Can Productive Discomfort Exist in a Polarised World: Free Speech on Campus

(Conversation) – Our previous article “The predicament of diversity: re-boot for diversity 3.0” explored the multiple definitions of diversity and the factors shifting its focus from social and racial inequality to the diversity of identity … and the distractions that this creates. Diversity and race keep getting confused, amalgamated and co-opted for different political gains and purposes. At the same time, we seem to be experiencing a crescendo effect in terms of the number reported incidents involving minorities. Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth’s true story of infiltrating the KKK in the 1970s, demonstrates that this is not really a new story at all. What exactly is going on?

Navigating the adversity: public space as a minority

Whether playing golf in a slow-moving group, arriving late for a campus tour, swimming in a neighborhood pool, getting ready for a barbecue, walking on a sidewalk with a baby stroller, or napping in a university common area, it seems that minorities face greater obstacles than ever in receiving fair or equal treatment in the public space.

In an atmosphere where excessive use of force and fatal shootings continue to devastate communities, overreactions are inevitable and only compound the problem. Data is slowly becoming available on racial profiling practices – from “driving while black” or “walking while black”, to rage buildup from the constant impact of microaggressions. Bias can extend to anyone, as in the case of an airline asking a mother to prove her relation to her mixed-race son. In the case of Starbuck’s company-wide bias training last May 29, a short film created by Stanley Nelson highlights the unequal and invisible wall of difference. Activist groups have begun to map the violence and daily injustices at the hands of authorities. In turn, a “Blue Lives Matter” movement was started in 2016 to raise awareness and pass legislation opposing hate crimes against police.

Meanwhile in the classroom…

As educators, we seek to maximise inclusion and involvement and help students detect their own blind spots without publicly shaming them. So far, so good. And yet as discussion leaders in any discipline of study, we can get painted into a corner where discussions are risky and emotionally fraught. Jerome Bruner advocated a teaching style that encourages students to construct their own hypotheses through ‘ideas negotiation’ with others – and this should not remain within their comfort zones. But this is where a predicament resides: on a college campus, how far can we really lead people outside their moral, social, or political comfort?
Critics indicate that we should be going much further, and political correctness is one of the culprits. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt lament that college campuses are increasingly “coddling” students minds by maintaining an ever-inclusive “safe space” that avoids healthy debate and normal exposure to ideas that some may find offensive. In a talk given at NYU later on, Haidt critiques the lack of viewpoint diversity on college campuses where a moral tribal mentality of the majority has led to intolerance and a lack of free speech.

This is where the work starts for educators. Before leading students toward self-knowledge, can we pause, and examine our own biases and automatic preferences? Can we come to terms with our ‘tribal’ allegiances that, for a majority of university educators, tend to be favourable towards the sort of identity liberalism that has been identified as polarising force? And then, how far is too far when it comes to free speech in the classroom? How can we respect all viewpoints and not offend anyone? Whose ideas are valid as debatable, and whose are not? Where do we draw the line?

The answer is clear: educators cannot, and should not, aspire to never offend (or be offended). Ever since Plato’s Republic expounded the Socratic method, teachers have aspired to lead students toward self-inquiry and the examined life. This method involves what we call a form of ‘productive discomfort’ that humans need in order to make moral progress. We need “idea collisions” – even with those that we may find repulsive. So when it comes to discussion of discrimination and racial justice, we cannot afford avoidance of awkward moments. Below, we share some ideas about how we can paint ourselves out of that corner, boost engagement, and keep learning from our students.

Jon Haidt discussed free speech in September 2017 for the Wall Street Journal.

Let’s flip the script

If the discussion in the classroom turns to questions of identity and cultural differences, one key to promoting self-examination can be found the words, phrases, and scripts used in daily interactions. Sociologist Erving Goffman, in his seminal 1959 work “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” leveraged the language of the stage to describe social interactions, exploring the varying ways scripts, as in a play, guide everyday social dynamics on life’s stage. These scripts frame both how the actors interpret the scenario and how the audience (or the “other”) experiences the same event. Each individual takes away a different interpretation of events depending on his or her own perspective, individual biases, and other invisible factors.

Instructors can give assignments involving time-tested critical incident techniques or role plays linked to any form of uncomfortable situations where such internal scripts are revealed. The ‘scripts’ approach can also be used to interpret events and critical incidents in class discussions. Let’s take for example the case of the black firefighter who was reported to police and, on a separate occasion, questioned and videotaped by a resident who found him suspicious, even though he was in full uniform with his fire truck parked nearby while carrying out routine fire inspections in the leafy, white-majority neighbourhoods of Oakland, California. With which narrative were his actions being assessed by the viewer, in this case the homeowners? What were the cultural scripts in use and what actions did it then trigger?

The cultural sense-making model.

A second technique that can help students decode the invisible factors in critical incidents is the cultural sense-making model developed by Osland and Bird. Using the model’s three step process – framing, making attributions, selecting a script – students can challenge their own assumptions, as well as the people in the story. When the neighbour saw the man in the yard, what frame was in use? What beliefs and stereotypes were being confirmed? How did that person’s schema (mental patterns that stem from an individual’s background, experiences, or attitudes) fuel the attributions being made? What then was the script that led to the actions taken? By asking themselves such questions during activities like these, students not only assess their own biases and recurrent scripts, but may also start re-writing and adopting new scripts about the others with whom they come in contact.

Crafting productive discomfort: more practice scenarios

One way to practice productive discomfort is to confront the ‘strangeness’ of the others head-on. Taking the above suggestions a step further, students can practice what we call “embracing the strange” through script-writing (actively producing scenarios of managing the foreign, unexpected, sometimes disturbing “otherness of the other”.) These activities can provide powerful ways to mirror – and rehearse for–real-life problems where cultural sensitivity and perspective-taking can emerge.

Other approaches invite both individual reflection and group discussion (like real-life scenarios on implicit bias or microaggression where students were either on the “receiving” or “giving” ends). These re-enactments may help them reflect on their individual experiences of being “put into a box” and offer opportunities to revisit the situation and to provide new perspectives. A new script can be written, and performed for the group, to replay things differently.

They can also engage in a testimonial-writing activity focused on individual or group behaviors. Implementing an autoethnographic exercise or a critical ethnographic assignment may also provide students a space to examine and question their own scripts when it comes to implicit bias.

Calling out discrimination and injustice: subverting the safe space

The 21st century is all about being home in a world of strangers and strangeness as is the ability to recognise instances where discomfort is not always so productive–sometimes leading to adverse reactions. Now, thanks in large part to social media, there really is a heightened visibility surrounding bias and daily discrimination occurring on our streets and in our workplaces. We need to examine the facts to help students recognise how easy it is to fall into bad reactions that can haunt us long after the fact.
Well before the rise of Twitter and Facebook, Spike Lee’s films consistently demonstrated the ease with which racial epithets can be tossed around from one group to the other until violence erupts, and the “racial slur montage” from his 1989 film Do the Right Thing provides a potent example. Everyone gets offended and uncomfortable hearing the insults–and at the same time everyone gets a good laugh. That’s the paradox when film mirrors life, and real-life scripts get transferred to the screen. But in the end of the film, just as in real life, it’s not funny… at all.

We suggest that instructors, no matter what their topic of instruction, find ways to visit and revisit these uncomfortable places with their students, and get accustomed to being there. Being in a place where our biases are made visible, and where we can be offended and may offend others, is one way to rehearse for the role of informed citizen in the 21st century. And just perhaps someday when they are on the streets, in their homes, at school or at work, and one of those real-life moments of discrimination or injustice occurs, they’ll be a bit more prepared for the discomfort, and have a script ready to help them do the right thing.The Conversation

This report prepared by Michelle Mielly, Associate Professor in People, Organizations, Society, Grenoble École de Management (GEM) and Naida Culshaw, Affiliate Professor, Grenoble École de Management (GEM) for The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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