Now that we’re deep in the latest irritating round of internet hand-wringing over college students and their political correctness, I’m watching again this dynamic:
Students want something. They want a “controversial” (read: openly hateful towards women, people of color, etc) speaker disinvited from a campus event, or they want a designated safe space, they want a professor investigated for what they perceive to be a Title IX violation, or whatever. They advocate for this via newspaper editorials or marches or signs. The administration agrees and does the thing. Then the administration and the media blame the students for the action as if they had the power to make it happen themselves rather than simply argue in its favor.
And I’m thinking, where have I seen this before?
Oddly enough, I have seen this before in polyamorous relationships.
It happens like this: John and Jane are in a serious open relationship that involves a pretty high level of emotional support. Jane and Jill are also partners, but a little more casual. Jane has a date with Jill tonight, but John is having a pretty bad day and would like her to reschedule it and stay home with him instead. He’s not telling her to cancel, but makes it clear that he’d really prefer it if she did and that his mood will probably get even worse if she doesn’t. Jane wants to be supportive of John, but she doesn’t want to cancel on Jill at the last minute because that’s not fair to her and implies that John is more important to her. At the same time, she also doesn’t want to feel responsible for John’s even-worse mood or risk the possibility that this will erupt into a fight later.
So Jane does what many poly people do in this situation. She cancels with Jill, saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go tonight because John’s having a bad day and he wants me to stay home.”
It may seem like a totally reasonable thing to say, but notice how it conveniently displaces the responsibility for the decision entirely away from Jane and onto John. It’s not that she doesn’t want to go on the date; it’s that John doesn’t want her to.
In fact, it would’ve been more accurate to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to cancel tonight because John is having a bad day and I want to be there for him.” Jane didn’t cancel because John forced her to. It’s not that she “can’t go tonight”; it’s that she is choosing not to go because she wants to stay home with John. This can be spun in either a positive or a negative direction: on the one hand, she’s staying home because she cares about John’s feelings and doesn’t want him to feel even worse; on the other hand, she’s staying home because she wants to avoid having a difficult conversation with John about these types of situations and she doesn’t want to deal with her own feelings about potentially making John’s bad day even worse.
And while that latter alternative might seem monstrous to many people, it’s not as unreasonable as it seems and it is in fact how many people, for instance me, prefer their relationships to work. I have been the person feeling crappy and knowing that I would feel better if my partner canceled their plans and spent time with me, and yet I wanted them to keep their plans anyway. I wanted them to go despite my feelings. I wanted to have the opportunity to practice coping with the feelings alone. Sometimes they did keep their plans, and sometimes they decided that they’d rather cancel and care for me, but either way it was a mutually informed decision and nobody was pressuring anybody. You may not want your relationship to work that way and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a ridiculous way to do relationships.
Jane probably isn’t being intentionally obfuscating when she cancels with Jill using that wording, but on some level she wants to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to avoid the negative consequences of leaving John alone at home–such as feeling bad because John is sad and potentially having a fight about it later–but she also wants to avoid the negative consequences of choosing to cancel on Jill at the last minute, such as feeling bad about being flaky and potentially having a fight with Jill about how she being flaky. So she makes it seem like canceling the date wasn’t really her choice, that she had to do it because of John and his feelings.
(Later on, she will be surprised and angry that Jill and John aren’t getting along, and will probably blame it on “jealousy,” when in fact she’s been accidentally playing Jill and John against each other all this time by blaming one for her own decisions regarding the other. Given that framing repeated over a period of time, I wouldn’t blame Jill for thinking of John as “that guy who always makes my girlfriend cancel our dates,” or John for thinking of Jill as “that girl who would apparently totally flip out if my girlfriend canceled with her to help me through a really shitty time [whether or not she actually would totally flip out].”)
What Jane needs to do if she wants two healthy relationships is:
- talk to John about how the two of them will handle times when he needs support and she may not be available to support him, such as other friends/partners, activities, professional help, or being able to text her while she’s out or reconnect later that night or the following morning, and make sure to clarify what sorts of expectations each of them already has about these situations. Does John actually expect her to cancel her plans at the last minute, or did he just want to express his feelings, get some empathy, and see if maybe canceling the plans was at least an option? Does Jane feel like the emotional labor she is doing for John is balanced with the emotional labor he does for her? If John would like her to be willing to cancel other plans to support him, is he willing to do the same for her? (By the way, even if Jane doesn’t necessarily want that type of support from John, it’s still important that both feel that things are balanced.)
- talk to Jill about how the two of them will handle times when Jane feels an obligation to another partner that conflicts with her commitments with Jill. How does Jill feel about being canceled on? Maybe she honestly doesn’t care. (Even if she doesn’t, this is something Jane will need to regularly check in on, because feelings change and it will be hard for Jill to suddenly say, “Hey um actually, I’m no longer okay with being canceled on even though last month I told you I was.”) How can Jane reassure Jill that she cares about and values her in the aftermath of having to cancel to take care of John? If Jane and Jill are interested in growing their intimacy and commitment, how will this work if Jane always prioritizes John first? Can it work? Can Jane rethink how she thinks of commitment and priorities? By the way, are there times when Jill would really appreciate it if Jane would consider canceling plans with someone else in order to support her? Or is that a privilege only John gets?
- own her decisions and take responsibility for their consequences. That means that even when someone’s feelings influence her a certain way, she needs to acknowledge that the decision was hers to make. If your partners are making you feel like you have no choice but to accommodate their feelings, that’s a red flag for abuse.
Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! Well, it is, and I hope that John and Jill will contribute equally to that work by fully engaging in these conversations with Jane when she starts them, being upfront about their feelings and expectations, and being as willing to compromise as Jane is.
Ok cool story, but what does it have to do with college campuses?
College administrators are in a bind when it comes to student activism. They don’t want to come across like they’re ignoring it, especially when it’s very loud and angry. But they also don’t want to do the thing the students are asking for, because it will be unpopular among their colleagues and/or people who write for Atlantic and New York Times. So they do the thing the students are asking for, but then make it seem like the students somehow “forced” them to do it. (Y’all, seriously, if campus newspaper op-eds had that kind of power, I’d have kept writing mine for longer than a semester.)
Sometimes the administration doesn’t even have to make that implication, because national media does it for them. This is how we get articles written by people who have not been on the campuses in question or interviewed the students involved, claiming that student activists “caused” a speaker to be disinvited or “made” professors add trigger warnings to their syllabi. (In fact, the most unpopular speaker disinvitations and trigger warning demands to be featured in the media have overwhelmingly not actually happened, and yet the students are ridiculed for even asking for it*. So much for Free Speech. Oh, what’s that you say? “Free speech” only applies to governments regulating speech? That’s not the definition of the term you were using a minute ago. And if we’re talking about chilling effects, the large-scale ridicule of student activism certainly constitutes one.)
I understand that college administrators may perceive students as having an enormous amount of power. After all, they can say whatever they want (there’s that pesky free speech again) and theoretically ruin the university’s reputation. They can, I suppose, transfer themselves and their tuition money elsewhere. But practically speaking, they’re probably not going to transfer (if anything, students whose needs as survivors of violence or as marginalized people are ignored may quietly drop out of school altogether). I’ve never heard of a university catching serious media flak for inviting a controversial speaker or refusing to add trigger warnings to syllabi; if anything, they are regularly praised for this by publications as influential as, y’know, the New York Times. (The linked article includes some balanced voices, but I think it’s pretty obvious just from the headline which direction it leans in.)
My impression as a former college student who’s been watching these debates play out for years since is that universities often acquiesce to student demands because they are uncomfortable with the discussions that those demands create. I’m not saying that all student demands are valid, well-argued, or charitable–I think that a few invalid, poorly-argued, or uncharitable claims are to be expected from people who are in school to learn how to think and debate. But will you as an educator join these discussions and use them as learning opportunities, or will you shut them down, either by categorically refusing the students’ demands or by accepting them just to get them to shut up?
I suppose if a university administration wanted to try to resolve the issue rather than sweeping it under the rug, they could take a similar approach as I suggested for that poly couple. Administrators could meet with student activists to try to understand what they’re asking for and where they’re coming from. They could also meet with other stakeholders, such as professors or a speaker if there’s one involved, to get their point of view. If they reject students’ demands, they could do so without invalidating their feelings or opinions–for instance, instead of “DON’T EXPECT ANY CODDLING HERE” they could say, “We understand that [controversial speaker] may express opinions that are considered harmful and oppressive by certain students, and we acknowledge the hurt this causes. However, we’ve decided to invite the speaker because [reasons] and we encourage students to decide for themselves whether or not to attend. Students who are looking for support are welcome to go to [counseling services, Women’s Center, LGBTQ safe space, etc].”
Lest it seem like I’m unfairly dumping on college administrators here–I’m sure many of you are lovely and do a great job. Just like many poly couples are lovely and don’t pit their partners against each other. But some do, and that’s who I’m writing about. If the shoe fits, and so on.
Nothing that I’ve suggested here is at all easy, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important. Just because something will not be attainable every time doesn’t make it any less of a best practice.
And by the way, just as Jane may be in an abusive situation where John really does make her feel like she has no choice but to acquiesce to his demands, there are situations–although they are rare–when students can act in a similar way. For instance, if students make threats of violence against a speaker, it is completely reasonable for the speaker to cancel, for the university to choose to cancel the speaker, and/or for law enforcement to get involved. Obviously, don’t make threats of violence; I don’t give a fuck how much you hate the person.
However, both administrators and speakers sometimes misperceive students’ power in significant ways, just as Jane may assume that John’s stating his feelings constitutes a passive-aggressive demand in and of itself. (Unfortunately, people who are accustomed to passive communication tend to see it everywhere they look.) For instance, sometimes administrators or speakers cancel events because they know there will be protesters, even though no threats of violence have been made and the protesters have stated an intention to peacefully hold signs, hand out pamphlets, or whatever. This is not the same as students “forcing” anyone to cancel anything. They are exercising their First Amendment rights. If you’re an ~~~edgy~~~ “””controversial””” speaker who can’t handle people holding signs at your speech, then maybe you shouldn’t be a speaker.
And while John and Jane might each have some sort of power over the other, when it comes to the administration-student relationship, the administration holds an overwhelming amount of the power. Students, even otherwise-privileged students, can’t practically do anything besides write op-eds or march with signs if a university administration is determined to do things they don’t like. All they can really do is be annoying. But being annoying isn’t the same as forcing someone to do something.
tl;dr Abuse and coercion are things that happen, but otherwise, strongly expressing a desire isn’t the same thing as forcing someone to fulfill that desire. That applies to relationships and campus activism and probably a lot of other things.
*Similarly, a Northwestern professor raised hell online because she was investigated and then cleared for an alleged Title IX violation. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? Someone accuses someone of something, an investigation happens, and, if the accused is deemed innocent, they’re cleared? Yet somehow this is still Political Correctness Run Amok or whatever.
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