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:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Quixotic Quest for Political Purity

I have written before about the dangers of seeking "purity" in public life - that is, of trying to dissociate one's self in all ways from things one disagrees with. This is as true about politics as it is about religion or any other belief system.

In this light, I read with a combination of amusement and concern this latest effort at "purity" of a particular political viewpoint by members of the NY State Senate:
New York Senate Passes Anti-BDS Bills
The idea here is that, if you work as a faculty member at any public university in New York (there are some 64 SUNY campuses, plus the CUNY system) you would not be able to use university funds to, say, travel to the conference of an organization that has passed a BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) resolution with regards to Israel.

Now, whether I agree with BDS efforts or not is irrelevant here (I'm not a fan, mostly on practical grounds). I am a member of scholarly organizations that have, at times, debated such resolutions. If one of these organizations were to pass such a resolution, and I worked in NY, what is the purpose of forbidding me from attending its scholarly conferences? All that does is punish the faculty, who now no longer have access to the means of sharing their work with the scholarly community, whether those faculty supported the symbolic BDS resolution or not.

The notion that allowing such a faculty member to use professional development funds to travel to such a conference constitutes the state "funding attacks against Israel or supporting hate", or that a conference appearance would be "inappropriate and offensive", suggests that the sponsors of this legislation are trying to purify the world according to their own world views. People disagree, about Israel and a great many other things. If you find such disagreement offensive, I'm not sure it's the world that needs to change.

This is, of course, a symptom of the deeper tribalist instincts of American politics, instincts that have been much emboldened of late. This is another example of a Politics of Force - an attempt to impose one's own worldview of everyone else, in this case on an issue that is purely symbolic and which has no direct practical significance. BDS resolutions by academic associations will not change Israel's behavior; withholding New York State funding from scholars seeking to attend those associations' conferences won't change theirs either.

As I have argued before, this is the real battle for the soul of American politics - not which side of this or that issue you fall on, but what kind of politics we want to have. If we opt for a politics of force, we doom ourselves to endless conflict and, likely, violence. This is the Trumpian zero-sum view of the world, and it leaves everybody worse off. Our alternative is to learn to live with differences even as we debate them, which means we have to become a little less comfortable with our own righteousness and a little more willing to engage in contact with the "impure".

Friday, March 3, 2017

What Does Free Speech on Campus Mean?

I am no fan of Charles Murray or his work. I suspect that if I read it exhaustively, I would find much to criticize. I have read The Bell Curve, and I'm unconvinced by his arguments.

That said: this behavior reported here by a group of Middlebury students is appalling. If free speech on a campus means anything, it means that people who are invited by members of the community - people who apparently thought he had something worth listening to - be allowed to share their views with decorum and civility. Shouting a speaker down, and then jumping on his car as he attempts to leave, are inconsistent with this notion.

The open letter referred to in the article linked above tries to square this circle by arguing, essentially, that there are certain views that are outside the boundaries of free speech protection and which therefore can and should be censured. It also argues that the airing of those views in and of itself constitutes a threat to other members of the community, a form of (their word) intimidation.

This is precisely the kind of division I spoke of in my most recent blog post. It will not get better by shouting and pounding on cars, or even by the more civilized means of "de-inviting" speakers. It will only get better through real dialogue. Whether a public lecture is the best form of that dialogue is another question, but I suspect that the students protesting made no real attempt to have an open conversation with their fellow students who had invited Murray in the first place.

I also suspect that the students who invited Murray in the first place knew darned well what they were doing, and that some of them are likely quite pleased to have provoked their liberal brethren into an overreaction. This is combative politics that divides. Rather than invite a controversial speaker to demonstrate your power, why not have a direct dialogue between student groups?

The students in question (on both sides) probably don't see it this way, but this is a politics of force. It is a politics that says, I am right and you are wrong and I am going to use all of the power at my disposal to impose my will on you. It is as anti-democratic as anything they are protesting against. I do not envy my colleagues in the Middlebury administration as they try to untangle this mess.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Thoughts About American Tribalism

I have just returned this past weekend from the annual conference of the International Studies Association. For scholars like me who study international politics in a systematic way, this is the largest gathering every year - a way to see people we interact the rest of the year only in writing, to meet new faces and get exposed to new ideas. It is a collective expression of a scientific community trying to figure out the world - often raucously and discordantly, although there are some things that the community agrees strongly on.

This year's conference got me thinking about tribalism, in part because:

• I tend to think about tribes a lot anyway (search this blog for the "tribalism" label to see a lot of my past stuff)

• The community of ISA scholars constitutes, in many ways, a tribe of its own, with various sub-tribes embedded therein

• The national (United States) conversation about immigration is really a conversation about who is "us" and who is "them" and how "us" should treat "them" (with the answer to the latter question, far too often, being "badly")

• I am reading Jonathan Haidt's work The Righteous Mind, which has an extensive discussion of how "groupish" humans are and why

• There is an underlying tribalism within the United States that worries me greatly, and which I think almost no one is dealing with very well (or at all) right now

This last point is what concerns me most. The specific issues we're arguing about at the national level - immigration, the role of the press, foreign policy, tax policy, and many more - are all suffused with a tribal divide. To put it plainly: there is no longer any room in our national conversation for Americans, only for tribes within America that each regard the other as an existential threat.

I see this mostly from the Left side of the divide, because that's where most of my social contacts have their home. There is plenty of opposition to Trump (reasonably so - every President faces opposition) and other individuals in his administration. This opposition seems reasonable, even obvious, to those who share it. It also seems treasonous to the most committed folks on the Right.

I suspect that there is a similar dynamic on the Right, though I don't see as much of it myself (again, most of my friends are on the Left). Polling data suggests that there is a committed core of folks who view Trump's actions so far as positive, who were excited by his electoral win and his inauguration, and who view the opposition to Trump's appointments and pronouncements with deep suspicion if not outright hatred. The Left, in turn, wonders if these same people are going to take over everything and destroy our democracy.

These groups of people seem to inhabit very different worlds - not only in social circles, but in the very reality they see. One side sees a massively dysfunctional government careening back and forth between evil and unprecedented incompetence. The other sees a hero battling valiantly against the forces he campaigned against. Even basic facts have become a matter of partisan identity. And everywhere, people are convinced that if Their Side doesn't win, it will spell the end of our civilization as we know it.

To say that this is bad is a massive understatement. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Unlike in 1858, we can't even sort ourselves into states on different sides of a contiguous line - we are more like Yugoslavia in 1990, intermixed in geography but inhabiting separate nations. I recognize that neither of these historical analogies ends particularly well for the people involved.

Last night President Trump gave a speech to Congress that was widely hailed, at least in the mainstream, as being very different from his first month of governing. And in truth he did call for bipartisan cooperation in Congress - though cooperation in service to his agenda and his ideas. In this, he did what every other President before him has done. He did not address the real divide among us, a divide he has done much to increase.

A part of my participation in last week's ISA conference involved chairing a discussion of a recent book, Nationalist Passions, written by my friend Stuart Kaufman. Stuart looked at a number of different societies with significantly diverse ethnic and identity groups - some that had gone down the road of violent conflict, some which had suffered through dysfunctional politics, and some which had managed to operate with normal political systems despite significant differences across their populations.

Stuart's advice for today's divide in America? Surprisingly (given the decidedly liberal bent in the room), he said that we should acknowledge diversity but we should celebrate what we have in common. We need to stop emphasizing our differences, and instead hold highest that which binds us together.

This is what our entire national conversation seems incapable of doing, on both the Left and the Right. Nothing that President Trump has said, even last night when he was being "reasonable", has suggested that he has any vision for what binds Americans together or what we might have in common. Nor have any national politicians, either on the Left or the Right, made this kind of claim. Everyone is backed into their corner playing defense and lashing out at the other side.

This is a question largely separate from the very real debates we are having over particular issues: immigration policy, terrorism and national defense, education, health care. All of those, bombastic rhetoric aside, are routine arguments we have perennially. They are things about which we should be expected to disagree.

Part of the reason why these debates feel different from previous iterations is the lack of a "center" - not centrist positions (those do exist, though these days they are rare), but a central touchpoint which we all agree exists and which connects us all to each other. In my view, we have reached the point where there isn't one. We are no longer "one nation", under God or otherwise. We are not one out of many. Pluribus has overtaken unum.

My work, and that of many much smarter scholars, on identity-driven conflicts suggests that there is no easy road back from here. Some of our work suggests that there may not be a road back at all. Violence and attacks have so far been limited mostly to threats and vandalism against minority groups that have been subjected to such things before (recently in particular, Jews but also foreigners). The more violence there is, and the more separated the sides become, the harder and harder it will be for any kind of reunification. What happens when somebody gets attacked for being a Hillary supporter? (Oh, wait - that has already happened...)

At this point, we cannot look to our leaders - neither Republicans nor Democrats, not Trump nor Pelosi nor Ryan nor Schumer - to provide us a way out. The President and members of Congress all have more immediate agendas for shaping legislation and influencing policy. Each will call for "Unity!" when it serves their purposes, and they will sow division when that works better. The health of the US body politic as a whole is too big, too distant, too easily put off into the future to make it onto their radar screens.

Unfortunately, as I have pointed out before, we have a tendency to expect our Presidents to solve all of our problems. Almost always, they can't - think of the hopes placed on Obama to bring racial healing (and who better positioned to do it?) President Trump has done his best to pour gasoline on our fires of division, so there is no hope there.

The problem, I think, is not just that we expect our Presidents to do things they can't. It's that we don't believe that we can do anything ourselves. But this is one problem that only ordinary Americans will be able to solve. Community leaders can help, if they are people who care more about bringing us together as a people than about getting their way. Look for these people where you live. If you don't find one, become one.

How do we do this? Talk to each other. Not argue on the internet, not get into Twitter fights. Talk with real people, about our real lives - our whole lives. Listen. A lot. Find the common ground, and celebrate it when you do. Decide that our relationships with one another are more important than winning this or that point.

This doesn't mean you can't call your Congressman, or join in a march, or write letters to the editor, or vote for your favorite candidate. All of those things, and many more, are good things to do. It does mean that as we do them, we should try to take care not to contribute any more to our widening divisions. We can be honest in our views, but we shouldn't be snarky. We can be open about how we see the world without disrespecting those who see it differently. How we do things is, as I have argued so many times before, ultimately far more important than what we do, because the How has a much greater impact over time than the What.

Tonight I join with millions of fellow Christians around the world in the celebration of Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. Lent has historically been a season of penitence, of introspection, and of discipline in preparation for renewal. Whatever our faiths, our theologies, and our beliefs, it seems like now is a good time for these things.