Alert Top Message

Due to concerns about COVID-19, the AAUP office has transitioned to telework. Please contact staff by email.

 

 

The Utility and Futility of Good Faith in Campus Speech Controversies

Can dialogue grounded in good faith help deescalate some conflicts?
By Jonathan Friedman

Campuses have become increasingly polarized in recent years, with the individuals and groups that populate them drawing firmer lines around their allies and enemies. Hardly a week seems to pass without a new conflict, controversy, or lawsuit. Groups from all points on the political spectrum have played some role in precipitating this state of affairs. Some right-leaning groups have waged a war on faculty members for expressing views critical of the Trump administration, while others have demanded that all speakers be welcomed to campus, even those who come to promote hate and provoke controversy. Some left-leaning groups, meanwhile, have become disaffected with the notion of free speech, concerned more with creating an inclusive environment than with protecting the expression of noxious ideas. Others have participated in protests—some silent, some violent—to try to shut down or disrupt talks by those whose ideas they find repugnant.

In the midst of a rise in hate crimes, racially motivated violence, and targeted efforts on campus to indoctrinate students into white supremacist ideology, the need to combat polarization and radicalization is more pressing than it has been in a generation. Abroad, tactics such as  facilitating person-to-person interactions and emphasizing common humanity have proven effective at deescalating social conflicts and have been used in efforts to combat terrorism, facilitate postconflict reconciliation, and support democracy. Now, various groups are trying to apply these lessons to college campuses, looking to dialogue as a way to move beyond our current polarization.

If these efforts are to be successful, the notion of “good faith” will be an essential precept. In diplomatic circles, good faith means believing that those with whom one is negotiating do not have duplicitous or malevolent motives. In school, in law, in business, and in relationships, the concept of good faith—believing that others are acting with good intentions and relaying information honestly—is essential for trust. Notions of civil society and liberal democracy rely on good faith too, as we expect elected leaders and various authorities to act ethically and earnestly. As legal scholar Frederick M. Lawrence has recently urged in a posting on the American Council on Education’s blog, good faith must be part of any effort at civil dialogue, as individuals should try to “assume the best in each other” and “not suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree.

But can good faith really save higher education from the throes of recent controversy around free speech and inclusion? Has good faith been lacking in debates concerning outside speakers, campus protests, safe spaces, and trigger warnings? Alternatively, what are the limits of good faith—the situations in which it might be counterproductive or even detrimental?

The Utility of Good Faith

Consider a familiar dynamic. An outside speaker invited to speak at a public university has made controversial comments in the past. Tensions run high as the group that invited the speaker hews to a robust defense of free speech, while those who are concerned about the speaker’s views express dismay at the harm the talk could cause. Campus leaders are in a bind. Much as they might agree with the concerned students, they have an obligation to support free speech. So, they can either grant the organizers permission to hold the event—despite expectations of protest—or seek an alternative reason for cancellation or postponement. No outcome of this situation will satisfy all of the parties involved.

Can good faith help mollify this situation? Let’s imagine that such an outlook was adopted by all involved. First, those objecting to the speaker would have to grant the person license to speak. Second, those who invited the speaker would have to view protesters as citizens exercising their democratic right to counterspeech. Third, administrators would support both sides, assuming they are both acting with the best intentions.

This is a rosy portrait, to be sure. But the point here is that there can be utility in suspending final judgment until a speaker—and those involved in counterspeech activities—have actually had the chance to express their views. This is a tried and true principle in diplomatic negotiations, which require the parties involved to suspend ill will and suspicion in the interest of finding middle ground. It does not mean that those instincts or feelings will dissipate but that they can—and should—be put on a back burner temporarily in the interest of allowing dialogue to move forward.

A good-faith outlook will not come easily to campus constituents involved in today’s free-speech disputes or to the wider circle of journalists, politicians, and commentators who routinely weigh in on these matters. The polarized nature of our digital lives—exemplified by the proliferation of echo chambers on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit—makes facilitating a common culture of good faith all the more challenging. But promoting good faith concerning controversial speakers on campus might help deescalate some of these conflicts.

Good faith could be productive in other instances, too. A good-faith approach to trigger warnings, for example, would consider the fact that professors often adopt them out of courteousness rather than to shield students from ideas that might offend. This is why trigger warnings are best left to the discretion of the professor. A good-faith approach to safe spaces would likewise recognize that students may have valid reasons for seeking out a community and an environment where they will not be harangued, but that it is unreasonable to expect that all spaces on a campus might be regulated and purged of all possible offenses.

Were there more good faith to go around, perhaps these would not have become such hot-button issues and those holding opposing views would not seem so misguided to one another. The same is true of numerous challenges surrounding outrage over language. Just as an effort a generation ago focused on rooting out the use of gay as a stand-in for something negative, today’s linguistic fervor has centered on purging the casual use of colloquialisms that have associations with mental illnesses, disabilities, and colonialism, as well as those lingering terms that have origins as ethnic slurs or racist insults or have sexist connotations. The challenge is that language is second nature, and many do not mean to offend in their everyday speech. For example, the professor who references the new frontiers of space exploration, or the student who reports being blindsided by a recent test, are both using terms that some have perceived as offensive. In today’s call-out culture, the use of such terms can be treated as infractions worthy of public shaming.

A good-faith interpretation can deescalate such incidents. Rather than assuming bad intent, campus constituents could be encouraged to exercise what might be called due patience and dispassionately explain the underlying meanings of the terms in question. In that millisecond between uttered speech and perceived offense, a good-faith outlook might promote cool-headedness and facilitate dialogue in which no parties ultimately feel accused or marginalized. The outcome could be greater conscientiousness by all parties, rather than greater frustration and outrage.

Of course, the impact of speech matters, but as PEN America chief executive officer Suzanne Nossel has argued, it is possible to reject the notion that individuals should, in all circumstances, be held strictly liable for their choices of words and the myriad ways in which they might be interpreted. A good-faith approach instead allows us to set the baseline expectation of others a little lower, asking that they be courteous and willing to listen rather than in the vanguard of every social cause or attuned to the latest linguistic shifts and taboos. Higher education institutions have long been known as sites of intergenerational tensions, and expecting everyone to be alert to fast-moving cultural shifts is a sure recipe for conflict. This does not necessarily require abandoning social change; it means adopting more diplomatic tactics.

Good faith might also lessen the fury against professors attacked for making controversial comments. Particularly in cases where faculty members have come under fire for posts on social media, their words have often been viewed in the worst possible light: statements have been taken out of context and interpreted literally rather than figuratively, and purported offenders have found little leeway to explain how their posts were meant to be ironic, hyperbolic, sarcastic, or satirical. Appeals to good faith may be unlikely to sway those bent on promoting negative scrutiny of higher education, but they could be useful in the vast public network of individuals who consume news about such controversies.

In these ways, good faith, due patience, and courteous listening all have much utility to recent debates and controversies surrounding free speech and inclusion in higher education. However, these frameworks are not without challenges and flaws, and they cannot be invoked in all situations.

The Futility of Good Faith

Despite clear cases in which a good-faith outlook would be helpful, the concept does have real limits. The first is that it must be reciprocated: the approach simply will not work if one side is exercising good faith but perceives the other as failing to match it. Campuses are traditionally marked by numerous conflicts—between students and faculty or faculty and administrators, or across disciplines, ideologies, or generations—but there are almost always opportunities to bridge these conflicts. The hope of reciprocal good faith can be the linchpin to get parties to the table.

Take recent debates over whether today’s generation of college students are too “coddled” and have little tolerance for those whose opinions they prejudge to be disagreeable. Conversations about this issue, if heated, will go in circles the minute either side shows disdain for the other. If terms like snowflakes and social justice warriors are lobbed, good faith will become unsustainable. This is in fact precisely how familiar debates about these issues have often proceeded, with each side distrusting that a show of good faith will be properly reciprocated and abandoning any efforts to find middle ground.  

A second challenge is that the well of good faith can run dry. This is particularly relevant to various campaigns for racial justice, inclusivity, and equity that have convulsed campuses in recent years. Consider recent efforts by colleges and universities to reckon with their historic ties to slavery or the Confederacy. Early discussion of this issue might begin with reciprocal good faith between administrators and those who experience revulsion or marginalization every time they walk past certain statues or symbols on campus. If, over time, campus leaders fail to respond to those complaints, the offended parties will exhaust their appetite for negotiation. This was seen most recently at the University of North Carolina, where frustrations with the university’s response to complaints led to the toppling of the Silent Sam statue. As Jennifer Calfas documented in an article for Time, protests against the statue actually began during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and in 2017 the Democratic governor told university administrators that they could authorize its removal. But between inaction and perceived insensitivity, any good faith in the administration seems to have evaporated. Harassment, violence, or property damage should never be condoned; but this event illustrates how the window for good-faith dialogue can narrow over time.

Other circumstances will likely preclude the adoption of a good-faith approach at the outset. This is particularly so when historically marginalized populations that are the targets of racial epithets, denigrating slurs, or other offensive caricatures face demands to act with “civility.” For example, people of color might be asked to be patient with or courteous toward those who promote racism and deny their basic dignity as equal humans. It hardly seems reasonable to ask a transgender student to take a good-faith approach to the Trump administration’s memorandum on adopting a legally binding definition that would restrict gender to the biological sex assigned at birth. And it seems equally unreasonable to ask a Latina student to take a good-faith approach when her roommate builds a makeshift wall in the middle of their dorm room in the wake of a national debate about Latin American immigration laced with xenophobia and racism. In these circumstances, those who have been targeted have a right to be angry and uninterested in dialogue.

As polarization has heightened, the most troubling challenge stems from the fact that the battle lines have been drawn, and the actions and words of one’s opponents often preclude any possibility of dialogue, understanding, or empathy. Consider the platform adopted by the California College Republicans in 2018, which contained surprising invective against other student groups and campus actors. Among the claims of the platform was the proclamation that “ethnic, women’s, and sexually deviant ‘community centers’ and ‘theme dormitories’ that engender ethnic nationalism, racial animus and encourage degenerate behavior go against everything we believe as conservatives.” Invoking such denigrating language is a sure way to close off opportunities for dialogue. As Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, the group’s use of terms “like  ‘degenerate and murderous,’ ‘fascist-minded,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘mental illness masquerading as transgenderism,’ and so on may win them points on conservative media platforms…but will certainly not help their cause on college campuses.” The same challenge is evident in some provocations from groups on the Left, such as the inclusion in a “disorientation guide” at Vassar College of an admonition to “Slap a Zionist.” Even if meant in jest, that language can preclude any good faith in future engagements with its authors—just as labeling others’ behavior as “degenerate” is likely to preclude earnest dialogue rather than encourage it.

There is also a gaping chasm between honest debate and purposeful lies and slander. Cries of “fake news,” for example, which run contrary to facts that are readily accessible and widely acknowledged, do not merit a good-faith response. Nor do threats of violence or actions or speech with obvious racist intent demand fair engagement. In such instances, good faith will likely prove futile, for the actions of one side have escalated conflict to a point where such a response can no longer be reasonably maintained.

Temples of Good Faith

Sociologists have called universities “temples” of contemporary Western society, institutions that have attained a kind of sacred status. What they value, and how they uphold those values, matters a great deal to society writ large. But by design, they are also hardwired for conflict, commingling disciplines with different epistemologies; supporting diverse missions of research, teaching, and service; and bringing together individuals from different generations with varying ethnic, national, and racial backgrounds, religious beliefs, socioeconomic resources, cultural values, political leanings, and gender identities. To nurture a campus climate in which individuals from all these backgrounds are welcomed, in which inclusivity is realized as an institutional priority, and in which protections for free speech are robust, good faith will be a necessary virtue.

In this environment, disagreement, skepticism, and debate are all healthy. Not everyone will agree with every idea, policy, and term in circulation, but a diversity of viewpoints can be harnessed to foster critical thought and advance the academic mission. A good-faith approach can help soften potential conflicts, by fostering productive dialogue, underpinned by notions like due patience, courteous listening, curiosity, reflectiveness, openness to criticism, and leading with a charitable interpretation of others’ speech and actions. All of these are notions that faculty and staff could invest more time, energy, and resources in promoting. For if these strategies are not taught to the rising generation, we can hardly expect them to take root and flourish more widely.

Good faith is thus an important corollary to higher education’s fundamental missions of teaching, research, and service, and investing in it may pay particular dividends in our current moment of polarization and radicalization. Indeed, in other moments, this is exactly what good faith has accomplished, allowing intellectuals with fiercely opposing ideas to share a debate stage or warring rivals to broker peace. Given the legacies of racial discrimination and privilege that have intermingled and endured in higher education, good faith is bound to prove futile, inappropriate, and unsustainable in some circumstances. But if campuses could encourage their constituents to set a higher bar for outrage at their opponents—if they could aspire to be temples of good faith--then new opportunities for dialogue and understanding might appear, and new vistas for reconciling the recent tensions between free speech, diversity, and inclusion might materialize. 

Jonathan Friedman is project director for Campus Free Speech at PEN America.

 

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.