is not a prediction so much as a call to purpose. For those of us in higher education, we need to take our jobs seriously. We need to take ideas seriously again. Because as the world keeps reminding us, lives depend on it.