tolerance, forbearance, and campus culture

Last week I read what I think is an excellent articulation of the current struggles of our republic. 

Credit: Michael George Haddad

Of course, that’s not what happened in the Civil War, and it’s not what has happened since the 90s, though the pace is increasing. I think we’ve reached a point where we no longer necessarily view the opposition as “loyal citizens,” and really just about any notion of forbearance has disappeared, probably with the GOP blocking of Obama’s Supreme Court nomination. As was said at the time, this was within the legal power of the senate to do. It is within the President’s power to fire people he thinks are personally disloyal and since only Congress has the power to put him on trial, as long as Congress remains loyal to a president, there is no stopping him (or her) from committing any crime while in office.

It is only toleration and forbearance that prevent things like that from happening. It ultimately relies upon the notion that American voters, in the end, value the future of the nation over their partisan political aims. Think about it on a more personal level. As an adult you can do what you want and say what you want within the limits of the law. If you’re married and act without toleration and forbearance in respect to your spouse, then probably your marriage won’t last very long. That’s where we are right now, acting as if we no longer want to be part of this union.

A similar set of principles underlie the open exchange of views on college campuses. Such conversations implicitly begin with a shared value regarding the continuation of higher education… even though we do not always agree with what students, faculty, staff, administrators, and invited speakers say. So there’s toleration. But there’s also forbearance in the sense that while one has a legal right to speak freely, one will respect the rhetorical expectations and practices of the community in terms of how one expresses ones views. Without that forbearance, the capacity for toleration weakens.

So what we sometimes see today (and these occurrences are still rare given the 1000s of speakers invited to campuses every week) are campus events that 1) intend to weaken or undermine higher education (so intolerant of the entire premise), 2) express intolerance of people who are part of the campus community, and 3) lack any forbearance in terms of a moderation of speech or willingness to engage in academic debate (which cannot occur in the context of intolerance anyway). Basically, I think it’s fair to say that conservatives view higher education as an ideological foe that they will not tolerate and thus refuse to accept the implicit rhetorical values and practices of the community.

Why conservatives oppose higher education will have to be a subject for another day. The point is that given the larger political culture lack of tolerance and forbearance, there is almost no chance of insulating campuses from those changing conditions. Without those underlying values at work, the academic habit of inviting a free and open exchange of views becomes impossible. And obviously these conservatives know this and their principle intention is to disrupt and destroy campuses through this practice.

So what should campuses do? First, I think they need to make their implicit values explicit. Then, they can establish requirements for the structure of presentations and debate. They can articulate expectations regarding tolerance of others and moderation in speech, which would at least allow them to label particular events and the organizations that support them. Within these weakened conditions of forbearance I think this would be within their rights. If we cannot expect speakers to respect implicit values of toleration and forbearance then we need to make them explicit, and we have to admit to ourselves that we cannot make these values hold up on our own. One person cannot make a marriage work if the other is intent on destroying. I realize that conservatives view practices such as the scientific method, mathematical calculation, and the attempts to study and account for the entirely to humans rather than just select racial/ethnic subgroups as a threat to their white nationalist Christian ideology. I don’t know how one gets around this.

I’m not saying that such moves would be without political consequences. But the thing is that the political right has already declared colleges and universities are their enemies, has already asserted their desire to tear down higher education, and is already putting as much political will behind that objective as they can. I know higher education imagines itself occupying some more distant moral high ground, but what I think we must learn from this historical moment is that such high ground is not something that colleges and universities can create for themselves or sustain on their own. It is something that relies upon a broader social contract that is now unraveling.

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