Wednesday, December 2, 2015

More on Jonathan Haidt and Microaggressions

In writing Monday’s post about microaggressions and Jonathan Haidt, I came across this other piece of his writing. In it, he describes a speaking engagement at a tony East Coast private high school.

Haidt presented his usual material with charm and got laughs at the right moments, so he thought the talk had gone well, but when it came time for questions, he was alarmed.

First he noted their tone was hostile to him and his point of view. Then he noticed it was only girls asking him questions. (Wow, that must have been especially odd.) And that many of the girls in the audience had the temerity to snap their fingers when they agreed with a point made by another student.

I had never heard the snapping before. When it happens in a large auditorium it is disconcerting. It makes you feel that you are facing an angry and unified mob — a feeling I have never had in 25 years of teaching and public speaking.
Only one boy, obviously cowed into agreeing with the point of view of the girls, dared to ask a question.

When it was over, the boys (except that one outlier) stood up to give him a standing ovation, while the girls didn’t.

Afterward, Haidt was scheduled to speak to a smaller group of about 60 students and decided to "take control of the session." He asked the students:
What kind of intellectual climate do you want here at Centerville? Would you rather have option A: a school where people with views you find offensive keep their mouths shut, or B: a school where everyone feels that they can speak up in class discussions?
All of the students raised their hands for the second option. He then asked them if they felt they could speak freely in their classes, and selected subgroups to query (boys vs. girls, students of color vs. white students). Darned if he didn't find the boys and the male and female white students felt like they were "walking on eggshells" sometimes.
After that, the conversation was extremely civil and constructive. The boys took part just as much as the girls. We talked about what Centerville could do to improve its climate, and I said that the most important single step would be to make viewpoint diversity a priority.
The conclusion, in Haidt's mind, was that he had won a bunch of converts to his way of thinking that day.

I'd say that what these students had been creating before Haidt arrived were new rules of civility, the definition of which has changed many times in the past and will keep changing. Why is it civil for boys and men to overwhelmingly dominate the questions asked at large public lectures, as I have noticed they do over my many decades of attendance? Why is it civil for white straight men to be able to say whatever the heck they want about others, without a thought about its effect? Why can't we have viewpoint diversity without all of the insults that wear people down over time?

When Haidt convinced the students to broaden their ideas of how their conversations should go, I wondered if he was remembering the interweb, where people are truly free to say whatever they want. There's good discussion if it's well-moderated, but there's also a lot of stuff that ranges from disquieting to horrible and beyond. In my ideal classroom or school community, I want viewpoint diversity, but I don't want the equivalent of trolling and comment-thread derailing to be the ground rules for conversation and discussion.

When Haidt felt uncomfortable at the finger snapping, he was getting a little taste of what people without his privilege feel in this world every day. A woman getting cat-called on the street feels a lot worse and more endangered than he did from the snaps, believe me.

He may be right that on an individual level any person would be mentally better off managing to ignore all this shit, rejecting the "victimhood" assigned to them by society, though that's easy for him to say. Call it externally focused cognitive behavioral therapy; maybe we can all learn to ignore the negative voices we hear from the world.

But is that really the way to focus a conversation that is about social change?

As one of my Twitter quotes from yesterday put it, "Remember, losing privilege is not oppression."

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