Thursday, March 16, 2017

Political Conflict on Campus Today

I write a fair amount about academia and higher education. I also write a lot about conflict. Sometimes, I get to cross my realms of expertise and write about both.

It was in that conjunction that this article from this week's Chronicle struck me:

From Video of Campus Forum, Virtual Venom Flows

The Reader's Digest version of the story is this: some folks at Northern Arizona University decided to have a public campus form titled "The Specters of Fascism?" It's the kind of thing that universities do - bring their expertise to bear on questions of public interest and hold open discussions about them.

In this case, the forum was mostly about Fascism in Europe, with the added question of whether there were lessons from those historical experiences that might be applicable to the United States today. It's the sort of question that historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others have discussed for decades - interesting, relevant in a high-level sort of way, and amenable to scholarly inquiry. In today's highly polarized political and tribal environment, however, it attracted a different sort of attention than one might expect when academics hold a scholarly forum.

A NAU student affiliated with a group called Campus Reform filmed the event and shared that video with the organization, which posted a segment of it on their website. Campus Reform, which bills itself as "America's leading site for college news", is a conservative project that "exposes bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses". It is an offshoot of the Leadership Institute, an avowedly conservative organization whose mission is "to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process".

Needless to say, university professors speculating about whether European fascism has any parallels in American politics today proved to be red meat to conservatives, who boiled the whole thing down to "liberals equating Trump with Hitler". Abusive and threatening emails started flying almost immediately, aimed at faculty members associated with the event (often for things that they didn't say, as the video was apparently unclearly labelled).

Interestingly, the student who took and posted the video also came in for a fair amount of online abuse and some pushback from people on her campus, some of whom accused her of being a racist and of belonging to the "alt-right". She characterized her treatment (perhaps a bit hyperbolically) as "full-on bullying from the university".

The usual frame by which these kinds of stories are viewed is the "academic freedom/freedom of speech" frame. In this view, everyone has the right to say what they like and to express the views that they like. The forum was an exercise of free speech, as was the taping of the forum and posting it online. The subsequent abuse and death threats are merely an unfortunate byproduct of our exercise of our free speech rights.

While correct in itself, this frame is largely useless for understanding what's going on here. What this episode shows is one manifestation of a much larger conflict taking place across society, on campuses as well as in other ways. Once we place this in a conflict frame, we have the chance to make progress towards both understanding and mitigating if not resolving these issues.

Like all conflicts, this one has at least two sides, each of which is a coalition of actors and entities that agree with each other to varying degrees. What holds the sides together is not agreement about facts or ideas, but a sense of common identity - "us" versus "them". The student who posted the video may not like being lumped in with the alt-right, but she's planted her flag on that side and so, in the eyes of her adversaries, she's one of "them".

Like all tribal conflicts, the dynamics are pretty predictable. Each side defines the other as both monolithic and defined by its own worst actors. Each side is reduced to simplistic, usually dehumanizing, epithets by the other ("libtard", "redneck", etc.) Each side has only a vague notion of its goals and objectives - though individual actors may have specific plans - but in broad terms, the conflict is seen as zero-sum - either "we" win or "they" win.

It is this last point that gives rise to the deplorable kinds of behavior that we see - the online bullying, dehumanization, and threats. Because people the conflict is perceived as zero-sum, each side focuses on "winning". There is no notion of compromise or accommodation - such thoughts are heresy, and those who entertain them usually branded as heretics and forced to recant or tossed out of the tribe. In the terms of my own research, each side is pursuing a Unilateral strategy.

Sometimes in international conflict, Unilateral strategies make sense. One thing my research has turned up is that Unilateralism is contagious - if one side gets it, the other side pretty much has to follow suit. It's very difficult for me to try to reach accommodation with you while you're trying to kill me. This is why Zartman has spent so much time researching the notion of "hurting stalemates", because once you're locked into Unilateralism on both sides, it's very difficult to get out.

Some of the rhetoric within our domestic political conflict has taken on this sort of flavor. Dig around a little bit and you can find conservatives (often of the alt-right variety) talking about a "genocide" of liberals, while on the Left you have liberals talking openly about secession (Calexit?) from the rest of the country. Both of these assume a universe in which members of both tribes cannot coexist, at least not in the same political space, giving rise for the need for one or another kind of "final solution".

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. My partner-in-crime on secession research Steve Saideman recently pointed out that Blue State secessionism is nuts and anti-democratic. And the idea that "conservatives" can somehow identify and remove (via death or forced migration) all "liberals" is both wildly unrealistic and horrifying.

The reality is that within the United States, Unilateral strategies are a waste of time. They will never succeed. The only thing they are good for - and this goes a long way to explaining their popularity - is helping some politicians get into power and stay here. The side effect of this political strategy, of course, is that the body politic as a whole suffers. And so a college professor and a college student are both made to suffer so that demagogues who have no interest in resolving conflicts can go to Washington.

The Atlantic recently ran an article covering research that suggests that one side effect of Americans drifting away from organized religion (in particular, the many branches of the Christian church) is that they are become less tolerant of each other. While Christianity is often associated in the public mind with intolerance (towards gays, Muslims, single mothers, and others, mostly because of particularly vocal denominations), it turns out that the universalism within Christian theology (a universalism reflected in most major theological systems around the world) does tend to make adherents less rigid than we usually think. You can only sing "In Christ there is no East or West" so many times on a Sunday before it starts to occur to you that maybe God really does love everybody, even the people you disagree with.

The flight from religion is particularly pronounced on college campuses, both among academics and faculty (who tend to share a culture of cosmopolitan secularism) and among students (who tend to share the young adults' gravitational pull away from the religion of their parents, who increasingly don't have one anyway). So it's not surprising that when the broader conflict surfaces on campus, its manifestation tends to be particularly intolerant. Each side, of course, uses this to accuse the other of hypocrisy, thus making the whole thing worse.

The thing about viewing this as a conflict is that it helps us think about the important questions. What would a "resolution" look like? What is the conflict about, and what kinds of solutions to those problems are possible? Because we tend to think that the conflict is about "ideas" ("liberal" ideas versus "conservative" ideas), we then erroneously think that the solution is for our ideas to "win". That is not, of course, how the "marketplace of ideas" works. Change tends to come evolutionarily. Nothing "wins" or "loses" in whole, but the interaction changes all sides and produces new (and hopefully better) ideas. Hegel was right - the conflict between Thesis and Antithesis produces, at its best, Synthesis.

As long as people are sending death threats to each other, of course, this kind of progress is going to be very slow. And as long as students (of whichever tribe) think that they need to help their side "win" - whether by posting videos of views they don't like to like-minded websites or by shouting down speakers they don't like at public events - not much is going to change.

When you're in a conflict, you should be thinking about how to end it - about what realistic conclusions are possible and about how to get from where we are to one of those, as fast as possible and with the least cost. Right now, people on all sides aren't thinking this way. They're trying to "win" an unwinnable war. If you don't like the idea of strangers flinging death threats around, heed the advice of Joshua: the only winning move is not to play:

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