The Judith Butler Affair

Making students feel uncomfortable

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Today we spend much of our time on-line, and we largely do it together with people who share our interests, thoughts and convictions. This is a public sphere, to be sure, but it is almost entirely made up of like-minded people. It is the public sphere as echo-chamber.

The old public sphere did not work this way. It was based in “mass media,” meaning media consumed by large numbers of very different kinds of people. In the old mass media, conflicting views contended with each other and the people reading, watching and listening were forced to confront ideas with which they did not agree. The task of the old-style mass media was to faithfully reflect this diversity — a notion rather quaintly referred to as “objectivity.”

The students who now are first-year undergraduates — born in 1996 and 1997 — are representatives of the first generation of people brought up on-line. Coming to the university, however, they enter one of the last bastions of the old public sphere. Universities are not echo-chambers; they reflect many views and opinions; there is conflict and controversy and no alternative facts. Not surprisingly, universities make many students feel “uncomfortable.” “We don’t feel safe,” they say all over American campuses, and now they are increasingly saying it on Swedish campuses too, for example here in Lund. “If we are the customers and you are the service providers, why do make us feel unsafe?” “Why should we accept reading lists that don’t reflect our opinions?”

Good, I say. I’m glad I make you feel “uncomfortable” and “unsafe.” Don’t you understand what is at stake here? Our ability to live peacefully together as a diverse society; the viability of our democracy.

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