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February 19, 2004

Controversy and Rules

There are few topics more controversial these days than homosexuality and the issue of gay marriage. It is raising First Amendment and civil disobedience issues all over the country. Amid such strong passions, the rules of law and civil discourse are more important than ever if we are to come to grips with these issues and find solutions that we can all live with. Rules are what make it possible for us to disagree (sometimes vehemently) and then go home peacefully and coexist.

In San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsome is issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in defiance of the law, there have been hysterical calls to throw him in jail. That is clearly uncalled for - he is not a danger to the community. But at the same time, as this article points out, his actions are tantamount to a nullification of the rule of law. Just as parents in America seem increasingly unable or unwilling to exercise their natural authority over their children, so ordinary Americans seem uncomfortable with the idea of any authority figure: be it governmental, police, or even their bosses at work. But America is a republic, designed to function under the rule of law rather than the rule of men. Laws are provided to keep corruptible men from taking advantage of each other. If the rules are unjust, we have means to change them and make them more equitable. The answer, then, is not to defy the rules but to change them through honest inquiry and rational debate.

Arresting the mayor would be an overreaction - it would only inflame local sensibilities. But it seems reasonable to place a temporary injunction on further issuance of gay marriage licenses (and if he refuses to cease issuing them, then on all marriage licenses until the issue is resolved). That would certainly place pressure on his office, which is where it belongs. Not all his constituents are gay.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, a classroom debate about homosexuality turned nasty when a student expressed an objection to homosexuality in front of the class. The professor was apparently so shaken that she sent an email to the entire class (probably an unfortunate choice, given her rather unique writing style). I loved the lack of capital letters, and only wish I had excerpted a larger portion so you could see that she refers to herself with a small "i". I guess there is no capital "I" in "professor":

"what we experienced, as unforuntate (sic) as it is, is, however, a perfect example of privilege. that a white, heterosexual, christian male [note: egads], one who vehemently denied his privilege last week insisting that he earned all he has, can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable is what privilege makes possible."

At this point I started having flashbacks to my forced re-education ..err... mandatory enrollment in Women's Studies class. "put your hands up and surrender your unearned race/gender privileges, ms. cassandra". I stood there, stripped of capital letters, in the circle as the class examined my life, scrutinizing what I had thought were my accomplishments, now revealed as shameful legacies of a brutal male-dominated, patriarchal hegemony that I had sycophantically served in return for a share of the spoils from oppressing other poor, deluded gender slaves like myself. But no more - the State of California was going to free my Mind and my body would undoubtedly follow... Uh...where was I??? Oh...Professor Crystall.

Professor Crystall (she signs her email as 'elyse' - again, no capital letters - they're so elitist) went on to characterize the student's remark as HATE SPEECH (notably her only use of the dreaded capitals, so we must assume she has pretty much lost it here).

Presumably there was an inquiry into the incident, because Professor Mike Adams sent Prof. Crystall an email in which he asked:

I am at a loss to understand why the First Amendment does not protect his strongly worded speech, while your (perhaps more) strongly worded rebuttal is protected. Is it possible that your speech is creating a hostile environment for your students at UNC-Chapel Hill?

In reading about the incident, I was a bit disturbed that the student said homosexuality was "disgusting". But he was not personally insulting - he was referring to the practice and not to persons in the class. And in open discourse, there is no guarantee that unpleasant things will not be said, or that people will not be upset. The requirement is that the participants be civil and it appears that test was met.

It appears that UNC-Chapel Hill, unlike many other schools, "gets" free speech, as this follow-up article shows.

Thank you for your concern. I understand that news of this incident is distressing to anyone interested in higher education and free and open speech. We are here at UNC to promote responsible and respectful exchange, not to discourage or censor it. The original email should not have been sent out, and the instructor has apologized. I will be monitoring the class closely for the rest of the semester. Sincerely yours,
James Thompson, Professor and Chair Department of English

This response is unusual in two respects: the administration has openly admitted the faculty member was wrong and has committed itself to watch for further transgressions. It appears that the scrutiny of organizations like FIRE is starting to have an effect on college campuses.

More discussion of this at joannejacobs.com

- posted by Cassandra

February 19, 2004 at 10:23 AM | Permalink

Comments

My God.

Prof. Crystall was certainly welcome to respond to the student's comments, but if she was going to lambaste the kid so horribly in front of the class, the least she could have done was do it in person, to his face.

Posted by: Edward Lee at Feb 19, 2004 1:46:33 PM

It struck me as a particularly passive-agressive response too, Edward. I was trying to decide whether I might have taken him aside after class and talked to him about maybe toning down the "disgusting" remarks, but you have to watch even that because it can come across as an attempt to suppress an opinion of the morality of the act itself (which is a valid topic for discussion, even if it makes people uncomfortable).

I have fairly strong opinions on being respectful of other people even while you disagree with them. With all the talk in the education community about "teachable moments", it seems as though Prof. Crystall missed one here.

Posted by: Cassandra at Feb 19, 2004 2:32:06 PM

I can think lot's of abstractly disgusting things I like to do, or have done to me. As an example to keep it clean (yeah, you are the potty brains, not me), watching child birth in a birthing class is disgusting. Watching my child born is too I suppose, but I didn't feel any disgust at all. What's the big deal with calling something disgusting?

Posted by: KJ at Feb 19, 2004 3:01:29 PM

Well now you're going to get into the whole feminine sensitivity thing, and then you're going to go all Libertarian on me :) I merely had the thought that I have been in class discussions where homosexuality came up and the standard "guy" response tends to be to distance oneself as quickly as possible by saying the male equivalent of "Eeeeew - that's icky", or "I find it revolting" or whatever. And if you have students in the class you are homosexual (or conflicted about their sexuality) that is unnecessarily hurtful. I think one can discuss the morality of homosexuality without getting into plumbing or whether you personally find it a turnon or revolting or what have you. It's easier to discuss an upsetting subject if you keep emotion and personal reactions out of it. And I think if teachers teach rules of civilized discourse, you can have a freer discussion than you might be able to, otherwise.

It's too easy to let that type of discussion slide into trading insults and characterizing your opponent (on either side) as either a Neandrathal or a degenerate. By trying to elevate the discourse a bit, you can get closer to the issue without freaking everyone out.

By the way, just what disgusting things do you enjoy having done to you KJ? (just kidding - I don't want to know)

Posted by: Cassandra at Feb 19, 2004 3:23:29 PM

Let me clarify part of that last comment - I did not mean to say that if you have students in a class, you are homosexual....I simply cannot type. "You" should have been "who"..

Posted by: Cassandra at Feb 19, 2004 3:28:13 PM

You can let Prof. Crystal know of her conduct by emailing her here: ecryst@email.unc.edu

Posted by: Abadaba at Feb 19, 2004 9:57:26 PM