Teaching Tolerance to Activists: A Free Course Syllabus & Anthology

The waters of acad­e­mia have grown chop­py of late, and many vet­er­an sailors have found them­selves ill-equipped to nav­i­gate the brave new world stu­dent activists are forg­ing at a break­neck pace.

Trig­ger warn­ings. Safe spaces. Cur­ric­u­la restruc­tured with an eye toward iden­ti­ty. Swift judg­ments for those who fail to com­ply.

Admis­sions brochures and cam­pus tours make fre­quent men­tion of their institution’s com­mit­ment to social jus­tice. They have to—many high school­ers share the under­grads’ beliefs.

Those of us whose col­lege years are but a dis­tant mem­o­ry should­n’t depend on our school’s alum­ni mag to paint an accu­rate pic­ture of the bat­tles that may be rag­ing with­in. Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, pre­ferred pro­nouns, and inclu­sive bath­room facil­i­ties may get a men­tion, but the offi­cial organ’s unlike­ly to peek into the abyss where tol­er­ance goes to die.

Cul­tur­al schol­ar Frances Lee, a queer trans per­son of col­or recov­er­ing from a forced con­ver­sion to evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian­i­ty, took a hard look at the prob­lem of intol­er­ance with­in activist cir­cles as a sec­ond year Mas­ters stu­dent in Cul­tur­al Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton.

Pub­lished exact­ly one year ago, their essay, Kin Aes­thet­ics: Excom­mu­ni­cate Me from the Church of Social Jus­tice, was plain­spo­ken about the neg­a­tive side effects of social progress in activist cir­cles, and by exten­sion, on cam­pus:

Telling peo­ple what to do and how to live out their lives is endem­ic to reli­gious and to dog­mat­ic activism. It’s not that my com­rades are the boss­es of me, but that dog­mat­ic activism cre­ates an envi­ron­ment that encour­ages peo­ple to tell oth­er peo­ple what to do. This is espe­cial­ly promi­nent on Face­book. Scrolling through my news feed some­times feels Iike slid­ing into a pew to be blast­ed by a frag­ment­ed, fren­zied ser­mon. I know that much of the media post­ed there means to dis­ci­pline me to be a bet­ter activist and com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber. But when dic­tates aren’t fol­lowed, a com­mon pro­ce­dure of pun­ish­ment ensues. Pun­ish­ments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include sham­ing, scold­ing, call­ing out, iso­lat­ing, or evis­cer­at­ing someone’s social stand­ing. Dis­ci­pline and pun­ish­ment have been used for all of his­to­ry to con­trol and destroy peo­ple. Why is it being used in move­ments meant to lib­er­ate all of us? We all have made seri­ous mis­takes and hurt oth­er peo­ple, inten­tion­al­ly or not. We get a chance to learn from them when those around us respond with kind­ness and patience. Where is our humil­i­ty when exam­in­ing the mis­takes of oth­ers? Why do we posi­tion our­selves as moral­ly supe­ri­or to the low­ly un-woke?

The essay’s viral suc­cess gives extra oomph to “Wok­er Than Thou: Left­ist Activist Iden­ti­ty For­ma­tions,” a com­mu­ni­ty course Lee designed and taught ear­li­er this year.

Intend­ed for com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, polit­i­cal activists, and orga­niz­ers, Lee wel­comed any­one with any inter­est in the sub­ject, pro­vid­ed they were will­ing “to stay open to dis­sent­ing or unpop­u­lar ideas for the sake of dis­cus­sion, instead of fore­clos­ing cer­tain top­ics or ideas by judg­ing them as not wor­thy of atten­tion.”

The 10-week syl­labus delved into such rel­e­vant top­ics as Call-out Cul­ture, the False Promis­es of Empa­thy, and of course “wok­e­ness,” a term Lee takes care to attribute to Black cul­ture.

While not all of the required read­ings can be found online, Lee pro­vides a wealth of links to those that can.

Titles include Uni­ver­si­ty of San Fran­cis­co Pro­fes­sor Rhon­da Magee’s “Address­ing Social Injus­tice with Com­pas­sion,” author Andrea Smith’s “The Prob­lem with Priv­i­lege,” Trau­ma Stew­ard­ship Insti­tute founder Lau­ra van Der­noot Lipsky’s TEDx Talk on sys­tem­at­ic oppres­sion and lib­er­a­tion the­o­ry.

There’s even a Suf­jan Stevens song that evolved from cheap shots at skater Tonya Harding’s expense to some­thing that con­sid­ered the “whole­ness of the per­son… with dig­ni­ty and grace.”

Fol­low­ing Lee’s course mate­ri­als seems a much more ratio­nal way to con­front the cur­rent social cli­mate than bing­ing on con­fes­sion­al essays by lib­er­al arts pro­fes­sors who feel ham­strung by not-unfound­ed fears that their stu­dents could cost them their jobs … and the good rep­u­ta­tion required to secure anoth­er.

For fur­ther read­ing, Lee offers free down­loads of Toward An Ethics of Activism: A Com­mu­ni­ty Inves­ti­ga­tion of Humil­i­ty, Grace and Com­pas­sion in Move­ments for Jus­tice, an anthol­o­gy that “seeks to dis­rupt dog­mat­ic, exclu­sion­ary activist cul­ture with kind­ness and con­nec­tion.”

Find Frances Lee’s “Wok­er Than Thou” syl­labus here.

Down­load a PDF of the anthol­o­gy Toward An Ethics of Activism here. (A screen read­er acces­si­ble ver­sion is also avail­able.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Slavoj Žižek Calls Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness a Form of “Mod­ern Total­i­tar­i­an­ism”

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

Dr. Jane Goodall Is Now Teach­ing an Online Course on Con­ser­va­tion, Ani­mal Intel­li­gence & Activism

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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