I used to believe much more in procedural reform as a way to deal with questions of fairness, equity and justice. That every institution and community should have its established rules and processes, and if you signed on, you accepted those as obligations. It’s a very Ned Stark way of looking at things and has the same appeal that honor has to Ned Stark: in the best case scenario, mutual rule-following produces a kind of rough, semi-stable sort of utilitarian outcomes. A few men may get their heads lopped off for deserting from the Wall, and women might get stuck making the best of the bad deals handed to them by men, but at least life isn’t a Hobbsean nightmare. People who live outside the system might suffer, but that’s their problem. The harvest is stored and the world survives another long winter. In the worst case scenario, you go to your execution confident that you’re a better man than your murderers and that they’ll eventually regret what they’ve done. (After a lot of death and suffering.)
As the analogy ought to make clear, I’m less enamored of this approach now. Because at the least a proceduralist frequently discovers what Ned Stark did: respect for the rules is worth very little against those who not only disrespect those rules but know how to use the proceduralist’s self-restraint against him. But also because most rules, laws, deliberative processes and codes end up drifting from the lived reality of an institution or a community. Following the rules as rules disconnects them from their purpose, deprives them of an organic, renewable ideal. Simple truths and messy ambiguities alike get pushed aside, and the hard work of making a consistently better, more secure, more satisfying life for everyone within an institution or community gets deferred.
Rule-making also is often the equivalent of inviting a vampire to enter a home. Trying to make changes in everyday consciousness, practice or expression take hold through prescriptive rules is a mismatch of objective and method at the outset, but that mismatch is frequently aggravated because rule-making brings a whole host of experts, consultants and wonks into the room who are happiest dealing with human beings from the antiseptic distances that abstractions, generalizations and universalizations permit.
I think this is a bit of what was making me anxious last spring in talking to disparate groups of Swarthmore students about the changes they wanted to see at the college or even in the world at large. I am actually beginning to wonder if there isn’t a little teeny bit of truth to the idea that some of the current generation of college students really do not like certain formulations of autonomy or open-ended situations that are designed to maximize contingent outcomes. Even when they’re showing tremendous leadership and initiative, I see a lot (not all or maybe even most) of recent students asking (demanding!) that institutions and authorities do things for them, create rules and strictures, intervene, control (but controlling only what those students want controlled).
Some of my anxiety is probably just personal, just the difference between the world I grew up and the world that a 20-year old today has grown up in. But some of this has to do with the lessons I’ve learned about the limits to proceduralism, that if you ask lawyers to help you fix the world, what you get is some expensive instructions about how to comply with existing laws. I think this has become particularly evident in the changes that Swarthmore and many other colleges are trying to make around sexual assault and harassment policies.
Many changes as we’ve experienced them in the last year are good. When I recently talked with my departmental colleagues about the fact that they now have zero discretion about reporting what a student tells them about an experience of assault or harassment, I felt like that was a positive change in our professional practice. There’s still discretion in the system, but that’s between the Title IX coordinator (to whom we now report on these matters) and the students involved.
But there are aspects of what we’re doing that feel a bit too driven by rule-making and bureaucracy. There was some confusion earlier this semester, for example, about whether a student (or employee) who happens to mention in conversation that they were abused when they were young, before being at Swarthmore, should still be the subject of a report and if so whether that should trigger all sorts of further reporting and investigation. As far as slippery slopes go, that’s a short one: no college should be involving itself into the entirety of the lives of its students or employees, for any reason.
The students clearly were bothered earlier this semester when the college took stronger steps to enforce restrictions on underage drinking. But that’s another demonstration of the downside of procedural reform: institutions that are forced to take note of process, rules and law can’t afford to forget what they’ve noticed if they’ve noticed those things officially.
The deeper problem is that the roots of assault and harassment are both personal and cultural, and institutional policies and strictures and actions aren’t very effective at grappling with practices or subjectivities that operate at that level. I think broadly speaking this is a problem with the American left in general over the last three or four decades, that it has remained fixated on issues and questions that really are cultural and social while also showing very little ability to cope with those questions in those terms. Because that takes a fundamentally illiberal, even authoritarian kind of official power that goes well beyond laws and rules in the power it wields against culture and habitus. Or it takes a methodical kind of dialogic and persuasive approach spearheaded by people who are skilled in reading the patterns of everyday life, who have a good ear for how ordinary people talk and think, particularly the people who need to change their ways of being and doing.
I can’t decide if some of our students know that they aren’t yet very good at the second kind of approach and therefore avoid it, if they knowingly reject the need for the second kind of approach, or if they don’t see the limits of what can be accomplished with rules, procedures and enforcement within a basically liberal order. I’m not sure of the same of American progressives in general. But I do know that there can be bad outcomes when you’re not clear about what you’re doing or why. Lawmakers and rule-enforcers don’t usually know where to stop of their own accord, and the only way to keep them from going too far is to be absolutely clear all along about core principles and values. In particular, if you try to use rules as a tool for instrumental refashionings of culture and subjectivity, you are going to find it very difficult to set boundaries. For example, if this or that text or statement or idea is problematic outside of the classroom and should be banned or censured or punished, then it’s going to be very hard not to think the same about other texts or statements or ideas inside of it, even (or especially) those that are being taught because they’re troubling. If social censure or critique between peers isn’t sufficient to remake the cultural underpinnings of community, and official sanction or punishment necessary, where does that stop? If you start setting boundaries of inclusion and exclusion with very tangible instrumental purposes in mind (rather than a belief that a generally inclusive practice will produce basically good if indeterminate outcomes), where will you stop?