By: Cecile H. Sam, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership
Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership
On April 27, 2017 Ann Coulter was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Due to different reasons (e.g., threats of violence, student protests, scheduling), she did not speak on that day or on the alternative date the university provided. This recent event (or lack thereof) has been just one in a series of conflicts happening on campuses across the country this academic year: the clash of ideologies between the far-right and left.
This post will not be about arguing the specific details of the Berkeley-Coulter situation. For that information, there are several good articles to read online (if you trust those news sources). Rather, this post is about how these types of conflicts ultimately present a complex ethical dilemma for leaders in higher education. Because the resulting policies and practices from these conflicts will reflect the institution’s moral stance, it’s important to recognize the various ethical issues that need to be addressed.
Given the history of higher education in the US, the Berkeley-Coulter example is almost cliché. On the surface, this situation looks like every other time controversial speaker comes to campus. But underneath, there appears a new level of complexity. First, there is the imminent threat and use of violence as a silencing tactic from groups on both sides. Second, the politicization of the university by those outside of campus who want to use higher education as a proving ground to test the limits of free speech, legitimation, and progressive ideas. Third, the institution has been placed in a dilemma where the best options seem to be the one that results in the least amount of loss. Finally, the speed in which narratives of the event can be shared across social media sites (both real and fake news), can place the institution in a reactive rather than proactive position. Combined with the other familiar issues such as the values of free speech and safety, marginalization and disenfranchisement of certain student populations, university mission and vision—these events become flashpoints that define institutions of higher education and how the public perceives them.
Take for example the threat of violence, that came from various polarizing left and right-winged groups determined to either stop Ann Coulter from speaking or to protect her speech respectively. Broadly speaking, people using a justice perspective may view the use of violence as a silencing tactic to be morally wrong; the use of physical violence is an unethical response to ideology, no matter how repugnant (for example, see Newsweek’s article around the ethics of punching a Nazi: http://www.newsweek.com/richard-spencer-punch-nazi-ethicists-547277 ). History has too many examples of groups using violence as a silencing tactic—in U.S. alone, we can easily point to the ways people used violence to silence women’s suffrage, civil rights, and the LGBTQ movements to name a few. In an ironic twist—we are now seeing the anti-fascists and other groups use of violence to try to silence the alt-right, or white-nationalist movement. From a justice perspective or ends-based ethical frame, is trying to silence the alt-right the same thing?
As universities begin to engage with the dilemma, they may want to apply a critical perspective--in addition to other frames-- to the issue. Critical ethics looks beyond the laws and policies that exist to the inequities and historical context that has created those laws and policies. For example, historically—marginalized communities (e.g. racial minorities, women, LGBTQ) found it difficult to obtain justice through “proper channels” due to systemic racism and/or structural oppression, and often had to rely on disruptive tactics such as protests. Dominant society has emphasized the work of non-violent leaders, while diminishing the contributions those who used more aggressive tactics (e.g., the contrast between Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X). However, we also learned in US history was that the Revolutionary War and Civil War were not won by pacifists. There is also the distinction of physical violence and verbal violence—normative ethics tells us that words, no matter how offensive, are not the same—but critical ethics tells us that words are used to shape our conceptualizations of others. We can use our words to dehumanize people, and in turn make it easier to justify or commit acts of violence against them (Bandura, 1999). To not acknowledge these ideas in light of history and context when engaging in an ethical dilemma would be to dismiss real concerns for different groups. To take a critical perspective shifts the question: Is silencing the demands to be treated as equal human beings ethically the same as silencing the demand to treat others as less than human?
This isn’t a post to justify violence as a form of protest, but instead I wrote this to bring light to the difficult questions that contain no easy answers. What makes ethical dilemmas so challenging is that ultimately some value is compromised for the sake of another. Values such as free speech, equity, democracy, justice, safety, dignity and truth all have their place in our abstract idea of higher education. However, it is during these crucible events, where higher education administrators and scholars will have to choose which of their core values are more important. Depending on the different perspectives, some people may say that Berkeley sacrificed free speech for security—others would say that by offering an alternative date the institution compromised its values of diversity and dignity of persons. These choices that we make have ethical outcomes be they for good or ill, and institutions have to be ready to defend those decisions.