Monday, September 25, 2017

My Recurring Nightmare

I’ll admit to some raised eyebrows reading about the lecturer at NJIT who was recorded apparently praising Hitler in class.  He claims he was taken out of context.

As someone who used to teach political philosophy, a scenario like this is my recurring nightmare.

Among other things, I taught the Greatest Hits of the Western canon of political thought, or, as we called it, “From Plato to NATO.”  I assigned actual texts -- in translation, but still -- and spent class time helping students decipher them.  Some of it involved reading comprehension, but much of it involved trying to get the overall perspective of each thinker.  A middle-class American 18 year old may not find, say, Locke’s Second Treatise terribly relatable at first blush, so part of my task involved painting word-pictures and trying to provide context.

Sometimes that meant role-playing, or playing the devil’s advocate.  At various times over the years, in class, I would role-play a monarchist, an anarchist, a Marxist, a utilitarian, a libertarian, a Hobbesian, an Aristotelian, a Burkean, a feminist, or a Platonist.  Fascism was a tough one, but sometimes I’d try to ventriloquize Nietzsche, which can be great fun in very small, carefully selected doses.  

This was before smartphones and YouTube.  Back then, a single student might misunderstand something I said, but the odds of that student recording it and distributing it instantly to the world were close to zero.  There were times when I would play a character for ten or twenty minutes at a pop, trying to help students understand how a given thinker or school of thought connected the dots.  

If some student had recorded, say, five minutes of the anarchist role-play and posted it to YouTube, shorn of context, I would have been in a bad spot.  But I wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong.

This, to me, is why it matters to have presidents and vice presidents who have actually taught.  If some ideologically-driven student or organization starts pulling this kind of stuff and trying to shut down real inquiry, you want to have people high up who understand both what’s at stake and what was really going on.  If I couldn’t try to present each thinker’s most compelling claims in the most compelling way I could, I wouldn’t have been doing my job very well.  Getting students to grapple with difficult questions can involve some uncomfortable moments.  

The threat that those uncomfortable moments could be taken entirely out of context and sent to the world as evidence of something sinister is deeply scary.  It cuts to the heart of the teaching role.  The panopticon-from-below is such a severe threat because it’s so easy to pull off.  The original panopticon took actual effort to build.  Now anyone with a midrange phone can do both surveillance and mass distribution.  

I don’t know whether the NJIT case involved thoughtful pedagogical role-playing, unhinged ranting, inappropriate recruiting, or what.  It could have been any of those, or some combination of them.  But on general principle, I’d be deeply wary of drawing conclusions from a single recorded clip.  It’s just too easy to mislead.