When The Student Is The Teacher

Two to three months of not running due to injury now feels like two to three years as I seek to return to my previous level of mediocrity. On Saturday’s long run, I found myself eavesdropping in the back of the pack as two friends commiserated about how markedly their respective work cultures have changed. In simplest terms, an underlying “whose most ‘woke’ competition” has broken out in both their workplaces. 

The diversity leaders are attempting to teach their colleagues to respect differences, accept everyone’s social identities, and subvert traditional power dynamics. The participants are learning not to say how they really feel, lest they unwittingly stray from the liberal progressive path laid out before them.

Because the diversity leaders are focused on outcomes and not process, they’re plodding ahead completely unaware of the “go along to get along” self censorship that their work is whipping up. A phenomenon that makes meaningful change nearly impossible. 

As a long-time discussion leader, I’ve gotten very good at understanding this dynamic. And disassembling and reassembling it in my classrooms. But as an educator and fallible human being, I’ll never get that challenging work just right. At best, it’s always two steps forward and one back. Just like last week in one of my undergraduate classes. I flailed around a bit and then a student had the courage, and made the time, to enlighten me. 

In class, I suggested that as a country maybe we needed to recognize our limits and take some time to lower the temperature on conversations about politics and race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. “Pass the ball backwards” I suggested, before advancing up the pitch again.

My student gave me permission to share most of what he wrote me shortly after class ended. His fourth paragraph makes me think I did not communicate my message as clearly as I could have, but that does not take away at all from his overarching message:

“My takeaway from the conversation was that in the end, politics are simply politics, and one’s views reflect their level of education. This does apply in certain situations, but it is not applicable to basic human rights. As a white cishet (cisgender heterosexual) man, you do not experience these issues and therefore need to do more work to understand them. An important thing to remember is that the burden of your education on an issue does not fall onto those affected by it. As we have discussed in this class, most educators are white. I have had a very slim number of queer educators as well. Because of this, existing in these spaces made for white cishet people is exhausting. I am constantly expected to perform and have these conversations for people to convince them that I should be allowed to exist. Fighting constantly to be permitted to simply exist takes a heavy toll and as an ally in a privileged position it is your responsibility to do research and educate yourself on these topics rather than expect minorities to do the labor of educating you because for those minorities, those conversations can be dangerous.

As a white cishet man, you can have these conversations with certainty that you are safe. As a queer AFAB (assigned female at birth) person these discussions can put me at serious risk.

Furthermore, you need to understand how much more drastic this is with our current administration. Almost immediately after Trump came into office in 2017, his administration removed the official pages on civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights from the official White House website. Earlier this year, the Trump administration removed nondiscrimination protections in healthcare for LGBTQ+ people. Even more recently, with Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court, there has been new potential for marriage equality to be taken away. This is only an incredibly short list of ways that the Trump administration has directly impacted my rights. These conversations are so sensitive and are not as simple as disagreeing. If I meet someone who disagrees with my basic human rights, I am meeting someone who thinks that I do not deserve healthcare as a trans person and as an AFAB person. In a more extreme situation, as is with our vice president Mike Pence, someone disagreeing with me could mean that they believe I should be in a conversion therapy camp or worse. I do not have the privilege of agreeing to disagree because that disagreement can mean the loss of my life.

The human rights that do exist in our country today did not come from accepting or dismissing bigotry. The Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act of 1990 came to be because of disabled people protesting and restricting access to federal buildings, public transport, and other such things. The civil rights movement consisted of endless protests, sitting in the front of busses, and countless other acts. Women’s suffrage was fought for with protests and marches. Child labor laws came to be because of people fighting for children’s rights and safety. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, a riot is the language of the unheard. The expectation to be silent and accept mistreatment in hopes that we will be kindly gifted our rights and safety is ridiculous. This is why these conversations are not as simple as disagreement. I cannot sit and agree to disagree with someone’s opinion if their opinion is that I do not deserve basic human decency and rights.

To close this email, I want to reiterate that I do not mean this to seem like I am telling you exactly what you need to think or believe. My main objective with this is to hopefully bring you more perspective on why this mindset could be harmful. If you wish to discuss any of this further, I would be glad to discuss it over email. I appreciate you having a class environment in which I feel comfortable bringing up these issues and having this conversation.”

My second reply to him:

“Follow up question. Or more accurately, I’d like to practice active reading/listening to see if I understand correctly. Are you saying that some people (or maybe many people since 73m voted for T) are irredeemable and therefore personal safety has to take priority over dialogue? If so, I better understand why because of your thoughtful explanation of your lived experience. But as an educator working with students across the political spectrum, it’s difficult for me to conclude that.”

And his reply to my reply:

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that people are irredeemable, but more so that people that choose to not listen to minorities cannot be educated by them regardless of how much effort those minorities put into the conversation. The burden of those conversations can’t fall on the people affected by it because those people are being silenced, and therefore it becomes nearly impossible to change bigoted people’s mindset unless more privileged people educate themselves and use their voices.”

Obviously, I can’t tell my speedy running friends not to self-censor themselves, but my student has convinced me that opting out until “cooler heads prevail” isn’t an option for me. That doesn’t mean I have a failsafe roadmap on how to proceed. All I know for sure is I have to remain open to being taught by my students, and other people whose life experiences are markedly different than mine, and continue “getting more comfortable being uncomfortable”.

 

Sick and Tired of J. Bryan Lowderism

J. Bryan Lowder is Slate Magazine’s editorial assistant for culture. And he’s keenly disappointed with the way Jason Collins came out as a gay professional basketball player.

J. Bryan Lowderism is a condition that affects liberals who can’t contain their displeasure that others aren’t nearly liberal enough for them. JBL seems to be multiplying and I’m sick of it. Instead of displaying some compassion and encouraging growth of all kinds, they demand perfect political correctness of which they’re the arbitrators. Without realizing it, they’re slowing the progress they seek.

This phenomenon was on full display when Senator Rob Portman changed his mind about gay marriage after learning his son was gay. Portman was ripped by JBLs for needing the personal connection and taking far too long to support marriage equality. Never mind that he had had a personal transformation, it wasn’t quick or comprehensive enough. Someone get the tar and feathers.

J. Bryan Lowder is unhappy with how long Collins stayed in the closet. And that Collins hasn’t criticized the “sports-masculinity complex” as a kind of preemptive strike against homophobia. And he takes Collins to task for not identifying nearly strongly enough with other gays. Give me a (profanity of your choice) break. Newsflash: He’s the first active, male professional athlete in a major sport in the United States to acknowledge he’s gay. Point out society’s and basketball’s ills tomorrow. Today, just thank the brother for making history.

JBL wraps up this way:

The majority of this stuff reads as posturing for an audience that is voraciously needy for assurance that gay athletes won’t queen-up the game. Or perhaps, as Benoit Denizet-Lewis writes today, it’s about challenging those who think you can’t be black and gay without betraying your race. I don’t know. What’s clear, though, is that while Collins may be out of the closet, he’s just entered into an arena that is only slightly less stifling. Maybe his presence there will change it. But as long as the price-of-admission is anti-femme, hand-holding apologetics, I’m not hopeful.

To the self-appointed arbitrators of liberal politics, progress is the result of people of different politics and life experiences taking two steps forward and one back. Over and over. For years. Collins took 94 steps forward Monday (the length of a basketball court). A tremendously bold move that anyone committed to the dignity of homosexuals should cheer. Unequivocally.

The Scientific Roots of Homosexuality

It’s amazing how many things I get wrong. I was sure UCLA’s new football coach, Jim Mora, was a bad hire. He’s on a short list of national “Coach of the Year” candidates. I was certain a book and movie series about humans, vampires, and wolves would be a bust. And I once mistakenly donated appreciated stock shares that I had held less than a year, thus losing the tax deduction. A “friend” of mine often tells me, in the endearing manner only he can, “You don’t know shit!” Maybe he’s right.

But now, thanks to David P. Barash’s challenging and fascinating short article titled “The Evolutionary Mystery of Homosexuality,” I might be right about something of importance. I’ve long had a hunch that scientists would someday prove that homosexuality has a genetic basis. Who, I wondered, would choose to be such a distinct minority in a still relatively homophobic world? My related prediction is that a few decades from now homophobes will be embarrassed by their anti-gay vitriol. Hope I’m not wrong about that one.

Here are two excerpts from Barash:

1) Nor can we solve the mystery (why hasn’t natural selection operated against homosexuality) by arguing that homosexuality is a “learned” behavior. That ship has sailed, and the consensus among scientists is that same-sex preference is rooted in our biology. Some of the evidence comes from the widespread distribution of homosexuality among animals in the wild. Moreover, witness its high and persistent cross-cultural existence in Homo sapiens.

2) . . . a reasonable summary is that, when it comes to male homosexuality, there is almost certainly a direct influence, although probably not strict control, by one or more alleles (defined as one member of a pair or series of genes that occupy a specific position on a specific chromosome). Ditto for female homosexuality, although the genetic mechanism(s), and almost certainly the relevant genes themselves, differ between the sexes.

Beyond the suggestive but inconclusive search for DNA specific to sexual orientation, other genetic evidence has emerged. A welter of data on siblings and twins show that the role of genes in homosexual orientation is complicated and far from fully understood—but real. Among noteworthy findings: The concordance of homosexuality for adopted (hence genetically unrelated) siblings is lower than that for biological siblings, which in turn is lower than that for fraternal (nonidentical) twins, which is lower than that for identical twins.

Gay-lesbian differences in those outcomes further support the idea that the genetic influence upon homosexuality differs somewhat, somehow, between women and men. Other studies confirm that the tendency to be lesbian or gay has a substantial chance of being inherited.

Consider, too, that across cultures, the proportion of the population that is homosexual is roughly the same.

Given some conservatives rejection of global warming data, this research will not cause a collective epiphany on the right. Many on the right will continue to be wary of science and many homophobes will continue to believe that there would be fewer gay men if more households were headed by strong fathers, that gayness will spread if we extend them more civil rights, and that gays and lesbians can be cured of homosexuality through Christian counseling.

On this one, I’m going to side with the scientists and celebrate the progress my gay and lesbian friends are making.

The Christian College Conundrum

Second Born wants to go to a college where she can enjoy Christian community and deepen her faith. At sixteen she’s not very political, but she’s left-leaning probably because her mom and dad are libs. She also wants to go to a college with a solid academic reputation.

The rub is most explicitly Christian colleges have theologically conservative evangelical roots which lead them to take decidedly conservative positions on pressing contemporary issues upon which reasonable people disagree. For example, here’s an excerpt from Wheaton College’s “Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose” originally penned in 1924:

WE BELIEVE that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ; and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.

Wheaton, Billy Graham’s alma mater, is opposed to homosexuality. Recently apparently, some Wheaton alumni and students have organized to challenge the college’s position on homosexuality and support gay and lesbian students and alum. Here’s their OneWheaton letter of protest. Worth noting, it doesn’t appear as if they’re an officially recognized group and it’s unclear how much attention the administration has paid to them.

Any college that squelches open-ended inquiry compromises their academic reputation. For example, many biologists believe people’s sexual orientations are in large part genetically determined. Any self-respecting science program would pose it as a question to be investigated—Is one’s sexual orientation genetically determined? When the institution declares homosexuality is wrong, they’re stifling inquiry, crippling their science program, and compromising their academic reputation more generally.

Sorry Azusa Pacific Admissions peeps, after I reflected on this with Second Born a few nights ago she decided to cancel her visit. I told her she’d probably get a better education at a school that prioritizes inquiry and creates an environment in which conservative and liberal points of view are freely expressed. One where all students’ voices—whether conservative or liberal; straight or gay; religious, areligious, or antireligious—are encouraged, protected, and respected.

While not explicitly Christian, some outstanding colleges value and encourage religious life including Goshen and Earlham. Many ELCA Lutheran universities emphasize social-justice and embrace more moderate or liberal expressions of Christianity. And of course there’s the Jesuits who have a reputation for melding their social justice oriented Catholicism with very good academics.

Moral of the story, any student seeking opportunities to grow spiritually and intellectually should make sure whatever religious-based institution they’re considering acknowledges the complexity and ambiguity of the modern world and prioritizes open-ended inquiry.