Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pro-Life Club, Part Two

Yesterday's blog has led to significant conversation both on the blog and among the faculty. This has been very fruitful – it is just the kind of dialogue that we should have.

There were a few criticisms of what I had said that I think deserve an answer.

Some colleagues didn't want to sponsor groups with controversial positions because they thought doing so would compromise their objectivity, or their appearance of objectivity, in the classroom. I can see this worry. As the sponsor to the College Democrats, I do not share that concern. I think we can talk about anything in class without any of us – students or professor – having to become advocates.

Other colleagues argued that there are more positions on the abortion question than simply pro-choice or pro-life. I agree with this entirely. I believe that there are many middle positions on every polarized issue, and we would make better policy if we explored them. That is one of the reasons that I think someone should sponsor the pro-life club: having someone start the conversation will bring out more nuance than we now have. Still, when students say they want a pro-life club, they are looking for someone willing to take a position in favor of legally restricting abortion. For all the nuance that my colleagues and I have offered on this question, I have never heard one take that kind of pro-life position in public.

Which brings me to the other issue. I wrote " it is clear that there is almost no ideological diversity on this crucial issue." Several faculty members have taken me to task for not having sufficient basis for reaching this strong conclusion. I want to acknowledge that they may be right. So let me tell you what I know, and why I made this educated guess.

I do not know for sure that there are any strong, ban-abortion, even ban-abortion-with-limited-exceptions pro-lifers on the Centre faculty. I suspect that there are, but they are very quiet about it. One colleague who objected to my generalization thought that not only is abortion itself a private and personal issue – "not anyone else's business" – this colleague felt the same way about one's position on abortion as a public policy issue.

I know that there are quite a few people, myself included, who would not ban abortion, but do have qualms about our current abortion law and practice. Some think Roe v. Wade was bad law and/or wrongly decided, preferring to leave that issue to the states and the legislatures. Others think that nearly all individual acts of abortion are bad choices. Some think that some kinds of abortion, such as the partial birth variety, should be banned. And one might add to this nuance. Still, even this group would be very circumspect about saying anything in public that sounded like claiming that abortion is immoral, or mostly immoral, even if it should be legal in some cases.

We did survey faculty and student opinion about a decade ago. At that time, students were about 2-to-1 pro-choice, though most were moderately rather than strongly committed to their position. The faculty were pro-choice by a larger ratio; more importantly, I think, the faculty were more likely to take a strong rather than moderate position on the issue. This survey is old, though, and perhaps things have changed.

We also have conversations about politics at the lunch table fairly often. These routinely involve a quarter or a third of the faculty over time. Here the evidence is slippery. Someone will criticize a politician as "anti-choice," in a tone that suggests that that is a settled matter and a clearly bad position. And usually this judgment will either be actively assented to, or passed over in silence. Perhaps all those being silent actually disagree. But even that proves the larger point of yesterday's post and Bob Martin's comments before that: in the public sphere among the Centre faculty there is almost no dissent from the pro-choice consensus. Perhaps I should say apparent pro-choice consensus.

All of which still leaves the pro-life club without a sponsor so far.


Anonymous said...

You're a good teacher. Thanks for this sane reflection.

Anonymous said...

The symptom is the difficulty with which the Pro-Life Club can find sponsorship.

The disease may not be the lack of conservative ideology (re: the silent observers at the faculty lunch table), as much as it is the failure of the faculty as a whole to genuinely welcome diversity in its fullest form, and respect those who have a different world view than the "mainstream" (which, of course, on a college campus is routinely different than "mainstream" off of the college campus).

It reminds one of the desire of gays and lesbians to live in a world where they can be accepted without consequence in their place of employment, and their perceived need to pretend otherwise, at least until they can gain credibility among their supervisors and peers...

Which is similar to the experience of a conservative untenured faculty member, cautious not to be "outed" as such, and doing their best to fly under the political radar, and hoping that another benefit of tenure might be that it would allow them to uncloak.

Gruntled said...

This is a reminder of what tenure is for. Untenured faculty members are more cautious than they need to be, but there is almost no way for them to know that ahead of time.

Anonymous said...

You evidently really believe that, Gruntled... if you'll indulge me, let me draw you out... how so and why do you say that?

Gruntled said...

On the one hand, several members of the tenure committee have assured me that they certainly do not consider someone's stand on controversial issues in making tenure decisions. I believe them completely. On the other hand, the tenure committee members themselves said that untenured professors are cautious to the point of paranoia, even at an open and friendly place like this. Some are not, of course, but they are understandably cautious about taking a position that might lead to social exclusion, even if it would never be formally considered in any job-related way.

Moreover, even if there were no job consequences at all for taking unpopular positions, social suspicion is itself unpleasant and wearing.