In a writing sample from one of my students this terms, I read a convincing argument that young people are nice and pleasant today because they have no option not to be. Any hint that you don’t accept everyone and everything, that you aren’t a paragon of liberal tolerance marks you as a pariah. Punishment follows in the form of being marked unhirable. Although they did not use these terms at all, the student was arguing that the once controversial project of fighting hate speech had emerged from the nineties’ culture wars victorious and that political correctness was now orthodoxy.
So this got me thinking about my LGBT lit class. I taught it as if the primary goal was to communicate the importance of non-discrimination. But if what my student wrote is true then non-discrimination is an out-dated, potentially destructive message. If my students are already-always required to be accepting and non-discriminatory whether they wish to be or not, whether they are or not then me saying “Don’t discriminate” is just reinforcing (a felt) repression.
Most of my students have never been confronted with non-straight sexualities outside of movies, television and the internet. Queers live in these fanciful spaces, but in their own lives, everyone they know is straight. Fine, but the problem is that tolerance requires some knowledge of what you are accepting and respecting. Without any personal experience, your tolerance is just a wish or a rule.
So a better goal for my class might be to offer exposure and knowledge organized as a path toward empathy and compassion. My course then becomes about anti-exoticism, not anti-discrimination. I also wonder if I should maybe create well-bounded spaces for people to express non-acceptabel reactions or feelings. …It’s hard for me to imagine what this would look like, or to understand how I could manage these moments, but I do wonder…