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[COMMENTARY] Civil Debate vs. Cancel Culture

[COMMENTARY] Civil Debate vs. Cancel Culture

Teachers all over the country are shaking their heads in disbelief as Virginia’s newly elected Gov. Glenn Youngkin proved that you can win an election in 2021 by appealing to voters’ fears about what children are taught in schools. In Virginia, Youngkin’s campaign appealed to white parents’ fears of discussing the representation of slavery and sexual violence in Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved.”  In another state, a successful campaign might appeal to white parents’ fears that their children would be exposed to unchecked racist language on a school reading list.

Photo: Reno News and Review

These debates make it clear that white Americans are not ready to talk about race. More broadly, the issue of “parent choice” is part of a larger rupture in American politics: the widespread public distrust of authorities, experts, and institutions.

In this case, Americans are actively questioning whether schools have the right to decide what subjects should be studied, how, and for what purpose. And the public critique of curricula happens on both sides of the aisle.

On U.S. college campuses, this shift fuels debates about “civil discourse” versus  “cancel culture” in universities across the country. When professors and university administrators find themselves facing loud and public critique from students and community members, they are often met with swift consequences for their careers.

Netflix’s comedy The Chair puts this debate front and center: a photo of a professor is taken out of context and a student “mob” shouts him down when he tries to run a “civil” town hall to defend himself.

While this plot point in the show is meant to be funny, many real academics aren’t laughing. The watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has cataloged 426 ideological cancellations since 2015. In August, Pulitzer-prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum compared “cancel culture” in academia to the Communist regimes of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin in The Atlantic. Last month, M.I.T created shock waves in elite schools all over the country when it canceled a lecture to be delivered by Dorian Abbot, a climate change scientist at the University of Chicago who has critiqued affirmative action programs, arguing for “merit-based” applicant pools.

As a professor myself, I’ve been following this debate nationally and on my own campus. Last month, a fiery Twitter debate over the ethics of a picture posted by my colleague at San Jose State, anthropology professor Elizabeth Weiss, finally hit my local news. The photo in question features Weiss herself, posing for the camera and smiling while she holds a human skull in our university’s archeological collection.

It doesn’t take much internet sleuthing to find out that Weiss has made a career out of arguing that the human remains she studies should not be returned to local Native American tribes who claim them as ancestors. Weiss argues that she is a “target” of cancel culture and has characterized the backlash to her Tweet as the nefarious work of “woke activists whose strategy is to try to shut down debate and promote superstition over science.” While Twitter commentators weren’t kind, they weren’t wrong. The photo is offensive because it ignores the racist history of collecting the bones and sacred objects of Native Americans for study in universities and museums.

Weiss and others like her frame events like this as a series of antagonistic oppositions: science versus superstition or civil debate versus the “cancel culture” of the “woke” mob. This argument makes students and community members the problem.

But the real issue here is whether academia still functions as a gatekeeper of knowledge. Should individual scholars have the authority to determine who should be studied and under what terms? Do we get to demand “civil debate” and then dictate the terms and conditions of “civility”?

The answer to these questions is a resounding no.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the fall of 2018, 40 percent of full-time faculty were white men and 35 percent were white women. Only 3 percent of full-time faculty were Black or Hispanic. When most scholars and teachers in higher ed have the privileges conferred by whiteness and masculinity, the knowledge that universities produce and teach reflects that perspective, along with its blind spots.

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We already know how academic fields reflect historical ideologies. Anthropology, for instance, has spent the past 50 years unpacking and revising the white supremacy inherent in the notion that it is possible to be an objective observer of culture. English, my own discipline, has had to reckon with its origins in the 19th-century British colonization of India, not to mention the role university English departments have historically played in deciding who achieves “proficiency” in “college-level English”.

But we also know that fields of knowledge can and do change over time. Just this week, the New York Times reported that some forensic anthropologists are critiquing the concept of race that still underlies the process for classifying human remains.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating shouting down speakers whose views you disagree with. Nor am I suggesting that posting mean comments on the internet is a productive way to solve tough problems.

But it is worth questioning who gets to produce knowledge because these debates remind us that we don’t live in a shared reality. Rather than claim some realities have a more valid purchase on the truth than others, we need to acknowledge the trauma that manifests in these debates, to take those concerns seriously, and to learn from them.

About the Author:

Faith Kirk, Ph.D., teaches writing and humanities courses at San José State University and is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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