A Tentative Explanation of “the kids today”

In Cheshire Calhoun’s “The Virtue of Civility,” she articulates a standard for civil conduct that I think is remarkably useful: We ought be civil to views that social consensus has not yet taken “off the table” – i.e., views that we collectively via consensus have not yet settled. This makes practicing civility quite experientially hard of course – there will be many views I personally think ought to be settled that are not – but its logic resides in recognizing the areas where we need very much to keep talking. Civility is the mechanism that keeps dialogue going and can enable persuasion. Implicit in this is that a social-moral goal is consensus seeking, with a priority on recognizing that none of us are well equipped to sort things out on our own, using only our own moral frameworks. So we display respect and toleration for views we can’t endorse in an effort to maintain humility and engage in the long, arduous persuasive work social-moral progress would require.

In teaching Calhoun in the current political atmosphere, it seems increasingly to me that there is something of a crisis in consensus formation. It isn’t simply that we do not enjoy consensus but that many are foundationally cynical about what consensus means. “Consensus” is perceived by many to belong to them, to some group of people other than me and mine. Because of this, uncivil conduct and speech is not simply protesting views with which I disagree, but protesting the systems by which views get “settled” or “taken off the table.” Here’s a little of what I mean.

The Middlebury protest, in which students shouted down a lecture by Charles Murray, was proximately targeting his racist work in The Bell Curve. But more deeply, the protests can be understood to be targeting the academic system’s treatment of Murray as a speaker who still retains a place at the table. (NB: From what I understand it was more recent work by Murray to be discussed, not the most controversial work for which he is best known.) The students can be understood to be objecting to what academia allows at the table and to be expressing in their incivility a desire to count it off the table. More boldly, they could be understood to be saying: We will not accept academia’s treating Murray as having a place at the table, as being a person whose views belong in the unsettled open space of respectful discourse and disrespect is how we codify and express our judgment on this. That the students did this so disruptively is perhaps a marker of their feeling insufficiently part of the system of social dialogues that dictate what’s on the table and what’s off. Incentives to engage in civil objection to Murray lose force if one thinks consensus-formation happens without you, if you think they are deciding without your input what counts as settled and unsettled.

Something similar seems to be at work in objections to “political correctness,” at least if the students I see invoking this are indication. From what I see, invoking “political correctness” often looks a lot like saying, “A consensus is being asserted without me.” Objections to political correctness suggest that someone is being disallowed from saying things they wish to say, whether it be beliefs they retain or attitudes they would confess, but at bottom, the perception is that the disallowing is somehow unfair, unwarranted, or premature. I think here too, the issue is that insofar as the “politically correct” represents a purported consensus, it is one perceived to develop without sufficiently broad input. Indeed, many objections to political correctness suggest that it is “consensus” by elite fiat. Consequently, here too, the proximate provocation to protest against political correctness may be some idea or claim, but the deeper complaint is that what is passing for consensus is not, that consensus does not include me and those like me.

If something like this is right, with incivilities both right and left emerging from cynicism about consensus formation, it suggests that political problems are not simply an increasingly uncivil war of competing values and ideas, but that exaggerated forms of incivility will be increasingly appealing. The civil system will for some significant number of people look like other people’s system, not mine. It will read as social dominance masquerading as consensus. And so injunctions to civil discourse are going to be less compelling: After all, those setting the terms for “civility” are not people like me, lending greater psychological purchase to claims that “be civil” is a form of silencing.

If I think you’re announcing consensus-by-fiat, I will distrust any of the goods you may promise as outcomes for my good civil behavior. You can rattle on about the value of reasoned discourse, but so long as I think its outcomes – “consensus” – rely on my capitulating to things you’ve decided without me, I won’t see the value. It’s not just that my disagreement with you on issues is discounted, but that my participation at all is premised on my treating as settled something I think isn’t. Civility in search of consensus thus looks like a fool’s game. So people instead maneuver to assert dominance in response – shouting down a speaker to force his views off the table or transgressing “politically correct” speech boundaries to force more onto the table. Such is to say that the content of the views is only part of this picture. Much of it also has to do with who is setting the table and how.

I don’t know how trust in consensus formation can be achieved, but I do think, based on the above, scolding the uncivil will likely amplify cynicism. It will seem but one more iteration of forced “consensus,” taking things off the table or keeping them on absent my input. Hand-wringing about how students today don’t “get it” where university speech norms are concerned misses that students (left and right) are exploding a system in which they don’t feel they have a share. We want them to participate in real and robust consensus formation, but our political culture has made many of them wildly cynical about just what that means so they take our arguments as invitations to just shut up. And then they refuse. That, at least, is how it is increasingly seeming to me, though I offer all this as quite tentative explanation… If it seems plausible to others, I’d love to hear suggestions about how it might be addressed.


9 thoughts on “A Tentative Explanation of “the kids today”

  1. Great post! Thanks!

    This makes me think about some of the research on classroom dynamics, reasoning styles, perceived ideological bias, etc. I think that the research suggests that your experience generalizes.

    For example, some evidence suggests that professors’ attempts to set the table with views are interpreted as silencing (Linville and Mazer 2011). And there’s some interesting additional findings within these data. (I’m not sure if they are useful to the present post and/or if they are already common knowledge. But just in case, I’ll mention them.)

    First, some students are more likely than others to perceive prefessors’ behavior this way. For instance. Less reflective students are more likely to perceive a professors’ table-setting as an instance ideological bias (Ibid.). And more aggressive students are more likely to perceive a professors’ table-setting as an instance ideological bias (Linville and Mazer 2013).

    Further, some students react to perceived ideological bias in undesirable ways. E.g., students who perceive ideological bias from their professors are more likely to affirm the following sentiment: “When a professor expresses political views that differ from my own, it is difficult for me to contribute to class” (Linville and Mazer 2011). However, more argumentative students are less likely to react this way (Linville and Mazer 2013).

    Linville, D., & Mazer, J. (2011). Perceived ideological bias in the college classroom and the role of student reflective thinking: A proposed model. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

    Linvill, D. L., & Mazer, J. P. (2013). The Role of Student Aggressive Communication Traits in the Perception of Instructor Ideological Bias in the Classroom. Communication Education, 62(1), 48–60.

  2. Yes, I think that this is probably an essentially accurate description. My experience (at least from the left side) is frustration when concerns are raised and then ignored. The problems with Murray have been clearly articulated for over 20 years. At this point to civilly re-capitulate arguments made a generation ago and to expect a different outcome seems insane. So, we change how we make our arguments.

    But I mean, the process you describe requires good faith engagement. And speaking personally I know that there are issues on which I have no desire to do that. I am emphatically not open to persuasion on the issue of racial equality. Nor can Liberalism itself I think be open to persuasion on several questions, such as “do human rights exist?” or “do all humans share a moral equality?”

    In a world in which hate crimes exist the radical self-doubt necessary to sit at the table and converse openly is contrary to self-preservation – and I suppose it is precisely to drive people from the table that those tables are committed.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I’m not sure the implicit symmetry works, though. If keeping things on the table is the way to work toward consensus, while keeping them off suggests we have (at least in some eyes) achieved consensus, then it’s hard to see hiw students are left out of the process when ideas are left on the table. Isn’t the whole point that other students, who have an equal stake in the process, wanted to engage with Murray, thus signaling that consensus has not been reached? If the ideas are on the table, then the process is still open.

  4. Jane and Marta, I think both your comments illuminate part of what is at issue here, a kind of confusion about just what does or would constitute consensus. I’ve asked classes to identify a) what in the US would plausibly be considered off the table by unambiguous consensus and b) what they take to be treated as off the table (presumably by some) but really isn’t. The most telling result of this is that they find the a) part of the exercise exceptionally difficult, especially when one tries to take a) level stuff down from abstraction into application. E.g., they’ll agree that racial inequality is off the table, but acknowledge that interpretations of “racial inequality” vary so dramatically in practice that the “consensus” feels meaningless. Consensus on racial inequality doesn’t take you very far if people, e.g., have differing views about the permissibility of displaying Confederate flags. I share a lot of their frustration with this exercise, as I too have trouble pinning down “off the table” items that can be readily parlayed into practically useful ways of discussing particular incidents or events. Part of the disorientation is of course the way the election appeared to show that a lot more is on the table than many people thought, but part of it is social fragmentation resulting in what feel like competing consensuses (sp?).

    Jane, maybe openness to persuasion sometimes means something more like openness to hearing and attending tolerantly to alternative views even if the toleration is simulated? I.e., persuasion of people who would contest what you outline would potentially profit from hearing out their views (however distasteful) in order to persuade them. Hope that doesn’t sound too Pollyanna, as I intend it to mean something more robust, in line with trying to understand people’s motivations for holding the views they do, their background assumptions, etc., in order to have more meaningful dialogue than mere blunt disagreement or repudiation could afford.

  5. The question that seems to be at the heart of the matter, as I see it, is whether what “looks” like consensus by fiat actually is. I agree that the offered explanation is plausible, but it doesn’t address whether the cynicism discussed is justified. It seems to me that we are more inclined than ever (at least in the US) to take one’s feelings or perceptions at face value in the sense that such feelings or perceptions are true for the person experiencing them. This is true enough as far as it goes, but its limitations are clear enough. If whatever I feel or perceive is seen not only as valid for me but, let’s say, valid enough to justify political activity that flaunts the norms of civil discourse, we would seem to be on the precipice of a kind of radical subjectivism that would in fact preclude any kind of meaningful consensus.

  6. Ian, I agree. This is part of what bothers me about the dynamic, not least because disavowing participation in any consensus is a handy way to legitimize discarding civil standards for interaction. I am more sympathetic to the claims of alienation when they come from students, though. I find it easier to imagine the 20-somethings more legitimately feeling that there is much in public discourse that excludes them. At any rate, not all calls of alienation seem equal but neither does it seem straightforward to sort them out.

  7. I sympathize with your suggestions about students, but as I write this with headlines updating the number of people injured and killed in London, I can’t help but think that the feeling of disenfranchisement you discuss is not all that dissimilar to the logic of terrorism. I’m not suggesting shouting down speakers is the same thing as terrorism; it isn’t. At the same time, the notion that consensus is impossible and that thus the rules of civility don’t apply can have horrific consequences in some cases.

    If we can’t agree on how political discourse can even proceed, if we can’t abide by normative principles of engagement, we would appear to be giving up on the project of consensus as such. Whether the result is theocracy or a kind of radical subjectivism may not make a lot of difference.

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