The Consequences of Being Earnest

Two recent news items– Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem and University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison’s letter on trigger warnings and safe-spaces–  have me thinking about a frightening trend in contemporary discourse. Namely, how these two cases highlight our overwhelming desire to avoid earnest conversations about difficult subjects.


Colin Kaepernick, once the star quarterback of the San Fransico 49ers but now a fringe player trying to hold on to a roster spot in the NFL, stirred up controversy for failing to stand during the national anthem before a pre-season football game. Kaepernick explained his motives as a protest to the way the United States treats its black citizens, in particular through discriminatory policing. He has faced a backlash from angry, largely white fans and conservative media personalities. His actions are mocked. His ability to speak on the issue has been questioned from every perspective– is he black enough to know discrimination? How can a rich man make these claims? If he thinks it is unfair here why doesn’t he move to another country? These are the familiar refrains of white supremacists and their often unwitting accomplices in trying to shout down calls for equality and freedom. They refuse to engage in the debate, instead preferring to substitute in some strawman argument they can knock down. Worse still are the cowards who say “I understand/agree with his position, but can’t support his actions.” Fearful of the “anti-troops/anti-police” backlash they would face for supporting him, these weak-willed men who preen on and on about their toughness and the importance of character (every football player and coach ever) are voicing support for the silent acceptance of the status quo.

Articles written to support Kaepernick are met with similar fates– I’m sure this will too. Critics will attack the idea that Kaepernick has sacrificed anything. He’s making millions of dollars after all! The notion that being treated as an outcast by your teammates, fans, and friends is “nothing” is beyond absurd. Few people enjoy scorn. I can assure you it is no fun to take heat from people who dislike something you have said or written. Some of it is easy to let roll off– like childish insults or lame attempts to troll. Others are harder. Having people threaten your life or the people you care about is terrifying. It is meant to be. Made all the more awful through the anonymity of the internet. I certainly have not enjoyed the minor amount of hate mail and I get and the storm Kaepernick has raining down on him is exponentially greater.

The idea that he is taking no risk here and doing it for publicity also ignores the reality of his profession. The NFL is one of the most exploitative institutions this side of the NCAA or FIFA. Unlike many other sports or professions where your contract is guaranteed, the NFL’s owner-centric labor agreement allows them to discard players when they are used up, diminishing in skill, or simply become more of a headache than their play is worth. And football coaches are notoriously unwilling to deal with “outside” distractions. Because unlike every other profession on Earth, football players need to be allowed to conserve all their brain power and mental energy for game day (unless we are talking about head injuries– under that aegis their brains seem to be much less important to the league). Kaepernick was on the bubble already, due to his large salary, recent injury history, and what looks like a declining skill set. Standing up for this may well cost him his job and any future in the league. This is no small risk.

Colin Kaepernick sat down during a song. A song played at NFL games meant to signify some imagined connection to the soldiers in our armed forces. A song that was written as an ode to the strength of our nation and its ideals. His protest was over our failure to live up to those ideals. His critics are furious that he disrespected “the troops.” They are similarly outraged when Black Lives Matter shuts down a highway– why do they have to disrupt our lives like that? They express their anger with the violence that has broken out in cities recently over police killings of black men– why can’t they protest peacefully? If it isn’t clear to you that these supporters of white supremacy are not interested in any kind of black protest I don’t know what it would take.

The truth of the Colin Kaepernick situation is that Americans– conservatives and liberals alike– don’t want to have these conversations. They don’t want to talk about racism, police discrimination, or whether or not our police have become hyper-militarized. They don’t want pointy eggheads flooding their social media sites with it and they sure as hell don’t want athletes or celebrities stepping out of their “lane” to promote it. Many of them imagine sports as their “safe space” and they resent that being taken away from them.

John Lee Ellison
(Cambridge, MA.– Wednesday, November 4, 2009)– John Lee Ellison, Associate Dean of the College and Secretary of the Administrative Board and Member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was photographed in the Faculty Room at University Hall at Harvard University on Wednesday, November 4, 2009. Staff Photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

The notion that we need spaces that are closed off from topics we do not want to engage in has become a major point of conflict on many college campuses. University of Chicago Dean of Students John Ellison’s letter on trigger warnings and safe-spaces is a response to that. It is just the latest in a long line outbursts regarding the chilling effect trigger warnings and safe spaces have on discourse. There is truth to these claims.

A bit of background before I address those truths. Safe spaces were originally designations meant to express that an area– be it an office, a classroom, or building– was an LGBTQ accepting space that would not allow for homophobic remarks or discriminatory behavior. I support this concept completely. Putting the pink triangle on my door was a message to my LGBTQ students that I respected their identity and they could feel safe in my presence. It was about growing a culture of trust and support on campus. There is no room in the university or the corporate world for bullying, slurs, or personal attacks. Ever.

However, there must be room in the public sphere for debate. Just as the white supremacist is free to say that they believe in the superiority of the white race (they are demonstrably wrong), so too must the anti-gay be free to spout their message of hate and nonsense. They will lose in the marketplace of ideas because their argument is rotten at the core. It has nothing but hate to stand on. What they do not have the right to do is harass you with it. To physically or mentally harm you with their message or actions. Speak in the abstract all you want. Cross the line into personal statements and the game is over. These limits on speech exist for all. Too many– though I contend that their numbers are much smaller than the conservative-led backlash against them would have you believe– have taken the safe space idea and attempted to turn a shield into a sword, pushing ideas they don’t like out of the public conversation. Calling your campus a safe space and thus not a venue for alternative viewpoints does little to make your students safer, but does a lot to create an insular and uncritical environment. Note, not one of the six institutions I have attended or worked at (two massive public R1s, a teaching school, a traditionally black college, and a seminary) have behaved in such a way. This is a rather isolated issue not worth the press that it gets.

I am much less inclined to agree with trigger warnings and have seen much greater evidence that they are used to silence conversation or (more commonly) to alter/disrupt designed curriculum. Do not confuse this with callousness towards the plight of our students. With the expansion of access to higher education has come a much greater diversity in experiences. No doubt many more students have been the victim of violent crimes, discrimination, and traumatic ordeals than in the past. Higher education has not ignored this– the very nature of what we teach and how we teach it has been altered by the demographic shift. The demand to include trigger warnings seems to have originated in a good place– a desire to help people prepare to confront information that brings them anxiety and pain. It would be hard to label this desire as anything but admirable. But it is also an absolute affront to academic freedom and the very notion of critical engagement necessary to life in a democratic society. To be blunt, learning is supposed to be uncomfortable. It is supposed to confuse and upset you. That is what struggling with ideas really looks like. And on the issues most important to us, these will feel like attacks on our very identity. Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life.

One of my earliest teaching assignments was in an introductory education course on multicultural education. The particular section in question was completely white. While I could see the dismissiveness on most of the students’ faces as we talked about issues throughout the semester one student lacked either the filter or the sense to hide his contempt. During a discussion on what constitutes a racially inclusive classroom halfway through the semester, he finally had enough. He bluntly and crudely grunted “I don’t know why I should give a shit about this. I’m just going to go back and teach gym at my all-white school.” He was a wrestler who identified wanting to coach wrestling as his main motivation for getting into education (this is depressingly common), so I snapped back at him asking “do you want any of your wrestlers to earn scholarships to college?” “Of course,” he responded. “Might there be non-white kids on their team, in their dorm, and on the campus?” I asked. “Don’t you think it might be nice if they had some frame of reference for what the lives of their teammates and friends have been like– the things they like and dislike, the traditions they celebrate, the reason they respond differently to something than you do? Wouldn’t that make their transition to college easier?”

I was cheating here, of course. I knew from the way he spoke about things in class that he was confused by a lot of the different attitudes and behaviors he was confronting on campus. That there was so much that was foreign to him that he found it easier to just tune it out rather than do the difficult work of trying to understand. I knew where he was intellectually and emotionally– I had similar feelings myself just a few years earlier. Home is a tricky place to escape from.

“Yes…” he said sheepishly, his head and shoulders seemingly sinking into the floor. I had rattled this kid to his core with little more than a simple observation.

A more experienced and compassionate version of me would have followed up on this– using the moment to explain to the class how his question was the essence of what we are trying to do in college. How the question “why should I give a shit” is the best question you can ask any professor. I would have left him with his dignity while reinforcing my point. Instead, I smugly left him crushed in his seat and continued on with my prepared lecture and discussion points, feeling that I had effectively redirected his negative attitude in a way that helped the class more actively participate in what had to that point been rather impotent discussions. These are the sort of things that haunt me when I reflect on my work.

Years later, I had this same student in a modern US history course. I’d love to say that I instantly recognized him, but it was a lecture hall with nearly 200 people in it and I didn’t recall him amid that sea of humanity. Several weeks into the semester after I had given a lecture– I want to say it was on the failures of Reconstruction, the southernization of pop culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, or the rise of women’s rights, but I don’t fully recall– he waited for me to finish holding court down by the lectern. I invited him to walk with me, as I was late for my office hours (as usual). He recounted that class period from nearly four years ago in more vivid detail than I ever could.

As I felt the shame rush over me I started formulating my apology. Explain what you were really trying to accomplish, make clear that he didn’t deserve the dismissiveness and contempt I displayed towards him, tell him I would have a colleague grade his work in my course so he would feel that he was being fairly evaluated. As he was winding down the story a funny thing happened: he told me that it was the most important moment in his education.

The meekness and compliance I got from him the rest of the semester were not the actions of a beaten man, but were the humility and curiosity of an inquiring mind. He said that for the first time in his life he felt inadequate to a challenge and that it helped him realize there might be things he didn’t know about the world. He told me that from that class forward he listened to everything that was presented to him, no matter how foreign the idea or how much it clashed with what he currently believed. That didn’t mean he accepted it all, but that he treated new information with an open and critical eye. He was taking this course because he saw that I was teaching it and wanted a chance to study with me again before he went off to teach social studies somewhere.

Some people really know how to humble a guy.

I apologized for my unkindness to him and thanked him for giving me a second chance. His work in that final course was exemplary, illustrating a creative and critical mind in book reviews, research papers, and exam answers alike.

While I still regret my tactless handling of this episode, it speaks to my larger issue with trigger warnings– being uncomfortable is a natural and necessary part of learning.

I know there is a big difference between having your view as a small town white guy challenged and having to deal with material that strikes at something that was forced on you. The idiom “hit by a truck” is more prevalent than you probably realize. But I hear it almost every day. A myriad of other things in my world remind me that I had my youth, vitality, and body snatched away by the reckless and illegal actions of a selfish, drunk man. There is no way to protect me from this fact. Nor is my story unique. Many of us carry the scars of an unkind and unjust world on us. Some more visibly than others. Whose triggers deserve warnings? I’ve never seen a good answer to this question. Is it responsible to expect faculty accommodation for this without prior information (for example, students with physical disabilities are required to register with the university before we are required or expected to accommodate them)? I don’t think it is.

Trigger warnings on their own are unlikely to be an impediment to uncomfortable learning– they are more an administrative nightmare. But in the world of social media mob justice and absurdly invasive employee screening, we create an environment where people feel afraid to ask questions or challenge assumptions. If surveys are to be believed, nearly half of our students feel that way. And so do many of our faculty. From those I know, I’d estimate that they are even more concerned than our students. So tough questions and subjects are discarded, in favor of issues that no one will find upsetting. This is not how you create an environment that is favorable to equality and justice– it is how you build a world where the status quo is never questioned and where we decide on our positions before we ever hear the evidence.

Shame on any faculty member that caves to that fear. Have the courage of your convictions, be prepared with a cogent pedagogical defense of the topic, and do your damn job. Model the sort of discourse students must learn to engage in. Recognize the great privilege you have to have been afforded the luxury and opportunity to study a subject so deeply and the responsibility to your students, your institution, and the public at large that this privilege entails. Your unwillingness to challenge this mindset models cowardice and short-sighted, selfish thinking for your students.

As a historian and educator, I cannot think of a more important topic. Engaging in the tough conversations, arguing over the nuance and complexity of our world are essential to the development of critical thinking and engaged citizenship. Context and relevancy live in those ugly details.

More importantly, as a person trying his best to think about, care for, and love the people in my world it is my duty to fight for open dialog. For every David Duke you shout down you ensure the similar silencing of folks like Colin Kaepernick. Silence favors the way things were. Change can only come from tough and earnest conversation. Racism can only be confronted through discussion and protest. The words of the would-be oppressors often become the very pike they are hoisted upon. The balance between religious freedom and equality for LGBTQ members under the law and in society will not be struck by ignoring the other side’s voices. As Colin Kaepernick is finding out (and black athletes like Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Jim Brown learned before him), earnestness is already fraught enough in this world. Let’s not make it worse.

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