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Prof Gerrard: On Listening to Those who Stand in Different Places

In the second of two pieces Philosophy Professor Steven B. Gerrard published in Bloomberg in September 2019 (which we referenced in this post) he decried what he calls "the comfort college" for discarding "the very tools needed to achieve true justice":

. . .The comfort college’s acolytes make the figurative fallacy literal. It is the arguer’s genes that determine truth and validity, not facts or reason. That is why, in the comfort college, testimony has come to substitute for rational argument. When students (and more and more faculty) demand a new policy, their arguments often begin as (and rarely go beyond) accounts of victimization; the account is justification enough.

This ritual institutionalizes the denial of rational justification. It corrupts the healthy multicultural idea, built on Enlightenment universalism and cosmopolitanism, that different perspectives matter, and that what one sees often depends on where one stands — and that we are all better off from listening to those who stand in different places, who see the part of the truth that is blocked from our particular vision. The liberal ideal of the pursuit of knowledge is that by cooperating we all can see and understand better. But identity politicians reject the Enlightenment’s hope of mutual understanding and reason’s path to get us there. In the fragmented comfort college, the only tool is power — the power to enforce the dogma.

That article is excerpted here.

Once again, Professor Gerrard gets at the essence of what a Williams education should be. It's not enough to come out as who we are, suggesting that our identity itself is an argument and end the conversation there. It's important to listen to and engage with "those who stand in different places, who see the part of the truth that is blocked from our particular vision."

President Maud Mandel has articulated a similar vision when she stresses the importance of talking across differences.

But stories out of our alma today suggest an environment at odds with this ideal: students afraid to speak out in classes lest they be marginalized for expressing views that are not progressive, faculty afraid to champion free speech lest they be ostracized, faculty hiring decisions based less on a candidate's commitment to talking across differences than to checking certain identity boxes. As our Free Speech Alliance becomes more active, we hope to amplify voices like Professor Gerrard's and push for a truly diverse and inclusive campus where students and faculty are unafraid to speak their minds and willing not just to listen to those who stand in different places, but to engage with them in a civil and rational manner.

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