A friend recently alerted me to this flap. In brief: At Marquette University, a university in the Jesuit tradition (ahem), a philosophy grad TA recently hushed up a student who advocated the traditional side on the issue of homosexual "marriage." She stated that his views were "inappropriate" and "homophobic" (of course), likened them to racist remarks (of course), and said that they constitute disallowed and offensive speech in the classroom, since some homosexual student might overhear and have his feelings hurt. She indicated that it was her policy not to allow such opinions to be expressed and suggested that he drop the course if not willing to abide by this policy. (Notice that this article from Inside Higher Ed, not a conservative source, confirms this account of what Cheryl Abbate said. Since the student recorded part of the conversation, it is difficult to deny. I hasten to add, if anyone wonders, that if the student did indeed lie initially about whether he was recording the conversation, that was wrong. He should have said, "Heck, yeah, I'm recording it. Why, are you ashamed of what you've been saying?")
You really cannot make this stuff up. Interestingly, the lefty blogger and poli. sci. professor [Correction: Philosophy professor at University of South Carolina] Justin Weinberg makes an unconvincing effort to spin this as not being about shutting up conservatives and disallowing the expression of conservative views. His first spin on the story is that the student was trying to derail discussion and that the TA was simply exercising her legitimate judgement about whom to call on and what discussions to encourage so as not to waste class time. He even goes so far as to say, in direct contradiction to what Abbate herself is recorded as having said to the student, that "the event at the center of this controversy does not appear to be one of speech being shut down because it is offensive." But then, Weinberg falls back on saying that the Marquette University harassment policy forbids the expression of traditional views of marriage and that therefore the TA had no choice but to suppress them. She was only following policy, you know!
Later, when FIRE disputes Weinberg's "nothing to see here, folks" implication that Abbate's main motive was trying to save class time, Weinberg doubles down on the policy issue. He likens anyone who criticizes Abbate to a "jerk" who criticizes a waitress for following restaurant policy on free refills.
So let's get this straight: This isn't about "speech being shut down because it is offensive," but okay, it actually is about shutting down speech deemed offensive, but that's required by Marquette's policy on harassment, so it isn't grounds for criticizing the TA (even though she clearly strongly advocated, for herself, in her own words, a policy of shutting down offensive-to-homosexuals speech), because it's policy, so you're a jerk if you criticize her, this is a smear campaign against a poor little woman grad student, etc., etc.
Makes sense to me.
Well, not really.
Despite Weinberg's desire to pose as the neutral arbiter pointing out the "lies" and inaccuracies of conservative media, stuffily lecturing FIRE on not becoming "the Yelp! of academia," his twisting and turning just looks like self-contradictory special pleading. Maybe that's because he is, in fact, engaging in self-contradictory special pleading.
Things get even more interesting, and alarming, when one reads some comments on Weinberg's original post. Eager to support Weinberg's implication that poor Cheryl Abbate couldn't help herself and was only following policy, commentator MarquettePhilosopher points out that Marquette's anti-harassment policy really does imply that criticism of homosexual "marriage," even in private conversation which someone else happens to overhear and be offended by, constitutes harassment!
FIRE has pointed out that this bizarre and draconian policy is in conflict with Marquette's own alleged, and published, commitment to the free exchange of ideas. (FIRE has argued elsewhere that such a conflict with published school commitments can provide grounds for suit, even against a private college, and is no doubt hoping to overturn the restrictive policy by such a suit if someone should choose to provide a test case.)
So, yes, Marquette's harassment policy (which Abbate apparently did not cite in her conversation with the student) could well provide cover for Abbate's shutting down discussion on this issue. But then we can consider that Abbate herself and MarquettePhilosopher are clearly absolutely thrilled with any such policy and only too eager to enforce it by, dare I say it, harassing any student who ventures to speak up on the other side of the issue, implying that he's at least as bad as a racist bigot, and suggesting that he leave the class. This is an ideological matter, and their ideological side has been made explicit and therefore is fair game for criticism. Which is not a smear campaign, no matter how often Justin Weinberg says that it is.
Here is MarquettePhilosopher spouting off at length about how wonderful the policy is.
I also wanted to say that, as someone who has an overwhelming concern for marginalized others and is committed to fostering a safe environment for members of marginalized groups to learn in my classroom, I am in full support of Marquette’s Harassment policy and Harassment training, which, as I pointed out, clearly states that there is zero tolerance for comments that are hurtful to homosexuals....What individuals, like the complaining student and John McAdams do not understand, is that some individuals do not have the luxury to engage in “critical discussion” about what rights others have. McAdams has never once had to, or evidently tried to, put himself in the shoes of a marginalized other in order to consider what it might be like if he was the one person in a class of 35 students and he was forced to sit passively by as all of his classmates engaged in the “philosophically stimulating” conversation about whether or not he has the basic right to marry.
We need to be reminded that it is completely inappropriate to treat the topic of gay marriage as some “philosophical exercise.” These are REAL people with REAL lives we are talking about. How dare we feel so entitled to sit back in our arm chairs and “critically examine” what rights homosexuals should and should not have.
To make homosexuals the subject of some philosophical debate is truly offensive. The only time a philosophical discussion about a ban on gay marriage should EVER rear its head in philosophy class is when an instructor wants an example of a policy that would violate a certain ethical theory (such as in the case of Ms.Abbate’s class). To presume that there is some sort of “debate” to be had about gay marriage is just demeaning and offensive to homosexuals.
Right, well thanks, that's clear enough. (It also makes it clear enough that Justin Weinberg was talking through his hat when he said at the beginning of his initial column that this incident isn't about shutting down speech deemed offensive. But hey, who's keeping score?)
One cannot help wondering what all this means for students who get reported for having the wrong kinds of conversations in the hearing of the wrong people. All of this is also alarming for any professor, whatever his own views, who just wants to hold interesting and open conversations in the classroom about the political topic of homosexual "marriage." MarquettePhilosopher's comments imply, with some plausibility, that the Marquette policy means that a registered Democrat professor, who himself advocates homosexual "marriage," who merely allows open discussion of both sides of this issue in his classroom is harassing his homosexual students and deserves to be reported! If that sounds crazy to you, that's because it is crazy.
Now, let me be clear: Am I saying that professors have to appear neutral about everything? No, I'm not saying that. Am I saying that there are no views so wicked that they should not be treated as open questions? No, I'm not even saying that. In fact, I've said for a long time that the legality of infanticide is such a view, that it should be shunned, and that Peter Singer should not be given a platform.
But: Even in the case of infanticide, a professor can respond to a student who advocates it by presenting reasons and evidence rather than by telling the student to shut up. It is certainly true that there is a fine line between presenting arguments in rebuttal of a wicked view and treating that view as respectable. There are grey areas in between. But a professor who reacts calmly to a student's expression of such a view or allows a student to write a paper advocating a view rather than merely shutting it up is not ipso facto treating the view as morally respectable.
Moreover, the attempt to shoehorn any of this into the category of harassment is ludicrous, disgraceful, and dangerous. Even if one believes that a view is wicked, it does not follow that the expression of that view constitutes harassment against anyone. By turning the expression of pro-marriage views into harassment, the left is attempting to turn what should be normal conversation and debate into an act of aggression. That doesn't come as a surprise, of course. The left has long been adept at inventing acts of aggression out of whole cloth, but they should be called out on it.
Third, there is such a thing as simply being wrong about what views are so incredibly wicked that they should not be treated as respectable. One can't just pick anything out of a hat, declare it to be irredeemably wicked and beyond the pale, and then dismiss those who disagree as merely disagreeing about the fact of the matter. To say that presenting arguments and evidence in defense of traditional marriage is not merely advocating a false view but advocating an evil view that should be beyond the pale of polite discourse should be seen as ludicrous by left and right alike. It's becoming more and more popular to make such over-the-top claims, but that doesn't mean we all just have to lie down and not dispute them because they are part of the zeitgeist. Nor is this metalevel issue co-extensive with the substantive issue, for even someone who believes that homosexual "marriage" is possible is not automatically committed to believing that anyone who disagrees with him is the moral equivalent of a Nazi advocating the eradication of the Jews or something similarly morally horrific.
To say, for example, that no one who defends traditional marriage should ever be hired in any philosophy department in the country (as presumably one would say about the neo-Nazi) is so wildly over-the-top that it should be laughed out of court. Yet the position that opposition to homosexual "marriage" is beyond the pale does seem to imply exactly that.
Fourth, the Marquette position on this issue raises a very grave potential problem concerning a teacher who dares to criticize arguments for homosexual rights and homosexual "marriage." This point swings free of the entire question of odious or wicked views, for even when one is taking the right moral position, even when one is opposing a wicked or morally odious view, one can make poor arguments on one's own side. What happens when a teacher (in philosophy, critical reasoning, political science, or any other class where the issue might come up) is presented with a paper advocating homosexual "marriage" that needs improvement or that gives poor arguments? Given a Marquette-style policy the teacher would justifiably fear for his job if he dared to criticize the student's arguments, since such criticisms might be thought to imply that the teacher himself (heaven forfend) holds to a forbidden position on the subject.
Shouldn't we worry about this effect?
In all honesty, I don't know whether lefties of MarquettePhilosopher's stripe would dismiss this fourth consideration as conservative hyperbole--"Of course no one would have to fear for his job for criticizing a student's poor arguments for gay rights!"--or whether they would say, "So be it." If past history is any guide, they'd probably start by saying the first and later shift to saying the second.
It seems a long time ago now, but this blog was much involved in arguing against the APA's stigmatization of schools that prohibit homosexual acts. We promoted a counterpetition that warned, inter alia, that the APA's position encouraged discrimination against philosophers who hold to traditional views of sexuality and marriage. At this point, such discrimination is openly advocated and de rigeur on the left, not only for philosophers but in a great many fields.
The Marquette policy needs to be opposed. I think it would be (in a sense) great if some student were in fact to be reported for alleged harassment for respectfully and rationally expressing opposition to the homosexual agenda--whether in class or in an overheard conversation--and were successfully to sue the bejabbers out of the apparatchiks who are trying to silence all dissent. At that point, if the school policy were to be rescinded and the focus were to turn to actual harassment of students (such as telling a student that his traditional moral views are inappropriate, tantamount to racism, and will not be tolerated in class), it would be interesting to see whether poor old Cheryl Abbate would heave a sigh of relief that now she can start permitting a vigorous exchange of ideas in her classes on this timely and important topic. She is, after all, a philosopher, is she not?