Homophobia On Campus

This is a sensitive topic, but one that I’ve been wanting to comment on for some time.  I am extremely proud of my school for its hard work over the past few years to diversify our student body.  We’ve increased the numbers of students from foreign countries and other minorities from within the United States.  It makes for a much more interesting environment to work in and my class discussions have greatly improved owing to the different perspectives.  If Thomas Friedman is indeed correct that the world is becoming flatter than it is absolutely necessary that students learn how to relate and respect those with very different personal histories and cultural/religious beliefs.  We still need to do more to diversify our faculty, but I have no doubt that we will make progress.

The one area that I am still very concerned about is in the area of sexual harassment, and more specifically, the language of homophobia.  Let me start out by saying that I have no intention of getting into a discussion about whether homosexual behavior is immoral or whether it is a matter of choice.  And please don’t write me to tell me that homosexuals are condemned or welcomed by God.  I am not interested.  As to my own position I am convinced by the limited number of scientific studies that I’ve read that it is indeed "natural" and therefore the morality question is entirely misguided.  On the other hand, to reduce any individual to one category can easily be categorized as dehumanizing.  We are all complex beings and we perceive ourselves as more than our politics, race, religion, sexuality, and nationality.  [Amartya Sen explores in his latest study the pitfalls of this kind of identification in the context of nationality and religion.] In short, I don’t see any difference between our attitudes about sexuality and racial prejudices.  In fact, many of the same arguments against homosexuals were also used as justifications for Jim Crow and other racial stereotypes not too long ago.  My interests are focused on how a school community ought to handle this issue.  This post is not directed specifically at my school as I feel that schools across the country have failed to deal with this problem.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed here, both from the perspective of a school community and my role as a teacher.  I work at a school that has committed itself to educating students beyond the classroom to include character and honorable behavior.  From our "Philosophy Statement" contained in the Student Handbook:

We at St. Anne’s – Belfield believe that the transmission of knowledge, the encouragement of curiosity, the development of rational thought, and the cultivation of responsible, honorable behavior are the great ends of education. In asking students to master a specific body of knowledge, we seek not to impart knowledge alone, but to instill the lifelong habit of learning.  Although we expect our graduates to be prepared for the nation’s finest colleges and universities, our true purpose is to create a challenging yet charitable atmosphere where students gain skills necessary for both creative and disciplined thought, where they have opportunities to achieve in athletic and artistic endeavors, where they understand their responsibility as a member of a community, and where high expectations of both their personal and intellectual lives are complimented by the School’s commitment to nurturing students in the spiritual dimension of life. (my emphasis)

I wholeheartedly support this Philosophy Statement and believe that it captures the values that our faculty and staff hope to impart to our students.  As I read it, our statement commits our faculty and staff to the project of creating a safe environment where learning can take place and where students feel comfortable, protected, and respected.  I assume that this means addressing any and all problems that prevent or detract the community from attaining this broad goal.  The application of this statement seems to leave the door open for those who do believe that homosexuality is morally/religiously problematic since I assume we can agree that the security of all our students is of top priority.

How to go about addressing the problem of homophobia and its manifestations on campus, however, is not straightforward and while I am committed to addressing the assumptions that lay behind this particular set of beliefs it is not at all clear how to go about it.  If my responsibility is to educate beyond the classroom than it is not at all clear where the line is between my role and the student’s parents; notice that we probably wouldn’t even assume there is an issue here if this were about race.  We can approach this problem by considering two examples.  In one example a group of students is taunting a fellow students with inappropriate language such as "fag" or "gay."  In another example that same group of students is isolated and talking about a fellow student and using the same language.  Now I assume that it is my responsibility to intervene in the first example and take appropriate action against those students involved.  The second example, however, may not be as clear cut as there is no clear target present.  From the perspective of our Philosophy Statement, however, I do believe that action is appropriate.  First, I do not want to hear such language, and more importantly, it adds in a negative way to the overall school environment.  Failure to challenge such talk is tantamount to legitimizing it within the community.  While I favor intervention in the second example it is still unclear what the response should include.  Given my earlier concerns, am I to reprimand the students for their beliefs or the vocalizing of those beliefs on campus?  The problem is that implicit in the reprimand for vocalizing those beliefs on campus is a criticism of the content of those beliefs. 

The solution to this problem would be a very clear statement issued on behalf of the school outlining a Zero-Tolerance policy concerning sexually-harassing language of any kind.  Until then and even in lieu of I fully support the establishment of such groups as the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).  These organizations offer a safe zone for students who feel intimidated or who feel that the school has not acknowledged the problem.

A GSA is a group organized and led by students to create a safe, supportive, and accepting school environment for all. What is unique about gay-straight alliances is that they are open to any student, regardless of sexual orientation, who would like to take a stand against harassment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Unfortunately, GSAs sometimes face opposition, mostly due to misconceptions about their mission and what occurs at their meetings (and other times, simply due to homophobia).

I think it is important to acknowledge that groups such GSA would be unnecessary if sexual identity were not such an important issue for some along with the aggressive behavior that often accompanies the language.  One can easily imagine an analogous example involving a similar organization focused not on sexual identity, but race.  My guess is that few people would have a problem if it was the case that students were being harassed for racial reasons. The other point about these organizations is that their purpose is to challenge harassment by being inclusive.  I would sponsor an organization such as GSA in a heartbeat. 

It should be clear that this post raises more questions than it answers.  And as someone who is extremely sensitive to harassment of any kind I am concerned primarily with guidance from above or a statement that reflects our position as a school community.   I am uncomfortable with having to question my role in dealing with examples of homophibia on campus.  Without a statement I remain unclear as to the extent to which my responsibility as a faculty member involves challenging student’s beliefs (apart from a statement on behalf of the school).  What doesn’t change is that I do have a responsibility to protect the interests of the student body. 

A Great Time For Lincoln Enthusiasts

It is indeed a great time for Lincoln enthusiasts.  In my mind there is no one more interesting to read about than Lincoln.  His rise to political office and the challenges involved in leading the United States through a civil war are enough to keep one occupied for a lifetime.   I am currently reading William Gienapp’s short biography of Lincoln for a class that I am preparing to teach next year on Lincoln.  There are a number of Lincoln studies and Lincoln-related studies that are set to be released in the near future.  In the latter camp, I just picked up Jennifer L. Weber’s, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North.  You have to go back to Joel H. Silbey’s, A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 for the last book-length study of the Democratic Party. 

Future releases include Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows; I assume the title is taken from Richard N. Current’s The Lincoln Nobody Knows.  Douglas Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words promises to be a fascinating read based on the quality of previous titles on Lincoln.  I still believe that Wilson’s Honor’s Voice is one of the best books ever written about Lincoln.  Early next year William Freehling’s The Road To Disunion II: Secessionists Triumphant will shed much light on Lincoln’s role throughout the secession winter.  Finally, two books by fellow blogger Brian Dirck are set to be released in 2007.  They include Lincoln the Lawyer and Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of Race.

I hate to end on a sour note, but I see that Thomas DiLorenzo is set to release Lincoln Unmasked: What Your Not Supposed To Know About Dishonest Abe.  For some reason I read his first book and somehow I managed to get through it even though it was a complete disaster from beginning to end.  What is so disappointing and even a little sad is that this guy’s footnotes and bibliography include so little of what has emerged within Lincoln studies over the past few years.  My guess is that this new book will also ignore the secondary literature.  That’s ashame.  Lincoln has attracted some of our best and most talented historians and their work is indispensable to understanding both Lincoln and his role in the Civil War.

Chandra Manning on Civil War Soldiers and Slavery

My Civil War class just finished reading and discussing a very interesting article by Chandra Manning on how slavery entered the decisions of men on both sides to enlist and remain in the ranks.  The article appeared in North and South Magazine back in 2004.  This is the second time I’ve used the article and since I blogged about the piece this past February I thought it might be appropriate to run the two-part post again.  Manning’s dissertation is set to be published in 2007 and is titled What This Cruel War Was Over.

This semester is a bit more relaxed in my Civil War class. I have four students who are all dealing with various forms of second-semester senioritis. Still, we are making progress and having some very interesting discussions. Today we started reading a recent North and South article by Chandra M. Manning titled, “Our Liberties and Institutions: What Union and Confederate Soldiers’ Thought The Civil War Was About.” (Vol. 7, No. 6) Manning’s research fits neatly into recent studies by James McPherson, Earl J. Hess, and George Rable which emphasizes the ideological convictions of Civil War soldiers. The article’s appearance in 2004 sparked a great deal of criticism, which I will touch on later. For now, it is enough to say that studies of ideology and politics within the ranks are troubling for many people outside academic circles.

Manning’s argument is best understood as a form of reductionism:

…the Civil War was nothing less than a clash between competing ideas about how Americans should interpret and enact their founding ideals. The problem, as soldiers on both sides saw it, was that the opposing section posed a threat to the practice of self-government, the principles of libert and equality,the virtue necessary to sustain a republic, and the proper balance between God, government, society, the family and the individual. At the heart of the threat, each side believed, was the other’s stance on slavery.

Manning’s argument can be characterized as reductionist owing to its tendency to interpret a range of what appear to be specific reasons for joining the ranks as an extension of one basic motivation. While both sides claimed to be fighting for freedom and their understanding of the Revolution, Confederate notions could not be divorced from “individual interests, or from slavery.” Manning provides ample evidence of how various arguments can be understood within the context of slavery. “Slavery played many roles,” according to Manning, “that nonslaveholders considered vital to themselves and their families.” (No doubt, the author is anticipating the standard response that since my great grandfather did not own slaves he did not fight to defend slavery.)

Even the argument that Confederates were defending hearth and home must be understood ultimately as a defense of slavery. Few southerners believed that the war would drag on to a point where “yankee” invaders actually penetrated into the Confederacy. Accordingly, letters including “pledges to defend home and loved ones dramatized a concept more than explained the war.” Manning concludes that Confederates were committed to defending their property as an expression of his “understanding of liberty.” Nonslaveholders did not have to own slaves to understand the necessity of its survival. Their individual freedom was guaranteed only with continued enslavement of southern blacks. The institution of slavery guaranteed ideas of liberty since it guaranteed white egalitarianism and prevented the amalgamation of the races. “Nonslaveholding Confederate soldiers fought to safeguard slavery,” according to Manning,”because they believed that survival–of themselves, their families, and social order–depended on its continued existence, and because they believed that otherwise, race posed a dangerously insoluble problem.” The survival of their families also included the hope of one day becoming a slaveowner.

Confederate soldiers also viewed slavery through the lens of religion and what they assumed was God’s divine order. Northern abolitionism reflected “heresy” and a threat to hearth and home, and according to Manning “amounted to a social earthquake that rattled every single social relation.” Arguments surrounding honor are also interpreted through the lens of slavery–as a “demonstation of authority over subordinates, including women, childeren, and African-Americans whether or not a man owned slaves.” Throughout the article Manning utilizes letters, diaries, and newspapers to support her conclusions. Her sources cover a wide spectrum of the social/economic/political spectrum. Manning’s Confederates are hyper-sensitive to slavery and are animated by a commitment to preserve the political and racial status quo.

It is easy to see why so many readers were upset with her portrayal of why Southerners went to war in 1861. What is interesting is that the letters to the editor expressed frustration over her interpretation of Confederate and not Union soldiers discussed in the article. Somehow the political convictions of Union soldiers are not as troubling as Confederate soldiers. Manning’s conclusions do not represent a step in a new direction, but it does go furthest in examining the ways in which slavery touched southern whites and their reasons for going off to war. Ultimately, the frustration over Manning’s article is more a reflection of our tendency to remember these men as fighting for values beyond the political and racial realm. In a sense, our frustration is our problem not theirs. More on Manning tomorrow.

We finished our discussion of Manning’s article on Thursday. The students generally agreed with the argument, but noticed a few places that seemed to lack sufficient evidence. In the first part of the article Manning argues that explanations of hearth and home as a reason to join Confederate ranks should be interpreted as a concern with property and livelihood which connected directly to the preservation of slavery. My students thought that while Manning may be right they felt that the conclusion went too far beyond the evidence she provided. In other words, they wanted more proof.

We spent some time trying to make sense of Manning’s claim that while many Union soldiers were “abolitionized” by direct encounters with slavery in the South this “did not necessarily mean support for racial equality.” (James McPherson emphasizes the growing commitment to abolition among Union soldiers in his, For Cause and Comrades.) Manning goes on to emphasize that “white Union soldiers strove mightily to keep the issue of slavery and race separate.” This is a difficult distinction for students to grasp as they assume that one’s view of slavery and race is one and the same.

Perhaps the most controversial claim that Manning makes is that while Union soldiers identified in numerous ways with the nation as a whole, Confederates were routinely distracted by more local concerns such as the conscription bill, taxes, and impressment. This distinction is not designed to make a point about whether Southerners forged bonds of nationalism, but to emphasize that it was the preservation of slavery that could and did unite them. “Potential conflicts between personal interests and Confederate necessities were troubling, but resolvable,” argues Manning, “as long as Confederate troops remembered that the Union meant abolition, and abolition was worse than anything even the most disappointing Confederacy would impose.” And it is a short jump to the debate over black Confederates. Confederates could not fathom the recruitment of black soldiers given their commitment to white supremacy. Manning’s short analysis compliments the much more thorough interpretation by Bruce Levine in Confederate Emancipation. She is correct in noting that the proposed enlistment of only 25% of black male slaves between 18 and 45 was designed to guarantee that slavery would continue; this was not a debate over the future of the institution. The Union army’s decision to enlist black soldiers served to unite Confederates because they understood that it meant-nothing less than the leveling of the racial hierarchy. My research on Confederate reactions to black Union soldiers at the Crater confirms this beyond any doubt. (See my upcoming article on just this topic in the magazine America’s Civil War.)

I look forward to reading Manning’s dissertation in book form. It is sure to spark debate, not with academics who understand the centrality of slavery to the war, but with many lay readers who continue to imagine or wish for a sanitized narrative.

Another Poor Historical Analogy

Today’s editorial by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post analyzes Condoleezza Rice’s recent reference to the Civil Rights Struggle as an appropriate analogy to the war on terror and the Iraq War.  The comment was made on 60 Minutes in an interview with Katie Couric.  I only hope that 60 Minutes never allows her to play reporter on one of their future segments. 

"Nobody can go back and reinvent the past," Condoleezza Rice told Katie Couric on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. But this nugget of truth came amid a flood of retrospective reinvention in which Rice equated the war in Iraq with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s — and left me wondering whether I was hearing polished sophistry or a case of total denial.

I’m not sure how many more analogies I can handle from this administration – from the Nazis to postwar Europe and now to the Civil Rights Movement. When will it end.

Rice equates the racists who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young girls — including Denise McNair, a childhood playmate — with modern-day suicide bombers who kill in the name of jihad. "Some people say, ‘Well, they do it to prove a political point,’ " she said. "Then why go after little girls? Or innocent people standing at a bus stop in Britain or in Madrid?"

The problem as Robinison points out is that it throws all "evil-doers" in the same basket and asks that we conceptualize without drawing any distinctions.

In her interview with Couric, Rice went on to argue that critics of the administration’s Middle East policies are like the racists who contended that black Americans were not ready to participate in democracy because they were "kind of childlike" and couldn’t handle the vote. But that’s a bizarre analogy. The last stand by white racists against integration and voting rights for African Americans wasn’t about patronizing attitudes some whites might have held — it was about power. It was about the knowledge that blacks were not just ready but also determined to exercise the right to vote.

How convenient.  The first problem is that Couric is such a poor interviewer that she failed to force Rice to talk about the problems that plague our policy in Iraq apart from the safety of her manufactured moral high ground as outlined in her flimsy analogy.  If ever there was a time for tough interviewing (in the best sense of the word) it is now.  Robinson rightly points out that Rice’s analogy "makes it sound as if those who disagree with the administration are standing in the schoolhouse door."  Our public leaders should be held to a higher standard when it comes to having to account for their decisions.  Why we allow them to hide in the past is beyond me.

An Awkward Moment

The other day I had an awkward moment in one of my classes.  We were discussing the events leading up to the American Revolution and were focusing specifically on the Boston Massacre.  At some point I made the comment that the act on the part of Bostonians to dress up as Indians was itself disrespectful to the British.  Perhaps I intended to say that the dumping of the tea was disrespectful to private property rights or something along those lines.  Well, one of my students asked what I meant in suggesting that the costumes were disrespectful to the British.  Great question and shows that my students are actually paying attention.  The mistake I made was trying to explain my way out of it when it was clear to me, even as I was speaking, that I had no clue what I meant.  What a stupid thing to do – a mistake that I don’t typically make in class.  Usually I turn to the student and say, “You know…I have no idea what I meant by saying that.”  Problem solved.  That moment served as a reminder to me that the ego always needs to remain in check in the classroom.