On Stubbornness And The Difficulties of Becoming Progressive

Twice in the last twenty-four hours I’ve had this article by Edward Schlosser come across my screen, and I’ve been mulling it over pretty extensively.  Schlosser, who writes pseudonymously about issues of the academic industry, has penned a sizable complaint about the way that teachers at the college level fear for their job security in the wake of students claiming that they find course materials emotionally distressing.  He recounts horror stories of professors who received poor student reviews because of material that they had previously considered a standard part of their curricula and how many times those professors were fired or not rehired because of the incidents. I think it’s a pretty effective sob story, because academic work is contracted out on a yearly basis, and not being rehired is essentially the same thing as being fired; at the secondary level where I work, it’s perfectly normal for employers to ask applicants if they have ever had a teaching contract not renewed and for answering yes to that question to throw up a big red flag.  In terms of fearing for his job security because of factors outside his control, I totally sympathize with Schlosser.


I love that the cover image for the article is a white guy who’s been gagged. It’s such a tragedy. (Image credit: Vox)

Nonetheless, I have a ton of problems with Schlosser’s complaint that it’s the attitude of students that is the root problem here.  Looking over his article, I gleaned seven distinct complaints that he has regarding the nature of progressive discourse:

  1. Though he personally would never have sex with a student, it’s really unfair that professors aren’t allowed to do that anymore.
  2. Student complaints about the material he selects for his courses make it really inconvenient for him to adjust how he’s teaching his subject.
  3. “Identity politics” have become too simplified and introspective to allow for discussion of practical solutions to cultural problems.
  4. Identity signifiers have become more important to cultural conversations than the actual ideas being expressed.
  5. People just won’t stop talking about irrelevant stuff like the sexism in the latest Avengers movie when abortion rights are continuing to dwindle in America.
  6. Someone on Twitter criticized evolutionary psychology and dominant Western thought in science as a broad discipline, and Schlosser takes this to mean that she’s discounting science entirely.
  7. A couple of librarians are campaigning for their professional community to do something about a man with a reputation for sexual predation who participates in their conference circuit, and this is the same thing as demanding that victims of sexual assault never be required to produce evidence in order to legally convict their attackers.

Schlosser’s pretty slick at throwing out his liberal bona fides as a way of deflecting criticism that he’s just another reactive professor who doesn’t like that social trends are making his job more difficult.  He makes a point of leading with an anecdote about one time he pissed off a student who tried to argue that it was black people who were responsible for the 2008 economic collapse, and then he later makes a pretty big deal of pointing out how concerned he is about abortion rights.  Those are all well and good, and I really do agree with him about the larger ideas behind those points, but it’s still deflection.  On the issue of trigger warnings (which is what seems to have precipitated this article in the first place), Schlosser seems to be ignorant of how they’re supposed to be a way of accommodating people with PTSD.  When it comes to intersectional feminism, he seems to be pretty much in the dark about how forms of oppression manifest along multiple axes of identity, and attempts to come up with solutions for these problems will involve a lot of complex thought and, yes, harsh criticism of institutions that reinforce oppressive power structures.  The work of progressivism is often unpleasant, and it frequently requires making yourself and other people uncomfortable in their privilege.

I was talking with Rachael about this issue the other night, and she offered up a pretty succinct explanation of this feeling of discomfort that we get when we’re faced with people demanding justice from us.  With our evangelical background, we’re accustomed to the concept of thinking about personal sin as something that the individual has to struggle with, but the idea never really hit home until we started becoming more progressive and had to deal with our own complicity in unjust systems.  Wrestling with your sin is never more visceral than when you realize something that makes life easier for you is hurting others, and it’s going to be a struggle to change how you respond.  Schlosser claims liberality, but the things he complains about smack of conservatism as it’s typified these days: clinging to privileges that you don’t even realize are privileges only for yourself.

Look, I get that a lot of this sounds like holier-than-thou talk, and that’s a difficult thing to overcome.  When we’re calling out other people, we often end up sounding like assholes, and that sucks.  Just before sitting down to write this post, I came across this essay by Patrick Miller which offers a really good analysis of the problem, and I think unconsciously meshes with what I’m saying about confronting your sin (it helps that he’s using religion as a metaphor for progressivism).  No one is perfect at feminism, or Christianity, or what-have-you.  There will always be someone else who does aspects of what you’re working towards better than you, and it will be easy to resent their attitude, but keep in mind that you are probably in the same position in relation to someone else whom you are criticizing.

Having said all of that, Schlosser does have a pretty good point about conversations often failing to turn into practical action.  We do eventually have to actually do something about the problems we’re discussing, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be talking about our identities and how they impact the solutions we come up with at all.

I know that’s a hard thing.  Sometimes I don’t like it myself.  It’s still necessary.


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