From the Community | Not IDEAL — Speech and education at Stanford

Feb. 1, 2023, 1:08 a.m.

Last Thursday the Faculty Senate heard a presentation on the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative and heard a discussion about the potential harm that could come out of it. In her remarks, Provost Persis Drell insisted that EHLI had nothing to do with the IDEAL initiative, but with all respect, I beg to differ slightly from the Provost—I believe that at least the basic spirit of EHLI has everything to do with IDEAL.

In my comments, quoted in part in Stanford Report, I confessed that I am not entirely against lists of words that are presented informationally to guide against offense and harm. It depends on whether they are simply descriptive and presented as options, or used to mandate language use, whether they apply solely to the particular community that invented the list, or bleed out to infringe upon others’ rights of free speech. These are essential questions that we will be pursuing, but the focus of this essay is more basic.

On one level, the EHLI taps into an age-old question: what is the relation between speech and a social contract?

Here is the example I gave at Senate: when I was a young man I went through that nervous-making ritual of meeting my prospective in-laws.  Before that encounter, I asked my fiancée, “how should I address your mother and father?” I willingly “gave up my rights to free speech” because I wanted to enter their social world and hopefully merge it with mine. I wanted to fit in and I hoped they would want to do the same.  I never thought it was an imposition because the ultimate aim was worthy. Here’s where we get to IDEAL.

IDEAL has done tremendous work to not just proclaim that Stanford values diversity, but also to walk the walk. Unfortunately, it has every chance of stumbling.  Here’s why. If you put all this hard work into recruiting a diverse student body and a diverse faculty, telling them that their diverse backgrounds and worldviews are essential to Stanford’s growth and vitality, and then when they get here you get upset when that diversity actually is diverse, then you are in trouble.

“Diverse worlds” includes a way of addressing people and expressing ideas that bind that social world together, awarding people dignity and respect and the same to their ideas and perceptions of the world. If Stanford professors and students get defensive and even punitive when people say, “where I come from, that is offensive and harmful,” then we have the end of IDEAL. It becomes clear that we really don’t want diversity, we want the appearance of diversity to augment our liberal good image of ourselves. We pride ourselves for being “inclusive” when we really are not.  We are “inclusive” only on our terms, in our language, according to our norms. A common reaction to being called out on inappropriate language is, “well, I did not know that was a problem.”  Hence the usefulness of informational lexicons that precisely help us know these things — if we really want to. And that is the key question.

Now you might say, well then “these people” should not have come to Stanford if they don’t want to fit in. But here’s the problem — they likely came to Stanford in large part because of the way Stanford has promoted itself as inclusive of diversity.

For example, in his convocation speech, our President declared, “[Stanford] provides you with a crucial opportunity to broaden your worldview, sharpen your perspectives and better understand how people can see common issues very differently.”

The challenge now is to make good on such claims.

Otherwise all our diversity efforts end up being not unlike any other “civilizing” mission —converting people’s cultures, languages and values into our image.  In other words, rather than actually allowing “diversity” to do the work is it supposed to do — adding new knowledge and points of view, we accommodate “diversity” so long as it demands nothing of us — we are not the ones that need to change in any real manner.

As I said at the Senate meeting, I personally was grateful to a student who circulated a list of words that had to do with gender and sexual orientation and gender presentation. It defined each and told each term’s proper usage. No one was forced to use it — it was there as an aid. It taught me a whole lot — I didn’t know half the terms, at least not well. But I knew my students cared and I knew that if I misspoke or I misused their language it would not only cause harm, it would cause a kind of distrust that would negatively affect me doing my job — which was to teach.

Years and years ago, then-Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and now president of Occidental College, Harry Elam and I had a conversation about precisely this issue.  We came up with a term to describe what we needed to do — invent the “New Effective Classroom.” It would include ways not to just teach, but also to allow diverse students to teach as well. And that meant listening to them in their language, respecting their worldviews, and hopefully taking on some of the knowledge they were sharing with us — the very reason Stanford supposedly invited them here.

And when faculty say they feel their “academic freedom” is being eroded when they have to “deal with” these “sensitivities,” I say, “well aren’t you stepping on these individuals’ free speech and academic freedom rights to express their ways of knowing and to hold you accountable for what you say?” And in fact, would it not be helpful to have a non-mandated list of words to help us avoid some of the pitfalls we might face by unconsciously using language that suddenly diverts our class discussion into something else entirely?

I must say that I was gratified when the majority of Senators voted to postpone a vote on the motion before us — professors all of a sudden realized that we had no idea what we were actually discussing. There were so many ideas floating about, all fused together, that we decided to take a step back and get clarity. In the interval, I hope not only the Senate, but also Stanford, can continue to think about what really matters and why. I encourage us all to, outside the limelight of super-charged situations like the Senate, and even the classroom, to be open to and with each other. I think of the title of Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s book, Rehearsals for Living — we need to patiently get back to defining our core values, recognizing the real and difficult challenges, and granting each other the right to make a mistake, for that is something essential to education. We need to be able to rehearse different ways of living and living together.

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