Understanding and the Other

There are over a quarter of a million students at the City University of New York. That’s twice as many as there are in the entire Ivy League. And they come from almost every country in the world and speak uncountable languages. They can’t be easily categorized except as students.

Keep that in mind.

The other day, in our local dog park, I met someone who told me, right off the bat, that he held a PhD and had taught briefly as an Assistant Professor. He told me (I never did get a chance to tell him what I do) that American universities are hotbeds of indoctrination and coddling, what with trigger warnings and safe spaces. Before I could really respond, he was off and running on another topic, conflating “freedom” as Adam Smith used it with the “selfishness” of Ayn Rand. I never did get to tell him that I am also a college teacher… and an AAUP activist.

Narrowly focused and self-centered though he may be, he did make me think—for the thousandth time—about the differences between the image of American colleges and the reality. And that, with a newspaper article this morning, also made me think of the image of the American left versus that reality. The two together, once more, made me consider the conundrum of “identity politics” and its use on college campuses and within political discourse.

A week or so ago, I posted a short piece on my blog taking its title from Alice Walker and Langston Hughes, “Everyday Use: Who’s Passing for Who?” My intent was to remind us, as we rear up in anger, that we’re all culpable and capable of divisive thought and behavior on “identity” lines—and that we often should relax and laugh (Hughes) or chill (Walker) instead of working ourselves into a tizzy.

A corollary to Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum is that ‘all politics is identity.’ We all use it, to some degree or another, to advance our causes and ourselves. Being Asian or gay or Lutheran becomes a lever as much for self-promotion as for the advancement of the group. Even ‘advancement of the group’ itself also becomes a lever for moving other groups from center stage. Nothing is purely altruistic. In some hands, this becomes terrifying; in others, it seems to signal nothing more than a  needed leveling of the field.

The problem, of course, lies in figuring out which is which (thank you, George Orwell).

Today, in that article in The New York Times, novelist Lionel Shriver follows up on her Brisbane talk that sparked so much outrage for her dismissal of ‘cultural appropriation’ as a problem when artists do it. The title of her Times piece (“Will the Left Survive the Millennials?”) sums up the broad-stroke nature of her argument today. She ends the essay with similar generalizing:

Protecting freedom of speech involves protecting the voices of people with whom you may violently disagree. In my youth, liberals would defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street. I cannot imagine anyone on the left making that case today.

Though I agree that all speech should be protected speech, I get as antsy when anyone tells me what “liberals” did in the old days—or would do now. This sort of generalization is as dangerous as that of my new acquaintance in the dog park when he tars all colleges with the brush of ‘trigger warnings.’

Liberals of the past weren’t any better than liberals today. They were just as hypocritical then as they are now—just as hypocritical as the conservatives they oppose. Listen to Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”:

Sure once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns

Ah, but I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me
Love me, I’m a liberal.


The song could characterize the liberals of today just as much as it did those of fifty years ago. But it, too, falls into that broad-brush fallacy.

College students today are coddled and protected and indoctrinated? The last of these three descriptors, the favorite of that old foe of the faculty David Horowitz, has been long debunked by the nature of the so-called “indoctrinated” graduates. Their views reflect those of their parents much more than their professors. The first two? Well, maybe there is a college or two that coddles. Maybe even (for argument’s sake) the entire Ivy League.

But there are all sorts of college students at all sorts of community colleges, four-year colleges and universities. Many of them are enrolled in institutions with much more in common with CUNY than with the Ivies. They work, they have families and they are ambitious. Their lives have long been struggles, often of natures neither their teachers nor pundits understand.

What I love about teaching at CUNY is that I cannot generalize about my students: Each class, each semester, is different. What I love about the American college experience generally is that it individualizes each student’s path, allowing them to choose courses from up to 40 professors for a baccalaureate degree (within certain parameters, of course). Given the variety of colleges, and the variety of experiences within them, it is hard to imagine that accusations of indoctrination ever got any traction at all.

Student identity is no more homogeneous than black identity, than Jewish identity, than Catholic identity—than white identity or liberal identity, for that matter. We’re all exploring our own places within identity networks—it is only within the last few years that I have begun to learn about the impact of my Scots/Irish Appalachian background on my own personality—and even that changes over time. One of the ways we do that, if we are at all successful, is to delve into the ‘other,’ not as stereotypes but as individuals within a different web of identity. The artist does this not just for themself but for the rest of us, and they do it by assuming identities which may be far from their own—which was Shriver’s initial Brisbane point, no matter how poorly she may have made it.

Many of us, however, become extremely protective of our identities, feeling their use by another is exploitative. And it is, of course. But is it necessarily wrong?

That’s a difficult question, but not one that should be closed down.

The artists aren’t presenting the reality of the ‘other’ any more than my dog-park rightist presents the reality of American colleges. What they are doing is opening up points of view and understanding to debate. Here again, Shriver’s heart may have been in the right place but her presentation is lacking and her understanding limited.

Is that bad? Should she, therefore, be made to shut up?

No. No more than that the man in the dog park. And nobody, I think, is trying to do so.  At most, they simply do not want to listen to her—their right, as much as it is hers to speak.

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