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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Student claims in-class tirade against trans woman pastor Constitutionally protected

Hey, did you hear? A student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was kicked out of class for saying there are only two genders! This is just another example of how universities in America are just bastions of social justice warriors trying to brainwash and browbeat everyone into sharing their views! That student's First Amendment right to free speech was violated!

Yep, that's totally what happened. Not at all an account that relies solely on the perspective of the student in question, which was reported by Fox News as the objective story, resulting in harassment and threats being directed at the lecturer who evicted the student, other lecturers in her department, university administrators, and even undergraduate office workers.

There appears to be an irony here in the contradiction of the "safe space, coddling students to protect them from rigorous debate" narrative. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

What actually happened? Well, that's a tougher question to answer than you might expect, because the lecturer in question, Dr. Alison Downie, is bound by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974) and can't speak directly on the student, Lake Ingle's, behavior that caused him to be evicted from her class.  But she did issue a statement concerning the nature of the class itself, Christianity 481: Self, Sin, and Salvation, and another student from that class, Katherine Bradshaw, who is not bound by FERPA offered her perspective on the matter as well.

Downie's description of the nature and goals of the class is as follows:
Here is part of the course description as it appears in my course syllabus: “Selecting representative diverse thinkers, this course requires students to understand a range of Christian perspectives, while focusing upon the selected three themes [self, sin, and salvation], in order to provide for depth of analysis. Students will gain an understanding of Christian history and tradition as well as an understanding of the many contemporary challenges evident in diverse Christian positions.”  
We discuss Biblical texts and early Christian thinkers as well as the positions of those in major Christian traditions writing about these topics today. We consider these questions: How do Christians understand what it means to be made in the image of God? Is sin best understood as a wrong act of an individual, or a condition inherited from Adam and Eve or systemic and structural forms of injustice? Is salvation about going to heaven after death or about how one lives in the here and now? 
There is not and never has been one answer to any of these questions in Christianity. 
Students are expected to listen to and understand a variety of approaches in order to develop depth of understanding of the complexity of Christianity, beyond one historical period or a particular church or Christian group.
Toward this end, Downie said that for this class she likes to present the views of Christian thinkers by allowing them to speak for themselves, and allow students to consider and discuss them:
When I have the opportunity to teach a small, upper level course such as this, I rarely lecture; instead, I craft various structures in different sessions so that all students, especially those most hesitant, feel welcome and able to have a safe space in which to speak, as we discuss class material. 
I also occasionally use short video clips as a way to have Christians speak for themselves in class, in lieu of guest speakers. In a university setting, students are expected to have the maturity and self-regulation necessary in order to listen to, understand, and respectfully discuss positions which they may find threatening or with which they may disagree.
Students are often surprised to discover the extent of the diversity of experiences and teachings among Christians, and students are expected to pay attention to all views, not only those with which they are already familiar. Furthermore, students are expected to prepare for and attend each class session, so that any particular session is understood in relation to the whole. 
While not a current university lecturer myself, I can say as a former religious studies major, graduate teaching assistant in comparative religion, and adjunct lecturer of my own course, that this course concept and structure sounds absolutely bog standard.

And what's more, it should be clear from Downie's description that her class is intended to foster precisely the sort of critical examination of ideas that has been near-outlawed in universities according to people like Steven Pinker, who would probably be too apoplectic right about now upon seeing the words "safe space" in Downie's description to notice that she's providing a safe space to allow for productive discussion rather than to squelch it.

But wait! She did squelch it! She kicked Lake Ingle out of class for having the temerity to express ideas at odds with the liberal ideas with which she was trying to indoctrinate the class!

Well, let's talk about that.

According to Ingle, as Fox News writer Caleb Parke dutifully reported, this is what happened:
After showing a 15-minute TED Talk by transgender ex-pastor Paula Stone Williams discussing the “reality” of “mansplaining,” “sexism from men,” and “male privilege,” the professor asked the women in the class to share their thoughts. 
When no women in the class said anything, Ingle spoke up, challenging the professor on biology and the gender wage gap. He told the class that the official view of biologists is that there are only two genders. 
The feminist professor booted him from class and asked him not to come back. She referred him to the public university’s Academic Integrity Board (AIB). Ingle needs to complete the class to graduate at the end of the semester. 
“You are barred from attending this class in accordance with the Classroom Disruption policy,” IUP Provost Timothy Moerland told Ingle in a March 2 letter. “My professor is violating my First Amendment rights because of the fact that my views and ideology is different from hers,” Ingle told Fox News. “So she took it on herself to silence and embarrass me – bully me – for speaking up in class.” 
Downie accused the conservative libertarian student of “disrespectful objection,” “refusal to stop talking out of turn,” “angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker discuss the reality of white male privilege and sexism,” and “disrespectful references to the validity of trans identity and experience.”  . . .
Ingle objected to Downie’s “overall abuse” as a professor “indoctrinating” students because she won’t listen to the other side of a controversial argument. “You can’t say that anecdotal evidence is fact,” Ingle said. “My professor pretty much just tried to shut me up because she was just letting women speak. I brought up the fact that biologists don’t agree that there’s more than two genders and I said the wage gap she’s referring to – 77 cents on the dollar – that even the New York Times debunked that.”
Why did Downie ask the female students in the class to speak first? That's not entirely clear, but I'm assuming it's because she suspected that they might not get a chance to speak otherwise. Even Ingle does not say that only female students were allowed to speak, but that they were specifically asked to speak first after watching the video. And Ingle seems to acknowledge, implicitly, that he spoke out of turn-- unless, that is, he identifies as female.

It's important to point out here that IUP is a public university, and students do have a First Amendment right to speak their views. However, that does not mean that every class period is the equivalent of a simultaneous soapbox for students and lecturers alike, for the duration of the class, for obvious reasons. You can simultaneously retain your First Amendment rights and not be allowed to say anything you want, at any volume, at any time, while class is in session.

Further, it does not sound like a discussion on the gender wage gap, or the specifics thereof, were particularly germane to the conversation. Here's a link to the Paula Stone Williams TED talk-- she makes a passing reference to a woman "working twice as hard for half as much," but that's it.  It's a talk about the differences between how Williams was treated as a man before she transitioned to being a woman. It talks about mansplaining as a thing that Williams experiences now that she's a woman. It talks about the importance of listening to people in other groups in order to recognize how they are treated by members of your own group, and yes, it talks about privilege. And gives ample evidence of it. It's a really good talk, and only fifteen minutes; you should listen to it.

Apparently when Ingle listened to it, there was a voice in his head saying "No, wrong, wrong, no, wrong" throughout, and that voice was so loud that he felt compelled to argue with a woman who wasn't in the room, about statements she didn't make (perhaps the "No" voice was just too loud to hear her), when the video was over.

Fortunately since fellow student Katherine Bradshaw was part of that class and published her thoughts on what happened, we can hear her perspective on how that went. First, some interesting context:
On Feb. 26, two days before the conflict, the class discussed the Nashville Statement. For those unfamiliar with this document, the Nashville Statement is a statement of faith published in 2017 by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The document articulates the signatories’ views on sex, gender, gender roles, homosexuality and transgenderism. We spent an entire class period talking about this brief reading and some response tweets sent out by a prominent Jesuit priest. 
Article 10 of the document states, “WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” 
Article 5 of the document states that there is a “God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female” and that “WE DENY that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God-appointed link between biological sex and self-conception as male or female.” As the class discussed the document, there were no melting snowflakes. No one raised their voices. 
No one turned red in the face. It was a class period like any other. 
Ingle missed class that day.
Then the next class:
The following class period, Feb. 28, Downie showed a TED talk by Paula Williams, a transgender woman and minister. In the TED talk, the speaker recounted her decision to transition after she had married and built a highly successful career within various Christian organizations. She and her wife got a divorce, and Paula lost all of her jobs. 
To me, it was evident that this video and the Nashville Statement were meant to illustrate the diverse views of transgenderism within Christianity. The course syllabus states that students will be expected to engage with “diverse thinkers” and “understand a range of Christian perspectives.” 
Downie said that the floor would be opened for discussion for women first, and then once the women who wanted to make a comment were finished, the floor would be opened to the whole classroom. 
After a brief pause, Ingle began speaking. As I recall the event, this pause was less than 10 seconds long. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s article on the incident said the pause was 30 seconds long. I cannot accept the assertion that the class was silent for three times as long as I recall. 
In an interview with Henrik Palmgren of Red Ice TV, Ingle summarized his comments during class: “When the video concluded in class, I objected to the professor’s use of anecdotal evidence in a classroom setting as if it was factual evidence. And, of course, it is a topic of much dispute and debate. And I also brought up the fact that not all biologists agree that there are more than two genders, as well as many entities like the Economist, as well as The New York Times, even have put out statements saying that the gender wage gap myth is how it is portrayed to be.” 
At various intervals during Ingle’s comments, Downie attempted to tell him to wait his turn to speak, brought up the fact that he had not been present the previous class period and said that he had created a toxic environment. I recall that Ingle claimed Downie “couldn’t just make up rules,” referring to Downie’s decision to have women speak before men. Downie countered by claiming professors do make up rules when guiding discussion. As Ingle continued to express his views, he raised his voice and became red in the face. One student walked out of the class during Ingle’s comments. Other students engaged with him at Downie’s behest. One student said that Ingle sounded highly privileged and as if he failed to understand the video. Ingle responded that his only privilege is that he is extremely intelligent. 
Another student made the point that privilege often doesn’t have to do so much with intellectual ability, so much as opportunities individuals are given to show off their abilities.
She also says:
I would like to bring attention to Ingle’s claim that he disagreed with the speaker and/or the professor regarding the claim that there are more than two genders. This is the part of the story that Fox, Breitbart, The Washington Examiner and many other news sources chose to use as their headline. At no point in Paula Williams’ TED talk does she even broach the subject. To my memory, the viewpoint which Ingle claims to have rebutted was never introduced by either the professor or the speaker in the TED talk.
Bradshaw's remarks are very well-expressed and should be read in full.  It's clear that she saw this as an important chance to speak up and set the record straight.

Bradshaw does note that she disagrees to some extent with the punishment that Ingle received upon being kicked out of class, which entails not being allowed to return to class until he writes an apology that specifically references each charges of disruptful behavior against him. One of these charges is that he claimed that "a low score on any classwork would be evidence of a professor's personal prejudice," which Ingle steadfastly maintains he didn't say, and Bradshaw didn't hear him say either, so she maintains that he should not have to apologize for it. Seems reasonable.

So, lacking Downie's personal account of what happened in the class but having a description of the course syllabus and accounts from both Ingle and Bradford, I'm going to make a wildly speculative, shot in the dark analysis of this situation:
  1. Lecturer sets up a course to allow students to engage with radically different standpoints across the political and moral spectrum through a lens of Christian thinking, both traditional and modern.
  2. Student misses the class where the views expressed apparently line up very close with his own but are presumably diametrically opposed to the views of at least some other students, and the class proceeds without disruption.
  3. Student attends the next class where the views expressed are diametrically opposed to his own, and throws a tantrum. 
  4. Lecturer gives student the boot pending a change to his behavior: no more tantrums.
  5. Student goes to the right-wing media yelling about his freeze peach.
  6. Media yells "HIS FREEZE PEACH!"
  7. University officials, from the lecturer herself to administrators to students, get harassment and threats.
And then...what happens next? We don't know.

But can I suggest what might happen, and shouldn't? What might happen is that the university decides that while Ingle's punishment is legitimate, it just isn't worth the bother of having a huge incident like this every time a student encounters beliefs that he deems tantrum-worthy, and therefore Downie and other lecturers must modify their courses to omit these controversial ideas.

That is the silencing effect we should be concerned about.

Oh, and Ingle? According to the Fox News article, he says he wants to be a professor himself. I'm sure he'll be great.

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