Saturday, September 12, 2020

Closed Minds


The signers of the excellent letter published July 7, 2020 in Harper's Magazine believe

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

However, even they probably didn't anticipate this:

David Peterson is an art professor at Skidmore College, a private liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, New York. In late July, the professor and his wife, Andrea Peterson, attended a "Back the Blue" rally—not as supporters of the cause, they say, but as curious spectators.

"Given the painful events that continue to unfold across this nation, I guess we just felt compelled to see first-hand how all of this was playing out in our own community," he later told the student newspaper.

They stood on the edges of event, watching pro- and anti-law enforcement demonstrators argue with each other. After 20 minutes, the Petersons left to eat dinner.

But unbeknownst to Peterson, the couple's attendance at the rally was noticed. Now Skidmore students are demanding that both Peterson be fired for "engaging in hateful conduct that threatens Black Skidmore students," according to Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill, who wrote about the controversy.

Andrea Peterson is not an employee of the college, according to Churchill.

"The Petersons weren't wearing pro-police T-shirts," notes Churchill. "They weren't carrying a banner, holding a sign or waving a black-and-blue flag. They appear to just be listening. But merely listening to an opinion that some Skidmore students find objectionable is apparently enough to get a professor in hot water."

Students have circulated their demands on social media, and even taped a note to the door of Peterson's classroom advising his students that they are "crossing a campus-wide picket line and breaking the boycott against Professor David Peterson." Peterson has attempted to make it clear that his presence at the rally did not constitute an endorsement of it; this matters very little to the students. An opinion piece in the student newspaper included his explanation, but still accused him of failing to "reconcile with his behavior." That piece also claimed that "there have been many claims of Mr. Peterson making students of color and queer students feel uncomfortable and unheard in his art classes prior to this," but did not elaborate.

"I still have no indication of how [David and Andrea Peterson] plan to take accountability for their actions and make their classrooms a safe space for our communities of color," wrote the student.

The cancel culture critics at Harper's recognized

... it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

They now appear prescient- at least in the case of Skidmore- because

Peterson said that most of his students have dropped his classes: Those who think the boycott is ridiculous are afraid to speak up, one student told Churchill. Skidmore's administration defended his free speech rights in a statement, but is nevertheless investigating the accusations of bias in the classroom.

In June I was curious about the speakers and the crowd size of a Black Lives Matter protest and thus observed one from outside of the perimeter of police, there partly in case trouble ensued but mostly for traffic control. The Petersons appear to have done the same thing, although in their case a Blue Lives Matter Matter protest.  Mr. Peterson thus has become the subject of individuals sufficiently privileged as to be intolerant of even the possibility that someone may have a view different  than their own.

Or perhaps they are appalled that individuals may want to learn, find out a little more about an issue then roiling the nation.  And so Mr. Peterson's job and livelihood are endangered, subject to a mob mentality, an ironic effort on the part of individuals who presumably view themselves as progressive or at least acting to secure rights of others.

The signers of the 6/7 letter warned "As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences." Little did they realize that only a few months later there could be dire professional consequences without even a mistake being made.





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