There is an age-old problem relating to truthfulness that seems to be rearing its head again in troubling ways.
During my time conducting fieldwork in Iran, people often ridiculed a sharia-based decree that states that if there is an earthquake and a man from an upstairs apartment “falls into” a woman from a downstairs apartment, and that woman becomes pregnant, then the child resulting from that conception will not be a bastard as it will be a sign of God’s will.
While it seems bizarre to make policies based on such an extreme, we appear to be doing this more often now, and with negative consequences. Specifically, we are making policies — on topics ranging from human trafficking to academic freedom — that are rooted in fiction. What I mean by this is not that the scenarios on which the policies are based couldn’t happen (although the Iran case is hard to imagine). But the fiction here is that extreme and exceptional cases are the norm.
In my work on human trafficking, I have discovered that a lot of what shapes people’s thinking — and by extension policies — on human trafficking is an unlikely source: films like Taken. This film focuses on a young, wealthy, white teenage girl who is taken and trafficked while on vacation in Paris. In the end of the film we see the young woman being sold for her virginity by and to dark skinned men with Middle Eastern accents on a boat in the Persian Gulf. People who lobby for anti-trafficking legislature based on this overly simplistic portraiture haven’t thought through how far from representative of most actual human trafficking situations this film is. Most trafficking cases involve far more nuance and occur in industries such as domestic work, agricultural labor or in garment factories.
In the U.S., we have passed laws empowering the Department of Homeland Security to refuse entry to hundreds and deport thousands on the basis of the possibility of threat that is tethered to religious and cultural backgrounds. President-elect Donald Trump has announced plans for a policy that would require all Muslims to “register.” An entire population of over one billion people has been deemed a threat (just look at the recent “Skittles” analogy provided by Eric Trump), and while it is true that some acts of terrorism are enacted by Muslims, it is also true that many are not. The exception is not the norm.
On many American college campuses, including ones here in California, a series of policies are being proposed and enacted to address questions of academic freedom and harassment. Free speech advocates such as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt raise alarm bells that “weak” students take offense at the slightest umbrage. They caution that schools should not rush to trample on academic freedom just to accommodate these “coddled” students. They praise the University of Chicago for issuing a letter to all students denouncing the concept of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” But the examples cited are also based on extremes. Are students actually running away from classrooms because they are offended? Has any course content become less robust because of trigger warnings? For people on this side of the debate, any and all calls to be reflexive about pedagogy on the grounds of being attentive to diversity is seen as trampling on academic freedom, and thus policies should be enacted to protect academic freedom at all costs.
The problem is that policies based on extreme exceptions are not only based in anecdotal evidence or made-up cinematic stories rather than robust data, but also have the outcome of hurting many people in the name of protection. In Dubai and around the world, women – whether in the sex industry or not – are frequently rounded up on raids that seek to “rescue” them but have the effect of making them susceptible to violence, exclusion, arrest, and deportation. The focus of trafficking policies on women and the sex industry has another effect of excluding men and women outside the sex industry who seek protections.
To move to the recent example of policies on college campuses about academic freedom, the casualties of these extreme-based policies include more than just members of college communities. In this case, the troubling casualty is pluralism. To set up a conversation so that academic freedom and diversity are not only weaponized, but are wrongly pitted against one another, via treating extremes as norms, is to turn diversity into a type of danger. Rather than looking at how academic freedom is about amplifying all voices and making spaces safe, this framing ignores the hard work of diversity initiatives, and the effort it takes to create college campuses that are welcoming to all students and where difficult dialogues can be had.
Do the extremes exist? Yes. Should we be crafting policies based on the fiction that those extremes are the norm? No. To do so would be to cause more casualties and undermine the project of furthering pluralism in what is already a polarized world.
Provocations is a series produced in conjunction with “The Future of the Truth,” a UCI Forum for the Academy and the Public conference, staged in partnership with LARB, taking place in Irvine on February 3 and 4, 2017.