Discover more from Discourse
Affective Polarization and the Boundaries of Speech
Ben Klutsey and Sigal Ben-Porath discuss the tension in U.S. education systems between protecting free speech and preventing harm
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, about the evolution of free speech protections in the U.S., how to regain trust in institutions, the two roles of a university, cancel culture and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we have Professor Sigal Ben-Porath, who is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also has an affiliation with the philosophy and political science departments of UPenn. She is interested in democratic theory and practice and has studied the ways institutions like schools and colleges can sustain and advance democracy.
Her areas of expertise include philosophy of education and political philosophy. She has numerous publications and books, but her latest book is “Cancel Wars: How Universities Can Foster Free Speech, Promote Inclusion, and Renew Democracy,” which is the subject of our conversation today. Thank you for joining us, Sigal.
SIGAL BEN-PORATH: Thank you so much for having me, Ben. It’s a pleasure.
Political vs. Affective Polarization
KLUTSEY: Now, just to dig right in, one of the things I really like about what you’ve done in the book is to contextualize the issue of free speech and deplatforming and issues related to that within the current state of polarization in the nation. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of free speech issues, I’d love to hear your reflections on how we are polarized and what would you say is the current state of affairs. And are we too polarized as a nation, or is this an issue that is more of an appearance-vs.-reality situation?
BEN-PORATH: Great. That’s a great question, and I would say actually both. Here is how: On one hand, we are not significantly polarized on the issues. And there are some issues that we are seeing quite differently across ideological divides, but there are very important issues on which there is a vast majority of Americans who are on the same policy side, including areas where the policy doesn’t align with the preferences of the vast majority.
Guns and the Second Amendment and regulation of gun use and ownership is an example of that. There is a vast agreement on policy that doesn’t get enacted for various reasons, but we’re actually not polarized on this issue at all. There is a rift between the voters and the representatives, but the voters are not polarized. Abortion or reproductive rights are similarly widely agreed on in the population but seen differently among decision-makers of various branches. On the policy, some differences, yes, but many important policies like those, like immigration, like other matters, there is vast agreement.
But we are still actually polarized. The way in which we are polarized is actually not so much about policy. It’s about our emotions, our feelings and our perceptions of each other and what in political science is now commonly called affective polarization, or sometimes the more punchy title of ideological contempt, meaning that there is a growing feeling among—if you envision the ideological spectrum as running, let’s say, mostly from progressive to conservative—there are more extreme parts of it on both sides, but from progressive to conservative, you can envision most eras, not all, but most eras of American history as having two big tents representing these two large ideologies and generally aligned with the two major parties.
They are not that far from each other, and in various contexts, they even overlap. You can see people who are on one party or ideology but actually support some policies that are favored by the other side, et cetera. Increasingly in terms of our emotions toward each other and toward the opposing ideology, we are finding ourselves moving away from each other and increasingly thinking about the people on the other side of the ideological divide in very negative terms.
There are surveys that show that people think about the out party, the people on the other side of the ideological divide, as unintelligent, as unable to act in good faith, as lazy, as closed-minded. These are all survey results that show us that we really think about each other in very polarized terms. And the concern that this raises is that it really provides zero incentive for us to try and understand each other or work with each other or live in a shared society. Because why would you do that with somebody who you know is closed-minded and lazy and unintelligent? These are really views that historically have not been as high as they are now. They shot up in the last few years, and so this is the component of polarization that I’m mostly worried about.
KLUTSEY: I know this could be a very, very broad question, could take us in a bit of a separate direction, but what do you think are the main causes of this? I mean, sorting is one that has been talked about a lot, that we are in different geographic spaces. We are in these epistemic niches, as you highlight in the book. Do you find that to be the predominant reason for why this affective polarization has been enhanced over the past several years?
BEN-PORATH: Yes, definitely geographic sorting is one reason. The question you ask, of course, is a cause for a big fight within political science today. I cannot summarize all of the perspectives on this. People are saying, “Oh, it started on the right, or it started on the left, or it started by elected officials polarizing, and the populace is chasing them, or vice versa.” It’s a big research conversation, let’s say, but I will say sorting is definitely one reason.
Lilliana Mason talks about the development of mega identities, the way in which too many of our (or at least many of our) personal characteristics align: our geography, our religion, our ideology, our level of education. So various aspects of our identities stack up to create a mega identity that is aligned with our ideology. That further creates distance among people because we don’t see each other as the same type, the same thing.
There are other reasons. A lot of people talk about the modes of communication, social media, and our sources of information, which are diversified and distinct. You can find all the information you want that will always confirm your perspective or your biases or even your mistakes. You can find it reinforced again and again in your favorite sources of information. That also creates an additional reason to distance yourself from people who are spoken of in your favorite sources of information as acting in bad faith and unintelligent and all the other negative perceptions.
What Does Free Speech Protect?
KLUTSEY: Now going to the free speech issue: I enjoy the discussion around how the contours around debates are changing across ideological and generational lines, as you mentioned in the book, and that young people view efforts to protect hateful speech very suspiciously and makes them very suspicious of free speech. The other side, the current free speech advocates see the current discussion as a struggle for more free speech. You mentioned that free speech used to be a progressive thing. Now it’s become more of a conservative rallying cry. I was wondering when this change occurred and why. If you can place us in some historical context generally, that could be helpful.
BEN-PORATH: Right. This might require more historical knowledge of the development of ideological movements in this country than I have. To put it in a bigger context, I can say concretely about free speech that—I really mean in the last 40 years, for decades now—it has become a tool used increasingly by conservative thinkers and activists to promote greater acceptance and recognition and voice for conservative ideological perspectives, particularly religious ones, but also other ones within institutions (including institutions of higher learning) where these views are not evenly spread, right?
You can find a lot of conservative thought in an ongoing way. For example, in the economics departments in most universities, it’s actually fairly typical to have conservative—or at least economic conservatism well represented in economics departments. But if you look at the English department or sometimes the history department or anthropology—if you look at different contexts within the university, oftentimes you will find less representation for diverse ideologies and particularly conservative ideologies represented among the faculty.
Sometimes you can find it on the syllabus. I teach conservative thinkers, even though I don’t identify myself with conservative ideologies as they are represented right now. Some people would dispute that, but never mind that. Just last week, I’ve been called a conservative, so maybe I am, who knows? But to be serious, the effort to represent religious and conservative preferences, policy preferences, scholarly perspectives, so that the tool that the free speech legislation and theoretical framework provides to people who feel that their views are being underrepresented, like some conservative thinkers and activists, are just very effective tools.
And increasingly the usage of the free speech framework has created suspicion among people on the progressive side that actually, free speech is not for me, right? It’s not for my causes, it’s not for my community, it doesn’t help me. All it does is basically require the introduction and support of religious and other conservative perspectives. This was the shift, where this tool that used to be a tool for protecting minority communities who were underrepresented and not properly heard within various debates and policy decisions started being used in a different way—or it didn’t start, but was increasingly being used in different ways.
This is why a lot of young people today, those who do not remember whatever happened at Berkeley during the Vietnam War or whatnot—that was a long time ago—most people who live today don’t remember that. Definitely, our students don’t remember that, personally. Maybe they learn something about it, but they haven’t experienced that.
For them, what does free speech protect? It protects the right not to give them contraception if the employer doesn’t like to do that, not to give them a wedding cake if a baker doesn’t like that they are of the same sex. It allows a professor to misgender them if they are a trans student and the professor doesn’t like the fact that they are trans, right? Increasingly they perceive free speech protections as an attack on inclusive perspectives that they as a generation tend to favor.
Regaining Trust in Institutions
KLUTSEY: Right. Very interesting. One of the major challenges that you also highlight in the book is the loss of trust in institutions as well as social trust. How we’re navigating facts and knowledge and truth, it’s become very, very difficult. I was wondering, given how much trust has been lost with institutions, is it then possible for these institutions—for example, academic institutions, which are the subject of your book—to be part of the solution? Is this one where maybe a group takes leadership in this and they bring others along, or how does this work?
BEN-PORATH: Right. Look, this is a really tough point, right? We, as a public, generally speaking, have lost trust in each other in the ways that I described a moment ago. We have lost trust in institutions, and that is a long-standing process. It’s an ongoing and long process—trust in government, trust in other institutions. I don’t know if we lost trust in the truth, but definitely, we have lost trust in expertise and in the notion that truth can be represented to us rather than us digging up some corner of the internet to find whatever we prefer to identify as truth.
Can universities and, in a different way, schools, which are embroiled in this very struggle over trust in the culture wars and are often being blamed as indoctrinating students into certain ideologies—can they do the work of reversing this trend? I would say yes, but not alone. I think if you look at K-12 schools—where, by the way, free speech has been eroded for 50 years now repeatedly by the courts, and so of course, young people have no experience of living within an institution that is interested in their voice, protects their perspectives and allows for free speech and debate to occur. They have no experience in that because the courts shut it down, and of course, other social processes, but with the permission of the courts.
The schools now are seeing the restriction of perspectives, the restriction on teachers’ expression, restriction on the curriculum, particularly around difficult eras, especially slavery and other topics or eras that represent difficult moments in American history, painful and negative moments or eras in American history. Those are being restricted both in K-12 schools in various states, and increasingly in universities as well.
Just this week in Florida, there is a new bill that was signed actually yesterday that restricted how race is being discussed in higher education institutions. This is not protecting children or protecting white children. It’s protecting or restricting the conversation from happening in the name of free speech. You can see that this is very problematic.
Of course, public institutions in Florida or other states are having a very hard time taking a stand because they need the funding and the support, and so they are caught in a difficult place. What can they do? They can do a little bit, but they can do more with the sector’s support, their states that can take a bigger stance or a bigger stand against these efforts, and they can join them. There are civil society organizations like Pan America, the AAUP, different groups that can lead the charge to support and protect expression on college campuses and in K-12 schools, and then these institutions can join in.
In various instances, there are also roles for either citizens or at least parents to take a stand and to say, as a community that’s benefiting from these institutions—public schools, public universities, higher education more broadly—we want to support the open exchange of ideas, and we want to support the autonomy of these institutions. This has to be a shared effort. I think we are seeing glimpses of that, but I think we need to see a lot more before we can reverse this trend, which I think is going to happen.
KLUTSEY: It’s a tough one.
BEN-PORATH: But I was born an optimist. Believe me at your own peril.
The Roles of a University
KLUTSEY: That’s very interesting. Now, speaking of universities, you mentioned two important goals of the university, and I think it’d be great to flesh that out a little bit. You talked about civic and truth-seeking goals, which are mutually reinforcing. Can you elaborate on those goals?
BEN-PORATH: Right. Of course, the main and long-standing goal of a university is to develop or reveal and disseminate knowledge. This is the core mission, and this is the core reason why we need institutions of higher learning. There are additional causes to a university. Teaching, of course, is part of the dissemination of knowledge. It’s part of the core mission. I’m including it in the truth-seeking mission.
University also has a public or civic mission, which is part of the reason why we want to disseminate knowledge because it has to operate for, or in support of, other public purposes. That can be the training of professionals for the job market, and it can be the training and preparation of citizens and civic leaders, who can take on their democratic roles in a democratic society, and various other aspects.
I think in a time like today with the polarization that we are seeing, with the fracturing of our epistemic foundations and with the reality that we are seeing of a mistrust, or sometimes you can say cynicism or suspicion, toward governance institutions and other public institutions, universities and colleges really have a central role in preparing young people to take on a participatory role within their societies. This really is today, maybe more than in other times, tied up with their epistemic goal or their role of developing and disseminating knowledge. Because a part of our civic or social fractures is the fracture around what is true, who is an expert, what is knowledge.
We ought to be able to prepare young people to participate in the knowledge economy in a way that is civically responsible and committed to a shared mission, a shared social mission, even if very broadly construed. I’m not saying everyone must have the exact same values and must align themselves with a narrow mission. I’m not trying to promote an autocratic—everyone must believe my vision of the good society here. I’m really trying to promote a pluralistic vision that would be joined by people with diverse values and perspectives and identities and experiences, et cetera, and that the university can support the training of people in doing that.
Now, just to be honest, I really think this has to depend, and it has to extend a similar mission by schools because only between a third and half of each cohort goes to any higher education institution. If we have a civic mission, it has to apply to everyone, including the half or more of each cohort who don’t go to college. They are part of our citizens and leaders and voters and people with a vision for our society. Obviously, this cannot be just the role of the university.
I think given that in the current reality, we are still seeing that most young people, 30 and under, who participate in elections and participate in other forms of civil discourse, are active in their various civic institutions from the neighborhood and all the way up, most of them have some college or a college degree. These people who tend to participate ought to be trained to participate effectively and pluralistically and democratically. This is the civic mission of a university. I would hope that schools—that’s not our topic today—but that they would do the same because we need everyone’s voices, not just the college graduates.
Harm and the Boundaries of Speech
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, one of the topics that you talk about is claims of harm. The two core issues that are being navigated now are harm and inclusion. But with regard to claims of harm that are used to negotiate the boundaries of speech, harm can be subjective. When we compound all forms of harm into a single broad category, it makes it difficult for us to figure out what is truly evil and how to address that while still addressing the levels of subjective harm. Is there a limiting principle that allows institutions to navigate all of this? Is there any broad principle that one can apply so that they can have some guardrails as they are trying to navigate these issues?
BEN-PORATH: Well, Ben, this is a really hard question, of course, an important question. You’re asking for a principle, and I will say that like any difficult question, there are answers that are quick, easy and wrong. I don’t have one principle for you that would fix this, or one policy that would fix this difficult issue.
At the same time, I do want to start off just by agreeing with you. Harm is almost always subjective. It’s part of its definition. I’m feeling harmed. Now, let’s say that you tell me something, and I’m feeling hurt or harmed by this. Maybe on a different day, if I woke up in a better mood, I wouldn’t. Maybe if I go out and the next person comes in and talks to you and you say the same thing, they’re like, “Oh, that’s so silly of you, Ben” and they are moving on.
Harm has to do with my own feelings, both as a person generally, maybe related to my identities or experiences or past traumas or whatever it might be, and also changes over time. When I was younger, there were things that would hurt my feelings that now roll off my back. I don’t even hear them. Of course, harm is subjective. Should we attend to harm, or expressed claims of harm, particularly from students if we’re talking about universities, but in society also in other institutions as well? Claims of harm that are used to restrict the acceptable boundaries of speech, should we say, “Oh, this is hurtful or harmful. We’re never saying that again”?
My answer to that is that claims of harm are important, but insufficient information that we need to account for when we are making policies or responding to instances of speech. You’ve said that my main appointment is at the School of Education. Even though I’m trained as a philosopher, a lot of my work is in education, and I really see education as a relational interaction. It’s not just me opening up somebody’s head and pouring a book into it.
It’s a relationship that I’m having with a person, trying to see what makes them tick, what interests them, how can I get them excited about the subject that I think is important or meaningful. So it’s a relationship. When I’m having a relationship with a person, even this particular type, of course I have to account for their feelings. They are not robots; they are not like papers I’m writing on. They are people. If I’m hurting their feelings, I should know about that.
Does it mean that I ought to now use that as the conclusive principle around which I organize what I should and shouldn’t say? Of course not. They are young people. Most of them are, not all of them. They are learning. They are my students. Of course, if I’m standing at the front of the class, at least nominally I know more about something, and that something is the topic of our class. Of course, my perspective on the material matters as well, and other things.
What I would say to universities that are trying to navigate claims of harm, I would say the following: First of all, don’t rush it. Look at what happened in Hamline, and it happened in all sorts of other places for more than 10 years now. They have been looking at it. The main mistakes that universities are doing when students are raising a claim of harm is to say, “Oh, yes, right, let’s fire this person. Okay, it’s all fixed. We fire a staff person, we fire an untenured instructor. Here, we fixed it, we’re moving on.” It’s a mistake, okay? Take your time, is number one.
Number two: When there is a claim of harm, is it standing alone, or do we have a history of similar claims? Do we have a preponderance of evidence that this person is insisting on causing harm in these ways? People told him, their chair told him, the other students told him. We had complaints, we talked to him, we said, “Look, can you rethink this?” This person is like, “No, this is what I’m doing.” Do they have a good argument? Maybe they are saying, “No, this is a part of my syllabus, and here is why it matters.” So then we can try to figure out another way out, preserving whatever they think is important on their syllabus or whatever it might be, their talk.
Finally, I would say this is the last one: You ought to differentiate between a sense of harm and a wrong action. If I was harmed, it doesn’t mean necessarily that I was wronged. It might be that you hurt my feelings, but what you said was right, and maybe I’ll grow from that. Maybe I’ll learn something new about myself or the world. A sense of harm—if you’re my teacher, you have to attend to that, or if you’re my friend or whatever relationship. You have to attend to that.
Maybe attending would be through saying, “Look, let me explain to you why I think you should know about this or consider this or hear this,” and so then I wasn’t wronged. Whereas in some other instances, you’re telling me something that hurts my feelings and I’m actually wronged. You are in the wrong, and in this case, we have another thing on our hands. Take your time, see if there is one claim or multiple claims and differentiate between harm and wrong. That’s my general principles for attending to reports of hurt feelings.
KLUTSEY: Right. You would also probably say that regardless of the levels of harm or wrongdoing, the institution should be a bit proactive in reaching out, fostering dialogue, fostering conversations. And that should always be a part of the approach, while still recognizing the value and the importance of open discourse and open inquiry.
BEN-PORATH: Right. For sure. First of all, harm is not on-off. People have different levels of harm, and some of them don’t require too much attention, maybe a quick apology or whatever. It depends really on the details of the case. I think if we are acknowledging the presence of a persistent, ongoing harm or reason to be concerned about the fact that we may have correctly protected various forms of speech and expression that are harmful to some people within our community—usually a group that is a numerical minority on our campuses, and maybe they are minority more broadly, whether gendered minority, racial minority, linguistic minority, et cetera—just less well represented on our campus. If we are seeing that they are carrying the burdens of our free speech protections, then it’s our job as an institution to try and carry some of this burden for them.
And that would mean taking proactive action—those two words mean the same thing, but here we are—taking action, intentional action to alleviate some of the burdens from them. It can take all sorts of forms, from the now-ubiquitous statements about values, you can sponsor events, you can support student groups, you can do all sorts, you can listen to what they’re asking for and negotiate with them, what you can give them. I think listening to people who are claiming harm and then trying to develop dialogue around this harm are very important steps to take.
‘Cancel Culture’ and Alternative Terms
KLUTSEY: Right. Now, cancel culture is an elastic term, as you mentioned in the book, and people can stretch it to mean a number of different things, and sometimes they’re used pejoratively. What alternative term would you use in place of describing this phenomenon? Some might say social justice activism or some kind of activism, but I’m wondering what your reaction is to this.
BEN-PORATH: That’s a great question, Ben. I have to say that nobody asked me that before. I’ve done so many interviews about this book, but nobody asked me that. I really like this question. My major response, having not thought about this before, because it’s the first time, is that I would talk about the boundaries of speech.
What does it mean to cancel someone, whether you use it pejoratively or descriptively, or whether you take ownership of deciding to cancel someone? You’re saying this person transgressed; they breached the boundaries of acceptable speech. We have norms, we have expectations, we have boundaries, and when I say “we,” I’m saying it very loosely.
It can be a classroom, it can be a campus, it can be a democracy-specific one. Here is this person, and they cross the boundary. So that could be something that they did that crosses a legal boundary, like for example in engaging in incitement, defamation, harassment, illegal forms of speech. Or it can be that they breached our norms—and, again, “our” within a particular context: a group of friends, a classroom, whatever it might be. A person who transgressed, I would say, is sometimes the subject of cancelling efforts. We need to ask ourselves what does it mean to cancel them?
We don’t want to talk to them because they’re not nice—I think that’s permissible. We want to fire them because they said the wrong word—usually not permissible, although it can happen depending on the specifics. Just read this morning about the case that I think is actually justified, firing a person for saying the wrong word. It’s rare. Usually, canceling in this sense—cutting them off, having them lose their employment, organizing a mob against them in reality or in social media—those are forms of cancelling that I worry about. And I’m not saying they are never, ever in place or I can’t ever understand them, but I think usually they’re not a good plan, canceling in this harder sense.
I would say it’s better to talk about the boundaries of expression, boundaries of speech, to talk about them explicitly, like: “In this classroom, on this podcast, in this country, these are the boundaries.” And we can negotiate them, and people have different views, and we can try to develop a shared understanding of them and to try to decide what to do when somebody breaks them.
They are boundaries; people are going to cross them. That’s how it is with boundaries. People are going to cross them. What happens when they do? I would hope that we have a bigger menu of things that can happen beyond canceling them. That at least some of them would include trying to bring them back into the fold, trying to tell them you broke a norm and that’s hurtful, or that’s inappropriate for other reasons, and here is what we should try to do about that.
Pros and Cons of the ‘Chicago Statement’
KLUTSEY: Now, what are your thoughts on the “Chicago Statement” or the Chicago Principles? Initially, I was going to ask you whether you think it’s overrated or underrated or appropriately rated. I noticed in the book you have a bit of a different approach, or you might amend the “Chicago Statement” to a certain extent. I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit.
BEN-PORATH: Yes, thank you for that. I don’t like the “Chicago Statement” too much. I don’t like it a little bit in terms of its content. I have small differences in regard to the content. I think it valorizes speech more than it deserves to be valorized within the context of a university, where I really think inquiry should be more centered than simply speech. We are not here to pontificate; we are here to exchange ideas, to listen to each other. We have a shared project that we’re trying to promote. Speech, I think, is too flat for me to stand at the center of this conversation, but that’s not a huge difference.
If you look at the back of my book, then you will see that one of the people endorsing it is Geoffrey Stone, who wrote the “Chicago Statement.” Apparently, we have some differences, but he supports my expression on that, which I appreciate, of course. I will say that for me, the campaign, which is not waged by Geoffrey Stone or Chicago necessarily, but by other groups—the campaign to have other institutions sign off on the “Chicago Statement” of principles or endorse it as their policy regarding speech. For me, some of these circulating petitions—sign this, sign that, declare your support for this good cause—it doesn’t do much, and in not doing much, it’s actually doing damage.
In other words, if you organize a campaign for your institution to sign the “Chicago Statement,” and let’s say that you succeed and they signed it, now you feel accomplished. You’ve done your job. Here we are; we’ve protected open expression. Moving on to worry about AI or something, to worry about new things. My sense is that we ought to remember that the “Chicago Statement,” like any other policy, is not going to save you.
You have, as an institution, a responsibility to develop the relationship that would allow for the continued negotiation of the boundaries of speech in your institution with your faculty and your students and your staff. It’s not the same for everyone. There are now provinces in Canada that require that universities sign the “Chicago Statement” of principles, but the legal framework in Canada is different.
For example, the First Amendment here in the U.S. protects hate speech as a form of protected expression. In Canada, it’s not. The charter doesn’t permit hate-based expression, doesn’t—“permit” was the wrong word—doesn’t protect in the same way. What does it even mean to require that they sign it? It makes no sense. Of course, to say what I just said, “Oh, develop a continued dialogue with your students,” that’s very exhausting and tiresome. It’s not as flashy as, “Oh, we signed the ‘Chicago Statement,’” but I think that’s the actual work that needs to be done.
Lesson Planning for Controversy
KLUTSEY: Yes. That’s very helpful. We have a pretty good audience of faculty members who’d tune in and read Discourse. There is a very helpful section in your book, and I encourage people to read it: At the end of it you go through a number of good solutions, but for the sake of time, I want to pick one of those strategies. You have strategies for the institution, for students, for faculty, board of directors and so on.
Just picking one strategy, which is lesson planning for controversy, you encourage faculty members to really think about this before the beginning of the semester. Can you elaborate on how professors and teachers can prepare for the potential case of an issue related to free speech?
BEN-PORATH: You need to prepare for that, both by looking at your own syllabus and thinking, “Which of my topics might generate controversy, and how do I plan to address that?” By developing norms of conversation in the way that I indicated earlier, norms of conversation, what is appropriate in this class? What are my expectations? What are some boundaries we can develop together, ideally with the students? It’s a good exercise. It’s a good trust-building exercise.
You also, at this polarized time, ought to think about the possibility that somebody’s going to say something mean and your class is going to erupt. Maybe now somebody’s taking out their phone and is filming that. And it doesn’t happen every day, and most people, it never happens to them, but it happens a lot. You ought to be prepared for that. What are you going to do?
I’ll offer you one possible plan that you can keep in mind. If that happens, you can declare, “We are now taking 10 minutes of precious class time”—seven minutes if you don’t have 10—“to negotiate what just happened here because I think there were breaches of our shared norms, and they ought to be addressed.”
One way to do that is to have people sit down, either with a piece of paper, if that still exists in your classroom—I do recommend pieces of paper for that, but if not, you can do it on a virtual board where people would write their own experience or thought or perception of what just happened. Somebody said some word; there is an eruption. What is the reason for that? How do you observe that? How do you experience it?
Speak with “I” voice: I feel, I believe, I saw. Then when you’re done doing that for one minute, pass your little piece of paper on to the person sitting to your right, and they will write a response and pass it on again, and the next person will write a response. And you are having in this way a dialogue across differences in a silent and quiet and thoughtful way.
You let people process what happened, and maybe you end these seven minutes or however many by saying, “Let’s get back to this next week. We ought to cool our heads. This was really unpleasant. I want to move on with the lesson plan that I prepared, and we’ll devote another few minutes next class to talk about this.” This is one way that I’ve dealt with that, but I just want to say people have different class sizes and different preferences and different topics. What I would insist is that, as an instructor, it’s your responsibility to solve these issues when they happen.
You cannot pretend you didn’t hear the one person calling the other person an inappropriate name, or saying something mean about them or expressing an opinion that’s very hurtful to some people in the room. You cannot pretend it didn’t happen. You cannot move on. If you’re moving on, you are endorsing it in silence. You need to prepare. What are you going to do if somebody says something that excludes or silences other people in the room? It’s your job. If you didn’t do it on the spot because you froze, because you weren’t sure, because of whatever other reason, come back next week and say something. Say, “This stayed with me, and I want us to talk about this for a few minutes.” It’s your job just as much as the prepared lesson plan is.
A Call to Action
KLUTSEY: Right. I was going to ask you whether you were optimistic that we will overcome a lot of these differences. Now, obviously we can’t have perfect agreement on everything because as a democracy—and academic institutions, we need diverse viewpoints and different approaches. Some of these challenges will remain with us, but in terms of the current wave of issues we’re facing, whether we will be able to overcome them.
Then you said you were born an optimist, so, I imagine that you will say yes. But as we bring this conversation to a close, I wanted to ask you whether you have a call to action for your readers or people who are listening and following your work. What would you encourage them to do?
BEN-PORATH: Yes. I’m optimistic to the extent that I think people are taking the call for action to depolarize, to think about our role as a role of cultivating dialogue and exchange. I’m seeing it across multiple institutions. Both leadership and faculty are taking an enormous responsibility, increasingly to think about their role in cultivating dialogue across difference, in encouraging their students to speak despite the fact that they worry about being canceled or silenced or tagged in the wrong way. Significantly, I’m seeing efforts by institutions to help turn this tide.
And so, my call for action is that different institutions and people within them, whether they are presidents or they are faculty or they are staff people, definitely students should think about what goal they would like to see. How they want to see this tide being reversed, what boundaries they hope to see sketched for open expression on their campuses, and that they work toward that. It’s an important part of what we do. It really underlies the different goals that we have within our diverse disciplines.
I’m very optimistic that people are starting to take this on, and my call to action is, join up. Join these efforts. There are multiple civil society groups doing that. I already mentioned Pan America, BridgeUSA, Braver Angels—there are a lot of groups that are working toward improvements of our capacity for dialogue. A lot of institutions are doing it independently without outside support, and we need to join forces because this is really an important part of our mission as higher education institutions.
KLUTSEY: Well, on that optimistic note, Professor Ben-Porath, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I really, really appreciate this.
BEN-PORATH: Thank you so much. It was really a pleasure, Ben.