Reconsider! Are College Students Really Demanding ‘the Right to be Comfortable’?

Originally published on Medium, see Reconsider! here.

There is an empathy gap with how many academics and others view the issues happening on college campuses today.

Take a step back and notice that many participants of these movements are people of color, especially women of color, trans and gender-non-conforming people, etc. Their experience is not your experience. Sometimes, in an attempt to be empathetic, we try to rephrase or pigeon-hole another person’s experiences in terms that we understand. We think of times we’ve been ‘uncomfortable’, feel like those times were times of growth, and dismiss the younger generation’s demand as over-sensitive.

Consider that the types of ‘discomfort’ (as detractors call it) are types that you have never experienced, and occur in contexts you have never been through.

A section of our students today feel invisible, invalid, unheard. They see that people who do not have their experiences are likely to dismiss them. They are demanding some kind of acknowledgement and some kind of consideration. The answer is not necessarily a “coddling” of the American mind, Rani Neutill, a female professor of color, describes her failed attempt at using trigger warnings in the classroom.

The answer to the premise is still in flux. This is a topic of debate in which everyone is welcome to contribute. A lot of people, however, seem to reject the premise. I wish you would reconsider at least once before doing so.

Things to consider:

– with large movements of anything, you will see a mob mentality; I need not condone specific inappropriate behaviors to agree with their demands — I do not think they don’t invalidate their cause.
– look up “In-group favoritism” and “Out-group homogeneity” — there is a studied empathy gap with groups we whose experiences we are outsiders to. Tread carefully, before suggesting an out-group member is being oversensitive.

This is not about one e-mail, as Aaron Lewis writes in “What’s Really Going On at Yale”. Many students feel invalidated and unheard, and view the university’s response as silencing and invalidating. They want to be heard and they want answers. The solution is not yet settled! Do not yell “censorship!” and deny the existence of the problem. Join the conversation: after reading one article on The Atlantic about coddling, check out first-hand the perspectives of those protesting, for example, by reading something at DOWN at Yale.

Comment on Medium

The Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race

Bernie Sanders flip-flopped too, and that’s okay. People keep mentioning Hillary Clinton’s shifting on issues as a mark against her, but as she explains, this is only evidence that she is a person who responds to new information and develops their opinion, not a block of granite. Sanders, too, has shifted left on race issues and gun control in the past several months. This is a wonderful thing.

I wrote on Medium about the Evolution of Bernie Sanders on Race. Please read the full post there.

I conclude:

When standing in solidarity with others in a diverse, progressive movement, the most important thing you can do is avoid subconsciously projecting your own privilege and predicament, onto others. Diversity is not about erasing differences, it is about embracing them.

Check it out on Medium to see how I come to that conclusion.

Picture by AFGE. Via Flickr. Licensed under CC-by-2.0

Thinking about conservative attitudes to civil rights issues of the Modern Day

As a Middle Eastern expat, I’m in the position of observing a more diverse spectrum of reactions and attitudes to advancements in civil rights. The United States Supreme Court ruling on Orbergefell v. Hodges generated a lot of such reactions. As I think of the long arc of the moral universe, I feel it is more and more important to bring to light a few issues that the many social conservatives around the world hesitant to call this a victory should keep in mind.

1. An ever-evolving conception of Justice

When we look at the advancement of humanity in the past 10,000 years, we often view most shifts since the beginning of civilized recorded history to the modern day in a positive light: Inventing tools, cultivating lands, building shelters, creating governments, abolishing feudalism, creating democratic governments, abolishing primogeniture, abolishing slavery, giving all racial groups the vote, giving women the vote, ending racial segregation, promoting equal-opportunity employment, etc.

These changes happened throughout the human race. Different cultures were ahead of others at different times when these movements took hold. Eventually, though, humanity more-or-less converges. Women’s suffrage is just a western idea at this point, as slavery abolitionism is a western-European idea, or embracing ethnic multiculturalism is just an Arab or Muslim idea. These are, at this point, universal human ideals.

Its worthy of notice that, in every generation, we have people to claim: “Every civil rights advancement to the present day is good. But now we have gone too far!

What a curious thing to say—one is effectively claiming that every person to have ever said this sentence in history is incorrect, but now—lo and behold—it is actually true.

Every change is scary, I am sure. It is also important to stay grounded in the humility that this is just another change on a long track of many that have happened and turned out just okay.

2. Hate and Anger are a sign of losing ground

Homophobia and transphobia are not new to the world. In conservative countries, however, homophobia and transphobia are slowly moving from silent, implicit disdain to active hatred and anti-activisim.

If you are a social conservative spending every last bit of your energy voicing your disgust and disapproval at a class of people to have always existed, when just 10 years ago, you never gave the topic much effort, then I hope you entertain the possibility that what you are feeling is the fear of change, the unknown, and the unfamiliar other.

The Virtues of Being Grounded

It is important for one to be grounded as they articulate their beliefs. I wrote about this in both general terms and as a word of caution to social progressives. Social conservatives—often moreso—need to hear this too.

Challenge the reasons for your beliefs, then challenge them again. Cliched arguments about tradition and religion have failed the test of time. These have been used to argue against abolitionism, interracial marriage, and anti-sodomy laws. Think, and then think again. Try to find an argument that will stand the test of time. In doing so, you just might very well change your mind. And if you don’t, you will have a very enlightening argument to share.

Photo credit: Wally Gobetz on Flickr, photo entitled “NYC – West Village: Christopher Park – Gay Liberation“. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Exploring the non-recursive arguments for Social Justice, pt. 1

For liberal laypersons, our justification of progressive social policies, as well as our defense for social justice issues in general is often recursive. I discussed this previously, in “I am right, therefore…”—a common pattern of imposing our beliefs on others is often to presuppose that they are right; an unconvincing argument to the other party, but often difficult to detect because the recursive presupposition is often hidden or implicit.

I would like to explore non-recursive arguments for social justice; be it progressive social policies, or ethical arguments of how to deal with others. In academia, of course, the literature is full with sound arguments and in-depth readings into modern questions of social justice. These arguments often to do not make it to the mainstream.

In this part, I have two patterns I would like to establish: First, that social justice questions are questions of compulsion; when is it right to compel others to do the right thing (government policies), when do we say that victims of the regressive system are compelled to do (or not do) something. Second, that questions of compulsion in general ought to be discussed in terms of power: the balance and distribution of power, and its implications on justice for society.

An incomplete effort

This post is an incomplete effort at removing the recursive argument. For now, I am merely widening the recursive nature of the argument. From:

“Discrimination is bad, therefore, discrimination is bad.”

to

“The livelihood of a person ought to be independent of their status as a member of a protected class. An imbalance of power endangers the livelihoods of members of society. Compulsion is a product of an imbalance of power. Compulsion always exists in society and must be managed. It is sometimes acceptable to compel those holding positions of power over others from giving equal access to their resources. Such resources include public spaces, food, medicine, and services rendered.”

This argument is incomplete because it still implicitly presupposes: Who are members of a protected class and Why. In this post, I discuss some protected classes but do not justify the choice of these protected classes. This, in itself, is an important debate between progressives and conservatives: which classes are worthy of playing this important role in society? I will attempt to discuss that separately in the future.

Social Justice as Questions of Compulsion

Compulsion is more often used by libertarians than social liberals, but I think it is indeed the most elegant way to discuss social policies. It is elegant because it grounds and humbles the liberal arguing for change, but, perhaps more importantly, allows us all to use the same language in defending our positions.

Libertarians often frame many government actions in light of compulsion. Taxation is compulsion; compelling individuals to give up their wealth (else they risk jail-time or other punishments) for social good—or worse—taxation is forced labor. Desegregation means compelling private business owner to admit people they do not wish to admit. Laws against discrimination in the workplace prevent employers from hiring and firing whoever they please.

Many lawmakers understand that, and attempt to limit cases of compulsion to enumerated cases. Protected classes, in anti-discrimination law, are enumerated. In the United States, these are often: Race, Color, Religion, National Origin, Age, Sex, Pregnancy, Citizenship, Familial Status, Disability, Veteran Status, and Genetic Information. Some states in the US include Sexual Orientation, and others also include Gender Identity (separate from Sex). It is understood that employers and business owner are allowed to discriminate against all other non-enumerated classes. The annoying, the loud mouthed, the rude, for instance, are un-protected classes that could be asked to leave a restaurant, or be denied a job.

Enumeration is powerful for many reasons, and is often better for protected classes than if they were not enumerated. Enumeration also admits that every time we disallow a private person from treating people differently (which we all do all the time), we are compelling them to change their behavior.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Indiana should be viewed in this light. An interesting development in the continuing debate on compulsion for the sake of social justice: What are the limits of compulsion? What are the grounds for compulsion?

The liberal response is most effective if spoken in the same language.

Justifying Compulsion

Why do we justify taxation? How did we justify that it is right to compel a store owner of admitting people of all races?

I think the common thread tying all of these together is power and the distribution of power.

You see, when someone has so much power more than you, they in effect have power over you. Being denied power means that you become a victim of compulsion more and more often.

Compulsion is a two way street: compulsion takes place when a more powerful entity has control over a less powerful one. The Powerful Goverment™ compels the restaurant owner to admit people she doesn’t want to admit. Business owners, however, also have powers. Take restaurant and cafe owners, for example: they operate social spheres, areas where members of the public interact, network, manage and retain power, and seek it. Public and semi-public spaces are democratizing spaces. A pharmacy owner also has power over the health of her customers.

In a world of unlimited business-owner discrimination, compulsion is a clear problem. Think of the racist, segregated America of the 1950s. If you were part of an un-favored social group, then not only did you lose power (by losing access countless places with higher quality services), but you were often compelled to make choices you didn’t wish to do. Parties discriminated against are denied better livelihoods, and lose options that are entitled to others. They have worse medical options, worse transportation options, limited social spheres for networking, etc.

Compulsion is a balancing act. Whenever one sector of society amasses more power, it begins to compel sectors with less power. Continue reading “Exploring the non-recursive arguments for Social Justice, pt. 1”

“I am right, therefore …” or, A Heuristic for Detecting Pitfalls in Ethical Behavior

It is very easy to presuppose—implicitly and subconsciously—that one is right, unknowingly using that assumption to justify later claims.

Oftentimes we therefore fall into a fallacy of ethical reasoning where we assume, because we have the right position, that we are licensed to do actions that someone else—coming from the morally wrong position—is not permitted to do. We can therefore arrive at a heuristic for ethical reasoning: If an action’s moral right- or wrong-ness is determined solely by whether its doer comes from the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ position, then the justification for the rightness of an action is probably faulty.

This seems like a contrived pitfall, but is actually quite common:

In public shaming, we see this often. People find it acceptable to find someone’s personal information, track them, cost them their jobs, reputations, and cause their humiliation, because they feel that they represent the right side. Doxxing and public shaming seem to be morally wrong if associated with shaming Tyler Clementi to death, yet somehow acceptable to shame another private person on twitter for for being racist, homophobic, or sexist, as was the case with Justine Sacco’s unfortunate tweets. In reality, both are wrong.

In world conflict, this faulty logic is often the justification of unending cycles of violence. Those performing acts of terrorism in the West use the deaths of their countries’ civilians abroad as a justification to target and kill civilians in the west. From the terrorist’s point of view, the only thing differentiating their actions from the imperialist regime they claim to fight is that “We are us and they are them.—Since we are right, it is also right to …”

We see this in the Palestinian Israeli conflict. Rightist, Orthodox Israeli political parties believe it is right to expel or subjugate Palestinians, control the entire West Bank, and are okay with the many civilian casualties of the campaigns like the Gaza War. The basis for the Justification is that Hamas believes it is right to expel Israelis so that the entire land that constitutes the state of Israel is part of a Palestinian state, and are okay with civilian casualties as part of rocket or bombing operations. This is largely true; Hamas believes they are right and Jewish Home or United Torah Judiasm are wrong because… they are on the right side of the conflict. The same applies to either side.

Oftentimes indeed, one side of a conflict chooses to justify its actions towards another side solely because it presupposes that it is right. This is never an appropriate justification.

“I am right, therefore, I am right.” How unfortunate, but also, how inherently human.

In the west, thinkers and laypersons are getting over moral relativism. This is sometimes good, but also exposes new challenges. Indignation and self-righteousness are sweeping the internet. We condemn the conservative shaming campaign of Monica Lewinsky, but endorse the shaming campaign of Justine Sacco for her racist tweet. Conservatives shamed Lewinsky for her “lack of family values”, they viewed sexual modesty as a moral good and frowned on her impiety and acts of adultery. They labeled her a slut, a whore, and a tramp. Progressives will argue that these are bad reasons to shame someone. But unlike the conservatives, progressives often believe that casual racism and insensitivity are just cause for public shaming.

If you condemn one side for committing the same action you did, but justify your action with the fact that you decided a priori that you unlike others, actually represent the right side, then you are likely wrong.

What is the lesson here? The lesson is not to be a total relativist and never act against injustices we perceive, but rather, to seek further justifications, in hope that those justifications will inform our behavior and allow us to act with moderation.

Take Justine Succo for example. I argue that we should reject the naive argument that “unlike slut shaming, racism and bad and thus racist shaming is acceptable”. So now, we ask ourselves again: should we act? Sometimes, the answer becomes ‘no’. Sometimes, though, we now see real reasons to act behind the layers of indignation and revenge. If we allow racist speech to propagate, racism propagates, and becomes further embedded in our society, victimizing many. Therefore, we seek more enlightened ways to act: sometimes, we reach out to said person and offer to have a conversation; at other times, we decide to counter negative speech about one group with positive speech, or simply speak out to disagree (without personally shaming an individual), so that the public atmosphere is not polluted by these statements.

In international politics, it means stepping back from an “us versus them” mentality, and realize that our arguments are often 100% equivalent to “we should do X to the other side because they do X to us”—always a bad reason to justify anything. Maybe then we will advocate to more moderate or long-sighted policies, and put aside the very basic intuitive bloodthirsty retribution-seeking impulses.

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