I’m Doing The Internet Wrong – Also Something Political

A friend on Twitter asked me for my opinions on this news story: Lawmakers propose bill to ban social justice courses at Arizona schools

I’m not used to being asked my opinion – and I was about to post a Twitlonger when I thought “Christ, if only I had somewhere I could post my thoughts”. So here we are, a slight departure from my normal topics – if you prefer vidya and movies, please skip. 😀

The bill being proposed seeks to enforce:

  1. A UNIVERSITY UNDER THE JURISDICTION OF THE ARIZONA BOARD OF REGENTS OR A COMMUNITY COLLEGE UNDER THE JURISDICTION OF A COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT SHALL NOT INCLUDE IN ITS PROGRAM OF INSTRUCTION ANY COURSES, CLASSES, EVENTS OR ACTIVITIES THAT DO ANY OF THE FOLLOWING
    1. PROMOTE THE OVERTHROW OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.
    2. PROMOTE DIVISION, RESENTMENT OR SOCIAL JUSTICE TOWARD A RACE, GENDER, RELIGION, POLITICAL AFFILIATION, SOCIAL CLASS OR OTHER CLASS OF PEOPLE.
    3. ARE DESIGNED PRIMARILY FOR STUDENTS OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP.
    4. ADVOCATE SOLIDARITY OR ISOLATION BASED ON ETHNICITY, RACE, RELIGION, GENDER OR SOCIAL CLASS INSTEAD OF THE TREATMENT OF STUDENTS AS INDIVIDUALS.
    5. VIOLATE STATE OR FEDERAL CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS.
    6. NEGATIVELY TARGET SPECIFIC NATIONALITIES OR COUNTRIES.

Link to bill (Archive link)

Now… my biases.

I’m a centre-leftie, who believes we can all get along, people should be able to make money (but I concede, I have problems with the extremes seen from the socioeconomic knock-on effects of oligarchies – where there are, in my humble opinion, severe social and economic negative implications from the widening socio-economic gap between “Have” and “Have not”), and importantly for this topic – all ideas should be free to be debated and discussed.

So… this is a law that seeks to restrict topics that can be taught in Universities. This is a “bad thing”™ in my opinion. However, I can completely understand the reasons why we are “here”.

A background:

Left wing social politics have been the dominant force in western politics for a good couple of decades now – and it has been a “good thing”™ (I’m going to drop adding “in my opinion after this – but please, read it as being there). Gays seeking social recognition, equality – sexes seeking equality. All “good things”.

But a lot of these fights are seen as “won”. Good ideas are never “won”. They constantly need to validate themselves, and prove themselves against other ideas – otherwise laziness sets in. “Good things” can become “bad things” over time – especially if they put themselves “beyond debate”.

And this is where I start my answer.

A lot of the courses that this bill seeks to address attempt to place topics “beyond debate”. This is done using language such as “I think these courses really allow our community constituents to really come together, to talk about the issues in a safe environment” – as used in the article.

In this context, a “safe environment to talk about issues” almost certainly means “there are topics that we believe will make people feel uncomfortable. Those topics are not to be discussed.”

So in effect, we are talking about an educational environment, where ideas are being presented as arguments – and counter-arguments are prohibited.

This is then simplified down to “left wing ideals” are promoted, and “right wing ideals” are ‘frowned upon / discouraged’. And to be fair, again, this has been happening, in recent times.

So… what to do?

There seems to be two relatively simple solutions to this problem – Either ban all discussion, or allow all discussion.

Banning all discussion is, in my view, where this bill seeks to take us. And I really don’t think any topic benefits from being taken “off the table”. This is increasingly a tit-for-tat, where bills such as this are put forward as a “If I am not allowed to argue my position, then I don’t see I should be required to sit and listen to yours”. And it’s a position I can sympathise with. Sitting in a class, listening to an idea being presented to you, that you feel the need to question – and being told “This is not up for discussion” – that runs counter to the entire principle of higher education, for me.

And fighting fire with fire by creating “lists” of left-leaning Professors who students deem to be offering biased political views as an education – that has so many potential flaws, I honestly don’t know where to begin.

What we should be demanding is to allow free, open, civil debate in our classrooms and lecture halls. And we should expect academics to keep their personal politics out of the classroom. And in the classes where an academics personal politics are unavoidable, as part of the topic – they should have the professionalism and intellectual integrity to promote opposing views from the floor. If social justice is “valid” as an idea – and I do believe there are arguments that are valid, then it can be debated, and proven, with facts. And being asked to “prove it” should not be seen as an attack. Academics are meant to be the “mature” party in the academic / student relationship.

I don’t honestly know how we got to the position where students asking academics to provide citations to back what’s being taught as fact, is deemed “a bad thing”™.

If right wing politics is in its ascendancy – and it certainly seems to be the case, across the west, the left needs to appreciate that in ‘abusing’ its dominance in the classroom, there’s a real risk of the chickens coming home to roost, with bills like this. As I say, again – I completely sympathise with the… sentiments, behind a bill like this being presented. But an eye for an eye, and all that.

My belief is that academics who are unwilling to participate, or facilitate civil debate on controversial topics are one of the most troubling areas of 21st century education. This bill is just a symptom.

And it’s also not a solution.

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