The Granularity of Respect

There was a surprisingly heated discussion in a meeting I was at today about adding transgendered identities to a list of recognized identities in our anti-discrimination policy. Part of the problem, in my view, was that the document we were given to describe the change was doing several things, none of them as fully as it might. It was a description of a policy shift (partially driven by a local statute), a tentative, non-binding indication of some of the procedural changes that might follow on that shift, and an educative document trying to help describe respectful interactions between transgendered individuals and non-transgendered individuals.

There’s a way in which all anti-discrimination clauses aimed at faculty in universities that do not propose or plan to propose concrete structural remedies to existing discrimination boil down to much simpler ethical statements: try not to be mean to students and colleagues unnecessarily or gratitutiously. So if someone wants to remind me, “Look, don’t freak out or stare or make bad jokes if you have a student in your class, or a colleague in your department who is transgendered”, I’m all for the reminder. I wouldn’t want to do that, and if I am doing it, I want to know about it. I don’t want to make any student or colleague feel bad about who they are because of something I say or do where there is no reason why I couldn’t say or do something else. If someone tells me that he wants to be referred to as a man, I am very happy to accomodate, for example.

Now, on the other hand, if I’m teaching in psychology, and I teach about research that gender is innate or has innate neurological characteristics, I wouldn’t accept someone saying that simply teaching such a thing is offensive or hurtful.

This is where the policy comes in, and where it is probably right to ask what kind of procedural commitments follow from the policy. It isn’t just a philosophical question, but also a pragmatic question of cost. I get worried sometimes in discussions about discrimination and identity, because they seem to deprive us of any kind of evaluative language for talking about what kinds of discriminatory harm require the most urgent address, or demand the most resources from an institution. When it comes to everyday gestures of interpersonal respect, that is cost-free. If the procedural realization of a policy includes vastly stronger admonitions about a wide range of speech or even attempts to control or forbid speech, then the cost to intellectual freedom is very high, far too high to bear. If the procedural realization includes comprehensive reconstruction of physical facilities, that also may be too high if it is just to serve the needs of a very small population of people within an institution.

I’m comfortable in this particular institution writing certain kinds of modestly blank checks and trusting to local common sense. However, in general, it’s not a bad idea to be skeptical about why we have to keep adding to a potentially comprehensive ethical commitment not to discriminate by making the list of concretized identities longer and more and more granular. I worry partly because the longer those lists become, the more they propose categorical similarities between extremely non-similar histories and experiences of identity. I worry also because it’s hard to see where the process ends. When our only sense of progressive achievement in the area of discrimination comes from adding new identity categories to our commitment not to discriminate, we are potentially committed to the endless elaboration of identity categories in a way that ultimately distracts from the overarching (and tricky) ethical question, “What does it mean to respect other individuals, and why should we”?

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9 Responses to The Granularity of Respect

  1. Joey Headset says:

    “I’m comfortable in this particular institution writing certain kinds of modestly blank checks and trusting to local common sense.”

    Local common sense… at Swarthmore? We’re talking about the same institution that damn near came to a grinding halt when a group of students/administrators couldn’t tell the difference between chocolate cake and human feces, right? I’d sooner issue blank checks from an empty checking account with the hope that unicorns will cover the withdrawl with Leprechaun Gold.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Modestly blank.

    But you have a point.

  3. Western Dave says:

    Did anybody comment on the glaring error: “Why does Swarthmore need to protect this form of discrimination?” when they meant, “eliminate or reduce this form of discrimination?”

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Holy cow. Good catch. That might have been one of the errors that a critic of the policy was referring to, but it wasn’t mentioned specifically.

  5. Grant says:

    |the same institution that damn near came to a grinding halt when a group of |students/administrators couldn’t tell the difference between chocolate cake |and human feces

    OMG I need to know the whole story here. Is this written up online in the Phoenix or someplace?

    Back in my day, there was a very short-lived protest movement organized by students who mistook the dolphin fish served at the dining hall (now thankfully known as mahi-mahi) for our aquatic mammalian friend Flipper….

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s pretty much the story. I do remember sitting in a meeting with the students who were really upset, still at the point where it was plausible that it was feces and vomit rather than cake mix, and I was kind of stunned at the numbers of them demanding that there be a police investigation, maybe even an FBI investigation. I was, “Um, why is it that you guys have suddenly dropped your otherwise deeply felt skepticism about authority structures like the police or the FBI? Would you normally welcome a major police presence on campus, interrogating students?” The incident was a good reminder not to jump to conclusions too quickly simply because you have a prior narrative and accompanying political project that tells you that such an incident is likely or probable.

  7. CMarko says:

    Regarding Western Dave’s comment: this isn’t the first instance I’ve seen where Swarthmoreans have written the opposite of what they’ve intended. In particular, I’ve noticed that SQU sometimes advertises meetings as “closed to students who identify as queer or questioning,” when I’m certain that they mean the meeting is *open only* to those students. I suspect that this is a side effect of frequently writing in jargon, trying to be extremely politically correct, or both, although it remains puzzling.

  8. Joey Headset says:

    That bulletin is a pretty glossy version of events. There were people who spoke at that rally for the purpose of telling the people assembled there that they were hypocrits. Well, there was at least one person… me. In fact, there’s a decent chance that’s me standing at the podium in the photo. This was back in my long-hair days.

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