Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is Our Partisanship A Poli-Ticking Time Bomb?

Originally posted on the Faculty Blog on November 17, 2008.

While trolling through PrawfsBlog to refresh my memory on a debate I wanted to blog about as to the teaching of Legal Writing and Research classes, I stumbled across this post from about a month ago in which FIU professor Howard Wasserman raised the question of how appropriate it is for professors to display their political preferences in the classroom and/or their offices. In reading it, I couldn’t help but think about a conversation I had had with a friend a week or two ago. In response to my joking about how important it was to read my blog posts while I was still able to post them, my friend commented that he/she refused to read the Faculty Blog because he/she didn’t want to read about the political beliefs of professors. Now, I don’t know that I find the posts here to be all that politically charged, but the fact that my friend was so adamantly opposed to that while at the same time being very vocally partisan regarding this past presidential election was something I found ironic. And now that this election has passed and the votes have all been tallied, I think it’s worth reflecting upon just how dangerous it is to be partisan in a learning environment.

I was sent this article about a 14-year old girl in Chicago, Catherine Vogt, who for one day wore a t-shirt that said “McCain Girl.” In what should be absolutely no surprise to anyone, she was subject to mocking, condescension, and extreme hostility from both teachers and students; some students even suggested she be “burned with her shirt on.” The few McCain supporters in her class felt the need to pull her aside and quietly relate their approval of her shirt, lest they be ridiculed as well. Then, when she wore a t-shirt labeled “Obama Girl” the next day, those same students were relieved that “her brain had come back.” The girl, of course, documented every comment made, good and bad, for the purpose of a sociological experiment for her class, leading to a great deal of much-deserved chagrin from her peers. Now, we could very easily sit here and shake our heads at how ludicrous this story is, but I think we’ve all been witness to the exact same situation somewhere in our day-to-day activities. In fact, I’d wager that many examples could be drawn from this Law School, or really from any school anywhere in the country.

Now, I fully support the right to vote and to hold political opinions. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that anyone should be politically apathetic. But at what point do we cross the line from “freedom of expression” to “hostile work environment”? What if, even in a private university like Marquette, students were ridiculed, demeaned, and/or threatened for practicing Judaism instead of Catholicism? Or for being homosexual instead of heterosexual? Imagine if someone showed disdain for a member of a different race or ethnicity because “that’s what my family has always done, and it’s what I was taught to do”? Would you as students or faculty or staff feel comfortable being around an environment like that? Would it affect your ability to focus on your work if you were one of those ridiculed? And yet, when any of the examples I just gave — race, religion, sexual orientation — are replaced with a political affiliation, people accept it when it occurs, especially during presidential election seasons. And perhaps no one feels it if they’re part of the majority opinion — which seemed to be the Obama camp this time around — but if you are of the minority . . . one can only imagine how uncomfortable such a person is made to feel. And it gets even worse if you didn’t have a quickly formulated opinion on politics; truly, the only thing worse than supporting the minority position is being undecided, especially in an election as polarizing as this past one.

For the record, this isn’t a slap at any faculty or administrators by any means. You can’t penalize something like this unless it’s brought to your attention, and I don’t think many students would ever feel comfortable formally filing some complaint for fear that it would make them appear petty. I have no doubt that had someone said something, any sane teacher, professor, or administrator would have swiftly moved to squash the elements causing the discomfort. Nevertheless, I think the quote at the beginning of the Vogt article sums up the issue well:

As the media keeps gushing on about how America has finally adopted tolerance as the great virtue, and that we’re all united now, let’s consider the Brave Catherine Vogt Experiment.

Let’s consider it indeed. For if even one student, age 14 or 40, is made to feel uncomfortable in any learning institution because of his or her political beliefs, isn’t that one too many?

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