Monday, December 12, 2016

Students Against Decorum

Robby Soave is doing some very necessary work covering campus activism for Reason. Recently, he has written about the disruption of a Q&A following a screening of Kim Peirce's film Boys Don't Cry. Jack Halberstam offers his own account of what happened, along with an in my opinion completely unnecessary show of understanding for the issues (what he calls "interesting critiques and queries", "worthy of conversation") raised by the activists. To his credit, his understanding is articulated mainly as a demonstration of their ignorance and stupidity, which can perhaps be forgiven in students at a $50,000/year college. (Perhaps "worthy of conversation" is a nice way of saying "in need of education".) What cannot be forgiven is their unkindness, their cruelty.

I don't agree with Halberstam that the three facts about the film cited by the activists are legitimately "objectionable" and worth talking about. (To his credit, again, Halberstam is clear that the activists simply don't understand "the film’s visual grammar and representational strategies" and that "it is not ... a worthy activist goal to try to suppress the film.") The three "facts" are these: (1) Peirce is not trans and made money from a film about trans life, (2) Hilary Swank is not trans and played the role of a trans person in the film, (3) a trans person was brutally raped in the film. That is, literally, it. For this Peirce was denounced as a transphobic "scared", "fucking bitch" and her participation in the screening disrupted to the point of her having to leave the room.

I don't want to spend too much time defending the autonomy of art against political correctness. Peirce made a movie she was inspired to make about a subject that interested her. She happens to be, as Halberstam points out, "a queer, butch film maker" but that shouldn't even factor into it. I should be able to make such a film if I wanted to. To make the film, in any case, she cast an actor that won a goddam Oscar for her performance, suggesting a degree of competence that is rare among all actors, let alone the tiny proportion who identify as trans. The movie was about violence against trans people and that violence was depicted graphically. The issue here is the perennial one of violence in movies, not about violence against trans people. There are certainly both ethical and aesthetic concerns worth talking about. (At the very least we can talk about the relevance of ethics to aesthetics.) But the political question of who gets to make this movie depicting violence against whom, and to propose to dictate how to depict it, is a brutalization of the autonomy of art.

The activists are obviously demanding to decide what movies Peirce should make and how those movies should be made. They are not "critiquing" and "queriing" the film. They are trying to censor it. It is absolutely shameful and Dean of Faculty Nigel Nicholson was, appropriately, ashamed of his students. "I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct," he said, "and I hope that as a community we can reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it."* I find this encouraging and I have some advice to help the community avoid future embarrassment.

I've suggested this before. Perhaps speakers can help by making "maintenance of decorum" a condition of attending any speaking event on campus.** Though I'm rarely invited to speak anywhere, much less on controversial topics, I think I'm going to make this demand on principle from now on. The condition is simply this: if speakers at any point find themselves unable to continue speaking, the disrupters shall be required to identify themselves as either students of the university or guests of students of the university. In either case, student IDs will be required to move forward. Already at this point, the incident will be recorded and some disciplinary action will be taken (perhaps just a warning). The disrupter will be allowed to remain as long as they don't cause any further disturbance. If they do not identify themselves, they will be removed by police and charged with trespassing. If they are thereafter identified (by police) as a student, they will be expelled. If they do identify themselves but continue to disrupt, they also risk expulsion [i.e., from college, not just the lecture], especially if the event is ultimately prevented from going forward.

These rules should be made crystal clear to students on the first day of classes. Observing decorum is an essential part of participating in an academic community. Dean Nicholson is basically asking for determination among the faculty and students to actually be an academic community. If, as a student, you find yourself unable to tolerate an invited speaker to your campus with civility, you don't belong on that campus. The appropriate act of "defiance" is to find another school. Or perhaps recognize that you're not really suited for intellectual work.

*As Thomas Presskorn points out in the comments, Dean Nicholson's full statement can be read on page 2 of the Reed College Quest (December 2). I think it's an excellent statement of values. Though I understand the difficulty of his position, I would have included a warning about disciplinary actions. Indeed, I would probably have issued formal warnings to the implicated students if their names are indeed known. That would send the necessary message to students and, more importantly, to future guests.
**This sentence wasn't as clear as I would have liked. What I mean is that it might help event organizers if invited speakers "demanded" that decorum be enforced as condition of their accepting the invitation. That way the organizers have an agreement (to which the university is a party) to refer to when demanding that disruptions cease.


Presskorn said...

All right, decorum is not merely a decorative element for a uninversity. It is important.

Yet note how - apart from the poster-thing - the Dean of Faculty's description of the incident could also serve as a (no doubt ironic but still) apt characterization of what goes on at an academic conference with NO students:

"The actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences. The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the Question-and-Answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker. It felt like a courtroom, not a college."

I'll leave it an open question whether that excuses the Reed students or merely broadens the diagnosis of academic pathologies. Or both.

Thomas said...

By fortuitous accident, Andrew Gelman just posted this: "Psychology is not just a club of academics, and 'psychological science' is not just the name of their treehouse. It’s supposed to be for all of us—I’m speaking as a taxpayer and citizen here—and I think the scholars who represent the field of psychology have a duty to write clearly, to avoid false statements where possible, and to put themselves into a frame of mind where they can learn from their mistakes."

I think the reason we see this sort of defiance of convention is that too many classrooms and conference sessions are, in fact, used by the teacher or presenter as ideological platforms. Sometimes you really do feel like taking a flamethrower to the place.

Asking a (rhetorical) question in a way that also suggests your own (polemical) answer is an art that I'm not at all opposed to. What I don't respect is the presumption that it should be a show stopper. My favorite academic confrontation is one where the rhetorical question is dead-panned and then answered straight. It's where both sides respect the conventions imposed by decorum and something meaningful happens.

Presskorn said...

As you could see, I was quoting the Dean from the link provided by you:

But the Dean's characterization of the event/incident is, in fact, more damaging to the students (than I assumed), when read in full: [see page 2]

Thomas said...

Thanks for that. (I've added a footnote.) It's nice to see someone insisting on the dignity of the institutions.