Don’t be political and personal

The case for depoliticising the university classroom

image of empty classroom

Content note: abortion

“I feel that all these discussions are inherently political,” Ben said, shaking his head.

He was referring to a tute we just had for Practical Ethics. The topic was abortion, which someone had compared to infanticide. Although rarely discussed in public discourse, the position that early infants have the same moral status as foetuses (and therefore that infanticide is justified) is held by prominent pro-choice philosophers like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley. At the very least, that comparison merits some serious philosophical analyses — if abortion is defended on the grounds that a right to autonomy justifies terminating a relationship of dependency, as per Judith Thomson, we need an account that distinguishes the dependency of a foetus and that of an infant.

Regardless, it seemed to Ben, and many in my tute, that discussions of that sort inevitably contribute to the patriarchy in society. Some detailed the horrendous abortion experiences of their friends; some talked broadly about patriarchy and the problems women face today; some doubted whether we should even discuss topics like this.

To be clear, all of these are undoubtedly legitimate and important points.

But there is something to be said about the politicisation and personalisation of the classroom. Discussions on certain topics are marred by accusations of “dubious” and “reactionary” political allegiance; arguments are dismissed or refuted by personal lived experience. The line between instances where emphasising political context and lived experience is helpful, and instances where such talks can shut down debate and be counterproductive, has been increasingly blurred. When we start a point with “I feel” instead of “I think”, we make it difficult for others to engage without fear of being offensive or disrespectful. It is, after all, hard to say “I don’t agree with how you feel”.

As a result, this gives rise to an environment where people feel it necessary to declare, “I am not a racist/sexist/homophobe/transphobe, but what about …”. Worse, some simply refrain from making a point to avoid such perceptions. Validity and reason, which we strive for in a persuasive argument, risk being replaced by identity and personal experience. A couple weeks ago, I was confronted with this at first hand, when I, as a person of colour, found myself reluctant to raise a criticism of Charles Mills’ Racial Contract in a philosophy class.

Of course, this is not to say that political context and lived experience have no place in the classroom; they do often provide valuable insights. This is also not to deny that power dynamics continue to operate in a learning space. Rather, the point is that we should recognise the need to create a space where issues can be discussed from multiple dimensions. We should acknowledge that by facilitating an environment where principled and/or empirical sides of the issue can be freely explored, we enrich our political and personal understandings at the same time.

This could be difficult. All too often, we can’t help but to see things from a pre-conceived political and personal lens. But it is ultimately something worth trying — after all, as the new saying goes, the university (of Sydney) is a place for unlearning.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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