The Carol Swain petition hurts the cause more than it helps. But there’s a better way.


Alexander Slawson

The controversial Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt Professor, is once again in the news after almost 1,500 students (and counting) signed a petition to have her fired.  (The demand was recently downgraded to suspension and mandatory diversity training).  According to the petition’s authors, Swain is intolerant towards non-Christians and the LGBTQI community, thus misrepresenting the University and making some students feel unsafe.  Unfortunately, the authors of the petition and all those who signed it will end up hurting their cause more than helping it. 

I won’t defend Swain with the hackneyed argument that, as a University, we benefit from a diversity of opinions.  What this argument really means is that we benefit from a diversity of opinions as long as those opinions are within reason.  For example, imagine a professor with a habit of using the N-word or denying the Holocaust.  Would anyone really argue that the university benefits from this professors opinions?  Of course not.  The question is where is the line between tolerable and intolerable speech, and has Swain crossed it? 

There’s no objective way to know this.  Swain has certainly spoken insensitively, and, in my view, incorrectly, about Muslims and the LGBTQI community.  In my perfect world, nobody would share her views.  However, in the real world many people do.  In fact, many of her views are consistent with the positions of a major political party in this country, one with control of both Houses of Congress, most state senates, and most governorships.  For instance, gay marriage only recently became accepted by a majority of Americans, and many proposals for increasing the rights of the transgendered are still opposed by the majority. Living in this liberal enclave called Vanderbilt University, we might forget that certain ideas we call “bigoted” are simply called “conservative” by a majority or large minority of Americans.  So, if Carol Swain and people like her make you feel unsafe at Vanderbilt, I’ve got some very bad news—the rest of the country is way worse. 

That doesn’t make it right, of course.  As I was recently reminded, most of the country once approved of slavery.  We may one day look at those who deny LGBTQI people their rights with the same disdain as we look upon the segregationists in our history books.  I believe that human society has, in general, become more and more tolerant with time, and, if we want that to continue, we must work for it.  But the best way to do that is not to jettison people like Carol Swain.  Doing so creates a resentful divide, fuels the culture war, and eliminates the possibility that those people will ever be convinced.  Plus, firing Carol Swain would give her more of a platform, and ammunition, to espouse her opinions.  I believe Fox News would pick her up in a heartbeat, as she is already a frequent guest. 

Universities should be concerned with the psychological well-being of their students.  The hot trend these days is to lambast colleges for “coddling” students, but I’m not jumping on that bandwagon.  Colleges should, to some degree, model the way society should be, and society should treat people equally.  But there has to be a balance between modeling an ideal society and preparing students for the real one.  Vanderbilt, and other socially liberal communities, should be wary of severing ties with social conservatives.  It may be uncomfortable, but the only way to reach that ideal society is to slowly win them over through dialogue and reason.  That can’t happen if we quarantine ourselves inside bubbles of tolerance.  I don’t want to criticize the authors or signees of the study.  It’s easy for me, as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man, to say, “let’s all just talk it out,” while others are victims of daily prejudice.  All I mean to do is suggest an alternative.  There is a social phenomenon called the “echo chamber,” which means that when people with similar views are placed in a closed system, they tend to reinforce their own beliefs and insulate themselves from those who disagree.  By sorting into groups of like-minded people, Americans have gradually been sorting themselves into these echo chambers.  This petition, and other attempts to shun those like Swain, only aids that sorting process, thereby strengthening the echo chamber and making the divide harder to cross.  If we are interested in creating a fair and equal society, we’d be better off keeping Swain, and those sympathetic to her, close enough to reach.  Don’t sign the petition.  Reason, compassion, and some time will work better than a petition ever could.