Friday, December 09, 2005

An Open Letter to Brock Banks and MUSG pertaining to MU Students' Bill of Rights and Censorship

Dear Brock, and MUSG,

I am addressing this personally to you, Brock, as a letter, because I know you personally, and trust that you will be able to report this letter, or the ideas expressed within it, to MUSG as a whole.

I am writing this letter regarding the impending Students' Bill of Rights, but with the hindsight of the recent so-called "censorship" issue plaguing campus. This is an important identity issue for our University, and it is my fear that a segment of students are mistaken in their treatment of this issue, and subsequently, their treatment of the impending Students' Bill of Rights.

Students inevitably see the issue of censorship on campus, in lieu of recent events, of their blogs, websites, etc., as an issue of "rights." I disagree. While students are probably understandably opposed to "authority" given the severity with which the contemporary political climate bends towards the absolute protection of "individual space," they are mistaken in their understanding of Marquette University's "authority" as a Catholic university.

I would like to argue that instead of worrying about a Students' Bill of Rights, MUSG ought to take the time allotted to such a project and devote it to developing a positive exposition of "Catholic Identity," within which Marquette University finds itself, first and foremost.

What I mean by "positive" can be more clearly understood if we consider the meaning of "negative." The conception of "rights" that most students have is a negative conception--rather than representing any concrete obligations of conduct or outlining the identity of Marquette as a community, such "rights" are merely defined by their defense of students' "individual space." The example is as follows: As a student I feel that I need "rights" in order to protect myself from the authority of the University.

This particular idea of "individuality" or "individual space" is understandable given the prevalence of such language and conceptions in our contemporary politics. But, this idea of individuality is unnecessary at a Catholic institution, because a Catholicism, at core, composes a community, and a very particular type of community...

The claims of Catholic community are quite radical for our culture to grasp, and Marquette University reflects these radical statements: (1) God exists; (2) We are persons; (3) We are persons in community with God. These are all "positive" statements in that they "affirm" the coordinates of a very particular sort of community. Whether or not a student believes in God, Marquette University reflects the belief that God exists anyhow; even if a student considers him- or her-self an "individual" with the right to be protected from the University, the University reflects the belief that we are persons in community with God.

These two notions, "individual rights" and "persons in community with God," need not co-exist. In fact, the latter renders the former superfluous. We, as students, do not need rights as a protection from the University because we are, as a part of a Catholic University, enrolled in a community, as persons; and ultimately, in a community with God.

Thus, I propose that you abandon the plan of developing a Students' Bill of Rights, in favor of developing this positive affirmation of community. This is one of the severe advantages that a Catholic education provides above other institutions--for instance, if we were studying at UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee, we would not be attending a university which affirms the existence of God, and it would be doubtful that we'd be granted the status of "personhood," and the status of being persons in community with God. In such an environment, we would need protection in the form of "rights."

I find this idea of community to be stronger than any notion that I have secured rights. It is clearly reflected in the University curriculum, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences. I am especially pleased that I understand this because I do not clearly know whether or not I believe in God, or whether or not I am clearly Catholic (although I was raised to be).

What we need to understand as students is that We Are Marquette means that we are persons in a strong community. We don't need rights! We need to understand our disposition in this University; I for one am quite pleased to be attending such a radical University, a University that can affirm an existence for its students that no other institution can match.

I trust that MUSG has the resources to help enhance our community. I sincerely hope that we do not relegate our status as students to that of merely having "rights" or "individual space." We need to embrace our community, and understand our place within it, as persons.

I thank you for your time, and for reading this lengthy argument. I also hope that you are able to share this letter, in some form, with MUSG. (I will personally, and probably ironically, circulate this letter on my own blog, and to others as well). Hopefully we will come to understand what it means to be a part of a community, rather than allow ourselves to retreat into our own individuality.

I hope all is well.



Anonymous Toby said...

Hi Nick, this is Toby. I just noticed the link to your blog on Facebook, so I thought I would check it out. Interesting post. I feel inclined to reply, as the subject bears on a never-ending discussion you and I have been pursuing for some time. If I understand you correctly, I think I disagree on some major points, but I do not think that our disagreement is resolvable on rational grounds, as it stems from basic assumptions that are anterior to argumentation. My concern is that the notion of positive rights that you promote is ripe for being abused. These come from the community, no? But the community might choose to do horrendous things. For example, the community (or a majority thereof) may decide to brutally punish minority opinion. In that case, the Inquisition was right to silence Galilelo, since his findings contradicted the valued beliefs of the community. It seems safer to me to protect individual rights first and foremost, casting these rights in what you call "negative" terms. If we instead pursue positive rights, it seems that they might easily degenerate to what Russell called the freedom to obey the police--a positive form of freedom indeed, but not one any of us would highly value. But perhaps I have misconstrued your position. I would welcome any clarification that would correct my misconceptions.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

Hey Toby! I'm happy to see that you've commented here...I really enjoy your presentation of the argument because you state it much better than most people.

I'm not sure that I have an answer to your problem, because you're absolutely right about the idea of "positive rights" that can exclude minorities through "community" ideals.

Perhaps I have a different notion of community. I understand a community to be entirely inclusive; so, really, any minority would be included into the community wholly, for a true community cannot have a person that is excluded for any reason.

Thus, a community is a "generative" entity--this will be worked out in my "How do we generate democarcy Part II," which I was waiting to write, but will now write because I think it will help our discussion out very much.

My major concern with student rights at Marquette is that a majority of people would like to use them to distance themselves from the community. It's not that I think the administration has absolute say over the students; rather, if Marquette is a true community, there will be a sort of inclusive-ness between both the administration and the students, as well as faculty and staff; it's not a perfectly equal community because there are different levels of authority, but I think that Marquette has the framework for a "positive" community in place, and even though it is founded on Catholic ideals, it does not mean that it will exclude those that do not believe in God, or are agnostic on the question.

I think this is the greatest challenge to the Catholic community: whether or not you believe in God, you can be included; we are all persons in community with God, even if some do not believe in God--it's a difficult and nuanced paradox, but as long as we are here at MU, even for another semester, I think it'd be interesting to challenge ourselves to flesh out what it means to be in a community at MU.

Let's keep this discussion going. I am beginning to think that it is easily the primary problem of ethics, politics, and other theories of association. I hope all is well, let's talk soon.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Toby said...

Thanks for the response, Nick. I note your comment on "generative" community, but I would ask that you explicate it further. I do not see how any community can be all-inclusive, unless "community" is so narrowly defined as to be of little help in real world problems. Won't there always be sectors of any communal group that are not in line with mainstream thinking and hence liable to abuse? Perhaps your notion of generative community is similar to Rousseau's remark that the community simply forces dissenting individuals to be free by subjecting them to the general will? If so, I must take issue with R's paradoxical use of the word freedom--but we have had that discussion enough times before. At any rate, I understand your desire to construct a communitarian ethic in regard to MU's Catholic identity. Unfortunately, I think your conception of that Catholic identity conflicts with MU's function as a university. Can an institution censor certain forms of private expression (as in the case of the dental student) and still call itself a university? It seems to me that a university's purpose is to foster a diversity of ideas and the necessary arena of free expression for these ideas to flourish. (Obviously, a sanctioning of freedom of speech means nothing if not extended to expressions with which the institution disagrees or even finds immoral.) So it seems to me that your conception of MU's Catholic identity conflicts with its mission as a university. In that case, "Catholic university" becomes a contradiction in terms--and perhaps this is indeed the case. In that case, which side of the coin wins out, the Catholic side or the university side? You seem to have opted for the former. Am I correct, and what do you think of this analysis? Thanks for the interesting discussion.

10:26 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

Hey Toby, I apologize for not having enough time for posting fully on "generative" democracy just yet. I will work on that soon, but in the meantime, I think I can help address the problem you raise here...

"Won't there always be sectors of any communal group that are not in line with mainstream thinking and hence liable to abuse?"

That's a difficult question to answer because it depends directly upon what type of "community" one is participating in. In liberal American society, there will be groups that are excluded given the composition of the political system, and the fact that the political system is almost entirely utilitarian--insofar as excluding particular groups, whether they be racial, ethnic, ideological, etc., is "practical," such a policy will easily be reinforced by the majority, and without very much moral is no secret that it is very easy for some societies to exclude groups on the basis of practical policy.

I am attempting to conceive of community in a much different manner. The idea of community in this sense precludes the reality that individuals give themselves to the others in the community--a sort of "handing over" if you will--and thus, compose a community that is constituted by actual participation.

Here is an interesting result of such a community, a result that I thinki is also present in Rousseau, a nuance embedded within the Social Contract and Second Discourse. True community, insofar as it constitutes myself giving myself over to the community, and thus serving as a member of the community, in community interest rather than mere individual interest, renders the idea of a "minority" or the emergence of "sectors" against the mainstream as obsolete precisely because the entirety of the community acts together, and is maintained by such positive action between the former-individuals that compose the community.

A more contemporary analogy, or challenge for communitarian thinking, might be put this way...liberal society is marked by the division of the public and private spheres, in which the public is largely political or outlined by policy, and the private is largely economic and is marked by my accumulation of private property, for instance.

Now, there is a great amount of space between the public and the private by definition--it is the goal of liberal government to maintain the accumulation of and also to preserve private property. Thus, the function of the "public" is to let the "private" reign.

This cannot be conducive to democracy. Such a system of individual space, between private and public, creates a buffer between myself and all other individuals; there is no possibility for full action in the public sphere because I will only be thinking of myself and my own interests as an individual.

Thus, my challenge follows: what happens when we extend the public in the other direction, so that it overtakes the private? The fuller the public extends, the more truthful the democratic association, because there will be less space between individuals, and thus more of a penchant for preserving community interests as a community.

But notice, such a community necessarily maintains the "protection" (in liberal terms) of all persons no matter what! There cannot exist a true community with a minority segment. Such an association merely marks the existence of separate groups, which is a reality in our contemporary liberal society.

I know this is difficult, and I really thank you for your questions, Toby, because I am having a lot of trouble with this part of the community--I find that it pushes the boundaries of my own thought to think of such a strong community; such a strong community is not merely an authoritarian or totalitarian state (but, by paradox, it is "total" in that it is "totally" inclusive); nor is it group think. Rather, such a community is marked by strong interaction, and thus, a strong inclusion. There are no segments of the community that are left out or "marginalized" because if that were the case, the interests of the community as a whole would not be maintained, because a community cannot have "segments" or be "broken-up."

The challenge of such a community is to introduce and maintain levels of interaction that are inclusive to all not merely as individuals, but as citizens, or as "members" of the community. The biggest question is, on which level can such a broad notion of community occur?

Thanks for the question, Toby, I truly mean it. There is no greater challenge to truth, in my opinion, that the challenge of maintaining an inclusive community.

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Toby said...

Thanks, Nick. I understand your desire to conceive an all-inclusive community in which neither sectors nor factions could arise. I agree that liberalism in some ways detracts from that goal, but I disagree as to what aspects of liberalism are responsible for so doing. It is not clear to me that individual rights necessarily deter cooperation and inclusion. Indeed, the right to freedom of speech and the right to petition the government (to take two examples) seem to me vital for sincere cooperation to occur. Without such individual rights, it seems that cooperation and inclusion would be compelled, i.e. insincere. I suspect, however, that you would ground this community in fundamental democracy, so that each would have already chosen to be part of the community, which entails cooperating even when she would personally prefer not to. Am I correct in this suspicion? In that case, you seem to grant individual liberty a primary place, since only through individual choice can one sincerely become part of the all-inclusive, cooperative community. If this is the case with your view of communitarian life (i.e. that individuals originally choose to become part of this community), then I have no disagreement. It seems to me that individuals are the primary building blocks of communities (one experiences herself as a more cohesive whole than any community could possibly be, even if it functioned perfectly), and so I recognize a right for them to exercise freedom of choice. I become suspicious when autonomy is granted to institutions over and above the individual (e.g., the community, the corporation, the tribe), since it is then that tyranny begins to operate in a variety of ways. So I value community and the cooperation it entails, but I do not think that the community should thrust itself on anyone who has not chosen to become part of it (this would include individuals who happen to be born into this or that community). But perhaps I have wrongly attributed this view to you, in which case I ask your correction. To conclude, I don't think the individual rights of liberalism preclude communitarian cooperation, whereas the economic aspects of liberalism certainly do: they drive wedges between persons, create classes, spread poverty, encourage consumerism, etc. While individual rights could be exercised so as to promote cooperation (and it seems essential to me that these rights be the cause of cooperation, since anything else would be compulsion), the economic scheme of liberalism seems to necessarily create sectarian problems for the community of individuals. Let me reference someone like Chomsky, whose "libertarian socialism" (socialist in economics, libertarian on social issues and personal decisions) would be an example of what I'm talking about. Again, please correct any of my misrepresentations of your views. Thanks again for the response.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

So I value community and the cooperation it entails, but I do not think that the community should thrust itself on anyone who has not chosen to become part of it (this would include individuals who happen to be born into this or that community).


Fantastic comment Toby. I agree completely. Ironically, in this situation merely procedural elements of liberal economic protection are certainly thrust upon many that are unwilling, as are objective "laws" of capital...

I think there are two fantastic aspects to your comment: (1) the focus on individual choice; (2) the division of rights into economic and social categories.

(1) You're absolutely right to point out that the individual is making the choice to participate in the community. This is where my view has changed a bit; I am infusing a bit of my Marxist studies back into the Rousseauian "matrix," if you will (and vice versa)...I am becoming more and more opposed to the idea that overreaching "idealistic" communities ought to be given a "life" of their own, or a status of their own...thus, what I mean to suggest by writing that myself gives my-self to the community is not that I join some ever-expanding "idea" of community, but that I actually, concretely "act" and "interact" (perhaps "intra-action" is a better word) with those in the community...

I am not quite sure to what extent the individual choice should be analyzed...this is a very good question and will require much time. Let's keep fleshing it out, I think there's a lot of implications for ethics hidden within it.

(2) In terms of practically affecting and reforming liberalism, I agree completely with your division of rights. It is the economic rights that are most divisive in liberalism...this might seem Marxian of me, but I definitely concerned with the "primacy" of economic space, preservation, and is the other ideas of space and freedom that grow out of this economic right, and in that case, a lot of the improper social elements of liberalism are actually mere reflections of the economic desires of individuals to keep their right for private property and private space.

I think you will agree with me that someone such as Charles Taylor does a fantastic job in actually working within liberal frameworks, and fleshing out ideas of "social" rights; in particular, as you know, Taylor is concerned with "group" or "collective" rights.

I suppose my greatest problem will always be that I am much too willing to toss liberalism aside as a whole and philosophize in the emptiness that is left behind it...perhaps that is why it is easy to category such theories of community as "authoritarian" and "totalitarian."

Thanks for the comments. I am having a blast thinking about this issue, and your questions always reach right to the fabric of my arguments. I am working on a conference paper about democracy, and I would love to pass it your way during break after I finish it. Many of the ideas will seem familiar after your reading of my blog, and your questions are very helpful in forcing me to clarify my messy conceptions...

I am headed in for the night, I hope you have a great finals week, and I will keep posting this week, and will definitely reply ASAP to any further comments on your part.

9:21 PM  
Blogger baelmon said...

Thanks for your kind reply. It appears that we are more in agreement than I had originally guessed. Perhaps we should return now to the concrete issue at hand, i.e. MU's identity. If the university democratically (i.e. with the will of students, staff, administration, faculty, perhaps alumni depending on how widely you want to expand the community) chose to sacrifice some degree of individual freedom of expression for the sake of its Catholic identity, I would support this choice--but I would also extricate myself from the community of the university, as it would have turned itself into something that I cannot value. In my view, democracy ought to be primary, so I would respect the right of the university's populace to determine its own identity. That being said, I could not personally value their decision of sacrificing some individual freedom for the cause of Catholic identity, so I would politely excuse myself from the community (we can have another interesting discussion on when and where one can voluntarily leave a community; I can leave the university, but I cannot leave the human community, no?) An example of this is the recent nickname controversy. While I think that the Warriors nickname (with all its unexpungable history) is abhorrent and should not be adopted, my valuation of democracy is more fundamental. I therefore believe that the university community ought to have been able to vote for Warriors as one of their choices. No doubt Warriors would have won, which would have been unfortunate. But in the long run, democratic populism is more likely to produce good effects in the world than is a "benevolent" legislator, whether John Ashcroft with his wiretaps or the medieval Catholic church, both of whom engaged in unjust practices for the "greater good." By the way, inspired by your example, I have started my own blog: Check it out when you have time. Keep up the interesting posting.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Nick Z. said...

That being said, I could not personally value their decision of sacrificing some individual freedom for the cause of Catholic identity, so I would politely excuse myself from the community...


There's a lot of depth in your last response, so I am going to try and look at at least one aspect of your argument.

You raise an argument that represents, I would be willing to bet, the opinion of most students, but you state it much more soundly.

Here I will restate, hopefully more concisely, my initial argument about MU and student rights: my argument is that because a Catholic university can make the radical claims that (1) God exists; (2) we are persons; and (3) we are persons in community with God, we don't need explicit individual rights. That does not mean that the individual is not valued in a Catholic institution, but rather that the existence of the individual is already validated within the "community" of Catholicism.

And, because of the "universality" of that community, one is included in this community whether or not one believes in God--this is the strength of the community of a Catholic university. I find it amazing that even I, who does not know whether or not I believe in God, or whether or not I am Catholic, still have my "personhood" confirmed by the community.

Now, we can certainly challenge the administration as to whether or not they think of us in this regard, in this lens of community. I would argue that there is a certain hierarchy at our university that places persons on different levels, which in turn jeopardizes the truthful implementation of the radical claims listed above.

Thus, in some respects, I agree that a Catholic university is contradictory. For instance, I would argue that a truthful community would lack a hierarchy; but a university, even with a potentially strong community (e.g., a Catholic community), needs a hierarchy by our definition of it...

I'm not quite sure how to resolve this dilemma. But hopefully I have jumped onto the same page as you, and now perhaps we can tackle the administrative problems in tandem.

(BTW, happy to see you have a blog now too. I am adding a link ASAP).

7:38 AM  
Blogger Toby said...

"I would argue that there is a certain hierarchy at our university that places persons on different levels, which in turn jeopardizes the truthful implementation of the radical claims listed above." I think this is the key to our discussion. I agree that the anti-democratic hierarchy of the university is a problem (perhaps an insoluble). I also follow what you say about persons within the community not needing individual rights: the radical claims of the Catholic community go beyond individual rights, including all they contain and more. The problem is that the hierarchy can ignore the radical claim of personhood and denigrate one of the persons in the community, as with the dental student. But doesn't that show the need for our possessing individual rights? In an ideal setting, we wouldn't need rights, because we would all affirm the claim of personhood and respect one another as such. In reality, those in power abuse their position to silence those with whom they disagree, contravening the Catholic claim of personhood. So what are we to do in the face of this? Ask those with power to start being nice, or demand individual rights as a precaution, so we can fall back on them at such times as those in power force us to? Perhaps the need for individual, negative rights is that we must have some enforcement mechanism of demanding respect in cases where our communal personhood is ignored. What do you think? Very interesting discussion.

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Vinnie said...

I only had time just now to scan this discussion, but if I could, I'd like to comment on the original post. I'm actually an MUSG senator myself, and since first addressing the issue, I feel we somewhat missed the central focus. I must say, I agree very much with the original post and Nick's comments. Because we have voluntarily entered into this community, as you call it, and because the element of that community is something the university highly values and emphasizes, I think the discussion we should be having is what Nick said--specifically, what it means to be a Marquette student and what it means to conduct oneself as such. I felt this way last week when we discussed out legislation in senate, but the point would've been a bit off topic in debating the resolutions at hand. What's more important than the "censorship" issue is this: were the blogger's words truly harmful and irreconcilable with the Marquette identity, or was the punishment the result of a thin-skinned professor that abused this idea of un-Marquette-like conduct because of hurt feelings? That central concept--as well as how it should play out in terms of corrective action or lack thereof--is what needs to be discussed and has needed discussing for seemingly as long as I've been here. It needs to be a recurring and continual exchange between students, administrators, professors, Jesuits, etc., not to define this concept but simply to reach a better understanding and connection among these different parties and their interests. If it means some kind of open forum or smaller exchange between representative groups, we need to do this. Now that this tension has blown up rather considerably, this discussion has become a necessity in order to prevent a further gap between the students and the administrators/faculty.

11:01 PM  

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