Tag Archives: Class

Another Reason Why American Students Should Protest Campus Speakers If They Want To

23 Jul

Protest(Image by Jorgen Carling used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Academics across the political spectrum are debating whether or not students should protest speaking events on their campuses by controversial figures like Charles Murray, Bill Maher or Milo Yiannopolous. Murray tried to prove in his bestseller The Bell Curve that black people are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence than white people. Maher has made no effort to differentiate between Muslim extremists and all Muslims in political discussions on his TV show Real Time. Yiannopolous is a professional Internet troll who says to anyone who finds his arguments upsetting, “Fuck feelings.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in The New York Times that Yiannopolous should be protested and rejected by academia because “he is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.” She puts Charles Murray, however, in a different category. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue back in The Atlantic that any campus protest of any speaker is an attack on free speech and contributes to a dangerous culture of victimhood that coddles college students. Both articles make interesting points. Both articles miss the point as to why I primarily believe students should protest any or all of these speakers.  

Unlike students here in Germany, where higher education is free, college students in the U.S. are not mere pupils who have been accepted based on their academic performance with the purpose of engaging in profound discourse that benefits both themselves and the academic community. College students in the U.S. are customers that go into sometimes life-long debt in order to purchase the product that is their four-year education. UC Berkeley, where students protested Bill Maher as a commencement speaker, currently charges $29,784 for one year of tuition, room and board. A year at Middlebury College, where Charles Murray was met with violent protests, right now costs $63,917. Google why tuition in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past four decades and you will find countless theories. But the fees are real as is the fact that guest speakers are not only invited but paid by these colleges. It is thus perfectly reasonable for students to express their opinion as to how their tuition money is being spent, just as it is perfectly reasonable for consumers to launch boycotts against companies that engage in unethical practices or belittle minorities.

Furthermore, these guest speakers demand exorbitant speaking fees. Charles Murray charges between $20,000 and $30,000 for a single speech. Bill Maher charges between $50,000 and $100,000 per event. I was told by a staff member at my alma mater that his  department could not afford one speech by a well-known theorist in the field of language. His fees were lower than Murray’s, let alone Maher’s.

My college education was invaluable. And academia confronts, examines and debates controversial ideas that can be deeply upsetting to many people every day: ideas like when does life begin and end, who can be considered human, is love or attractiveness quantifiable, should blasphemy be considered hate speech, should we breed shorter people to save energy, etc. But these debates alter when someone who has made a career out of arguing for one side is paid an enormous sum to give a speech about it. Aspiring teachers, social workers, and librarians have a right to say whether they are willing to go into life-long debt so that a celebrity can earn between $20,000 and $100,000 in one afternoon on campus by firing off some rants. They have a right to say whether the hosting professor should perhaps instead use college funds to pay $25 for one of Murray’s or Maher’s books and photocopy a chapter for his class, where the ideas can then be debated over a few days if not weeks.

That is precisely how I first encountered Murray’s argument that black people are genetically predisposed to a lower IQ. My genetics course culminated with analyzing The Bell Curve and discovering how scientifically flimsy Murray’s evidence is. This absolutely endowed me with a detailed understanding of how inane the colonial belief in separate races is and prepared me to confront those who still cling to it. I am very glad for that. But would I want the tens of thousands of dollars spent on my education to have helped contribute to the wealth Murray has accrued from reiterating this intellectually weak but attention-grabbing idea? The same class addressed the fact that the eugenics movement both resulted in the sterilization and deaths of thousands of disabled people but also contributed intellectually to the early stages of genetics as a science. As someone with achondroplastic dwarfism, I found it important to learn about that. But should I have stood idly by were the college to invite and pay a eugenicist to give a speech? How about a Neo-Nazi?

That is an ethical quandary at best. One that warrants debate. And peaceful protest is a form of debate, an exercising of the right to freedom of speech. 

Not all protests on college campuses are on the right side of the issue. The dumbest demonstration I ever witnessed in my student days was against the ban on smoking in the cafeteria. This migraine-sufferer was ever so grateful to see the fumes disappear. But I wasn’t enraged at the idea of the smokers voicing their dissent. I walked by their protest without bothering to comment and later mentioned my disagreement when asked. 

I was sympathetic the following year when students held a peaceful but angry protest of the new performing arts center, which was designed by Frank Gehry and cost $62 million. Some of my friends on campus were there in part thanks to scholarships but nevertheless had to work 65+ hours a week in the summer to cover the rest of tuition. They showed up at the protests, arguing that the $62 million should have instead been spent on scholarships. Despite what many like to think of most campus protesters, they were not spoiled children shielded from dissent and far too used to getting exactly what they want in they life. They were more aware than most of the way money works in the world – a world their college claimed to be preparing them for.      

 

 

Are East Germans A Minority?

9 Nov

Ampelmännchen(Image by S. Freimark used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I needed only head out my front door and walk to the end of my block to get to the Light Border commemorating that 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall tonight. The price to pay for this was the waves of tourists that have been washing through the street all weekend. Parents trying to explain to it to their children have been constantly underfoot. Which makes you pause and wonder, How do you explain it?

The fall of the Wall is my very first memory of watching the news a child. It was bizarre to see so many people rejoicing that It is finally over!, when I had only just discovered that it had ever been there in the first place. In later years, I of course learned more – specifically, the American version of the story that asserts that Ronald Reagan brought down the Wall and America won the Cold War. The fact that so many Berliners were chanting, “Gorbi! Gorbi!” amidst the celebrations 25 years ago is conveniently left out of this narrative.

I moved from New York to Berlin 10 years ago, when the shine of Reunification had well worn off.  The former East Germany was known as the land of unemployment and racism, and the former West Germany was known as the land where little had changed and nobody cared about the East. The terms Jammer-Ossi (“Whiny Easterner”) and Besser-Wessi (“Uppity Westerner”) were well known.  Some East Germans began talking about what they missed about the old country: a much lower crime rate, better kindergartens, consumer products low in quantity but built to last. And, above all, no unemployment.

One of my earliest jobs in Berlin put me in a room with five other coworkers. One of them hailed from Munich and, while reading the morning paper, regularly scoffed about East German nostalgia. “There’s nothing to be nostalgic about!” she huffed. “It was disgusting, just like the Third Reich!” My other coworkers remained silent, but after her umpteenth outburst, a young man finally sighed, “It wasn’t the Third Reich. Yes, there was no freedom of speech or travel, but it was not about eugenics or mass genocide!” The conversation quickly unraveled into uncomfortable silence.

One of the women who had remained silent all along later approached me at the water cooler. “What did you think of that?”

“I thought she was maybe being a bit rude,” I shrugged.

“So rude! I just didn’t want to get into it. I fled East Germany to the West in the Seventies.”

My eyes widened.

“That’s a long story and I don’t want to get into it. But I can’t take her pig-headed opinions about it. She’s always going off about the dumb East Germans, but she doesn’t understand what those people went through!”

Indeed, few of us truly can. For the former East Germany to not only experience unemployment for the first time but massive unemployment—up to 25% in some places—is like a town where no one has ever been sick suddenly overrun with the flu. In the early 1990s, the very idea of writing resumes and performing job interviews struck many East Germans as crass: “You mean I have to keep telling people how awesome I am till they hire me?  That’s prostitution!”     

I have friends from the East who still feel pressured to abandon all hope of working anywhere near where they grew up, moving out of state in search of better futures in Frankfurt or Hamburg or Cologne. Many of their parents were white collar professionals shocked to find themselves unemployed after the Wall came down and have never been fully employed since. I also have friends from the West who moved to the East after Reunification and were ostracized in the workplace. Tensions have eased a bit in the 10 years I’ve lived here, but Berlin is undoubtedly the place you’re most likely to see people who grew up on opposite sides of the Wall intermingling. The extent of prejudice between the two former nations became a legal issue last year when a woman sued a potential employer for discrimination. Interviewers at a company in southern Germany had scrawled on her job application “Drawback: East German.” The court ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that East Germans do not qualify as an ethnic minority.

Legal arguments aside, those who grew up in East Germany certainly have a different history that has had considerable impact upon their culture. Girls and boys named “Mandy,” “Cindy,” “Jenny,” or “Kevin” are easily identifiable as coming from East Germany, where Hollywood movies in the 80s and 90s set a trend. A recent study revealed that such names invoke prejudice among school teachers who often assume such children will come from anti-intellectual home environments. East Germans over 30 pride themselves on being able to read Cyrillic, while their relationship to Russia is less affectionate. When the Soviet Forces occupied the East, they looked upon it as That Country That Invaded Us Twice In 20 Years. Russia lost more of its citizens to Nazi Germany—the conservative estimate is 20 million—than anyone else. East Germans in turn saw the Soviets as That Army That Raped Over 1.4 Million Of Us. The two countries never became true friends.

But would it help to spread diversity awareness and promote tolerance between East and West Germans if the former were recognized as a minority? Or should we stick to seeing the Cold War and the Fall of the Wall as a struggle not of nations but of ideas? After all, it was democracy, not nationalism, that was the driving force behind the peaceful revolution that brought down the Wall. Yet democracy is frequently given little thought beyond its associations with that nebulous word “freedom.” As one East German friend pointed out, too many portrayals of Reunification focus a lot more on the freedom to buy a Porsche and choose between 16 different brands of toothpaste than the freedom from government surveillance, knee-jerk patriotism, voter suppression, and execution by the state. One of the quotes of the East German uprising most well-known over here—but rarely heard in the U.S.—came from protester Steffi Spira: “I want my grandchildren to grow up in a country where they do not have to salute the flag!”

When the Nationalist Party and Neo-Nazi groups find substantial support in the East among the disaffected youth of today, their opponents frame it as a battle not against evil but for democracy. Because nothing undermines dictatorship better than the idea that Everybody matters. It is the essence of both democracy and minority rights. And no developed nation knows as well as Germany how fragile this idea is.

 

 

What Makes You So Special?

13 Oct

Leg-formsDisney World is changing its policy for disabled customers this week since it’s come to light that many families have been hiring disabled people to help them cut to the front of the lines.  Like stealing disabled parking spaces, this kind of cheating requires a brazen combination of laziness and self-righteousness.  What kind of family believes that the agony they experience waiting in line is comparable to what a disabled customer experiences?  

MSN reports, “Stories of wealthy families hiring disabled tour guides to pose as family members have drawn national attention and scorn. But the more common abuse is subtler: people faking hard-to-verify handicaps such as heart murmurs, back spasms or claustrophobia… ”

The news broke the very same day that I had my first meeting with an adviser here in Berlin to explore the options available to me for disabled status. 

“It’s important not to lie,” he said bluntly.  “Don’t exaggerate your pain, but don’t feign bravery, either.” 

Indeed, ego-driven dishonesty can go either way.  Some lie and cause themselves unnecessary discomfort all for the sake of their own pride, while others lie and take advantage of assistance all for the sake of garnering special attention.  It creates a burden for genuinely disabled people who must convince cynics that their medical conditions are bona fide, but not necessarily tragic.     

I don’t know what level of disabled status I currently qualify for.  In elementary school, I took a specialized phys ed class and I was the only kid who was allowed to sit in a chair instead of on the floor during story-time to avoid distracting back pain.  Yet on both occasions that my family took me to Disney World, I managed the hour-long waits in line without assistance.  But I couldn’t manage that today.  Then again, I have good days and bad.  Should I mention all this on my application, or does it sound like I’m making things up?

Determining disability is to determine whether your suffering—which is always unique and important to you—is in fact unique to your peer group.  Decades of being designated as different cause many disabled people to balk at the idea of being given special treatment. (As I’ll explore next week, many in the dwarf community go so far as to insist that dwarfism isn’t a disability.)  Yet those willing to hire a disabled person for a day at Disney World appear to rebel against the idea of not being given special treatment.

I hesitate to delve into the topic of lying and whining because, in far too many parts of the world, victims of horrific suffering are readily silenced by being dismissed as liars and whiners.  To a heartless person, anyone’s complaint qualifies as whining, except his own.  In an intolerant society, “Suck it up!” is barked at anyone who ever sheds a tear or speaks up about injustice.  The world usually needs more compassion than cynicism.  Given the choice, I’d rather live with too much whining than too much cruelty and abuse. 

But whining abuses compassion.  I don’t believe the majority of cheaters at Disney World deviously set out to fake illness and maliciously steal a disabled child’s spot in line.  In my experience, it’s much more common that people with mundane problems truly believe their difficulties entitle them to exceptional treatment. 

A friend who was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in childhood once said that whenever he tries to explain this to a group of 20-somethings, more often than not a few will start saying, “I think I have that, too!”  This can happen innocently enough: Most of us like to consider new experiences by seeing how they relate back to those we are already familiar with.  And misery sure loves company.  But anyone with clinical OCD knows that this condition is not simply about odd habits that make for charming little anecdotes, or pathologizing our eccentricities so that they cannot be questioned.  In our individualistic LOOK AT ME! culture, there is a fine but crucial line between trying to empathize in order to understand a different experience, and trying to empathize in order to snag a place for ourselves in the spotlight. 

This is not to silence those whose problems are ordinary.  (We all need to vent about the lines at Disney World.)  But false equivalencies can also silence those whose problems are extraordinary.  Being spoiled doesn’t just render us disagreeable – it renders us ignorant.  To relativize all difficulty risks misunderstanding and overlooking the profound effects of true disability, true poverty, true trauma, and true grief.

When middle class college grads complain about being “poor” because they can’t buy as many DVDs as they did when they lived with Mom and Dad, they’re disregarding the poverty line.  When a young woman claims to suffer from PTSD after being pickpocketed, she’s stretching the definition of the word into meaninglessness.  When breaking up with a boyfriend or losing a pet is described with the same superlative words we use to describe battling cancer or losing a child, we overlook the difference between the kind of pain no one should have to endure and the kind of pain everyone should expect.  Blunt comparisons—“I know exactly what you’re going through!”—downplay severity and dramatize the mundane, impeding rather than spreading awareness. 

In applying for disabled status, I will find out from an objective source just how disabled I am.  If my weekly pain, fatigue and weakness qualify as Severe or Moderate, then I’ll swallow any pride I have about wanting to appear stronger and accept it.  If my difficulties are judged to be Mild, then I’ll discard any selfish wishes I have about the benefits of Severe status and accept it.  I do feel substantially exceptional when I’m the only one in a crowd of friends who absolutely must sit down after a 20-minute walk.  But other experiences make these inconveniences seem not only minor but trivial.

I lived in a pediatric rehabilitation hospital for five months when I was 11 years-old and undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure.  On my first day in group therapy, the patients introduced themselves to me and explained why they were there. 

The first guy had a degenerative nerve disorder that was life-threatening.  “I was talking about it with my dad and he told me, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’  Thanks, Dad.”

The second kid had been shot in the hip and paralyzed in a gang war. 

The third guy was quadriplegic.  “I’m actually ready to be discharged, but I’m having a hard time finding my own apartment with a caregiver to live with me.  My mom has decided she doesn’t want to take care of me round the clock.”

Then a teenage girl talked about her upcoming discharge.  The room erupted into congratulations until she began to choke back tears.  “I’m being discharged because the treatments aren’t working.  At this point, they said they can’t even tell me if I’m going to live to see tomorrow.” 

Then it was my turn to introduce myself.  “Um, I’m having my legs lengthened so that I can be taller.” 

I’m sure this was met with courtesy and active listening, but at that moment I felt I deserved nothing but crickets.  That night in my hospital room, I tossed and turned, wondering if she would live to see the next day.

My fellow patients in group were ultimately sympathetic to any struggles I needed to discuss.  What they taught me above all else is that, as my advisor said, it’s important not to lie.  Tell the truth, and be aware of where your reality lies in relation to others.  Fight against the stigma surrounding disability, poverty, trauma, and grief.  And don’t claim to know the unique despair experienced by those who live it.   If you claim to already know, you’ll miss what they have to teach you about the world you live in. 

Like why someone would really need to cut in line.