Monday, December 12, 2016

An Alternative Perspective from the Echo Chamber

This is a guest post. The author is Peter Kaufman
(Professor of Sociology, State University of New York at New Paltz)

Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times (December 10, 2016) essay, “Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus,” has been getting a lot of attention and a lot of criticism since it was published. 

Kristof is concerned that college campuses are becoming one-sided “echo chambers” where only those who speak to the (liberal) choir are allowed to participate and perform. His intention in this essay is to encourage a multiplicity of voices on college campuses as a way to foster greater understanding of divergent viewpoints. 

I have been in higher education for over 25 years (7 as a graduate student and 18 as a full-time faculty member at a regional public university). I have never met a colleague on my campus or at any conferences who does not share Kristof’s goal of wanting students to think critically, analytically, and broadly. Challenging students to consider alternative, contradictory, and even objectionable viewpoints are the strategies that most of my colleagues employ as way to instill these higher-order thinking skills. 

But in his attempt to champion a diversity of viewpoints on college campuses, Kristof makes a number of troubling assumptions and draws some specious conclusions that undercut his argument. Consider the following:

“Repeated studies have found that about 10 percent of professors in the social sciences or the humanities are Republicans.”

Kristof offers this quote as being symptomatic of the problem. But he, and others who point to this statistic, never quite explain why it is the case or why it is so problematic. 

Those of us in the social sciences and humanities have dedicated our lives to studying, contemplating, questioning, discussing, teaching, and writing about the human condition. If after all of this intellectual and emotional effort most of us have concluded that the Republican platform is troubling or not to our liking, shouldn’t that tell us something? Shouldn’t we trust or at least have some confidence in the “experts” who study humanity and the conclusions they draw instead of expecting them to negate their accumulated knowledge and insights?  

“We champion tolerance, except for conservatives and evangelical Christians. We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us — so long as they think like us.”

It would be nice if Kristof offered even just a morsel of evidence that this sort of closed-mindedness is rampant on college campuses. Not only is this a hollow claim, but if anything, decades of social scientific research demonstrate that universities reflect the dominant mode of thought, speech, morals, and norms of America. In other words, our classrooms and campuses are most hospitable to and are most easily navigated by students who are white, Christian, male, middle to upper class, heterosexual, and able-bodied. If you doubt this, then just ask some students who don’t fit into these categories if they have ever felt ostracized, stigmatized, or uncomfortable on their college campus. 

“I fear that liberal outrage at Trump’s presidency will exacerbate the problem of liberal echo chambers, by creating a more hostile environment for conservatives and evangelicals.” 

I’m not sure what Kristoff means when he says that a more hostile environment will be coming. There are two problems here. First, it is an exaggeration to call the pre-Trump environment hostile to conservatives and evangelicals. If a student shares some of the conservative and evangelical beliefs--that the science behind climate change is a hoax, that homosexuality is a sin that could be cured through conversion therapy, that whites are more discriminated against than people of color, that we live in a post-racial and post-sexist society, and that the world was started through creationism and not through evolution—and then this student’s views are challenged in class, is that hostility or is that the uncomfortable journey of critical thinking? 

Second, and this goes back to my earlier point, the people who feel real hostility on most college campuses, despite the so-called liberal bias, are those students, faculty and staff who are not white, Christian, male, middle class, heterosexual, and able-bodied. On an everyday basis, as I’ve heard from students and colleagues, such individuals risk having their personhood challenged and questioned. That sort of direct confrontation to the core of who one is, is a much more severe type of hostility than merely having one’s beliefs challenged.

“But do we really want to caricature half of Americans, some of whom voted for President Obama twice, as racist bigots?”

I partly agree with Kristof here. I don’t want to caricature half of Americans as racist bigots. Instead, I want ALL of us to admit that we have some degree of bigotry and intolerance. We are all caricatures of the good, wholesome, and virtuous people that we think ourselves to be.  If we have any hope of achieving the type of respect and understanding that Kristof and I both desire, then we ALL need to be willing to acknowledge our biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. Our deep and long-standing refusal, or utter failure, to do this both collectively and individually is probably the greatest obstacle to reducing hatred and division in American society. 

But as for the people who voted for Trump let’s not forget this one crucial point: Despite all of the analyses of who these voters are or what motivated them to vote for him, one factor remains irrefutable: those who voted for Trump were willing to overlook his bigotry, misogyny, nastiness, and hatred. When they went to the voting booth they did not see bigotry and misogyny as disqualifying variables for the most powerful political position in the world. There is something deeply and undeniably troubling about this fact.

“But this election also underscores that we were out of touch with much of America.”

I’m not sure how Kristof came to this conclusion but he seems to have forgotten that less than 25% of the population voted for Trump. More people voted for Clinton. And over 75% of the population did not vote for Trump. So another way to read the results of the election is to say that Trump and his campaign of bigotry, misogyny, and hatred are really what is out of touch with much of America.

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