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And we are familiar with the hurt outrage of the students at Macalester College who sought to shut down an exhibition that included sexualized imagery of women wearing hijabs and niqabs by an Iranian-American artist supporting Iran’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement.
Students have all sorts of sensitivities, not just those tied to religious faith, and we work hard to support them. While the language of harm can be used as a cudgel for other ends — particularly, in our experience, when it is adopted by administrators acting in the name of protecting students — we do our best to always take it at face value. This support typically takes two standard forms.
Whenever we are able to anticipate a sensitivity, we try to provide a content warning that allows students to prepare for what they will learn about or, if need be, excuse themselves from that section of class. While these warnings may not lessen the emotional response — as Wedatalla’s testimony suggests and most studies have concluded — they can help students balance emotion with reason and thus put them into a frame of mind where they are better able to learn.
Knowing when to provide such a warning, however, is not always possible. Art history is the study of the decorations of the rich and powerful and as such is never separable from histories of structural and manifest violence. At institutions like ours that serve unusually culturally diverse and largely working-class student bodies, these stories are all the more likely to intersect with a student’s personal, familial, or cultural histories in ways that can only partially be anticipated.
And when students are able to articulate their feelings or concerns, or we are able to sense them in their responses or nonresponses, we use the classroom to talk through their reactions. As with any supportive relationship, our first response is to recognize the legitimacy of their feelings. This helps to bring students to the point where the rubber of their embodied need can meet the road of historical understanding.
While recognition of feelings helps, the real benefit comes from the Socratic extension of this process, whereby the instructor prompts an emotional student to work through some of the different perspectives that the student might accept beyond their initial reaction. This helps students evaluate the historical conditions of their own understanding, beliefs, and feelings.
Less generous readers might judge this to be a form of misplaced group therapy, but in our experience it is simply effective pedagogy. It helps students approach learning with maturity and wisdom, rather than getting mired in regressive reaction. It is helpful for anyone — but especially young adults working their way out of adolescence.
By her own account, Wedatalla’s strong reaction was based on the limits of her experience. Had Hamline’s administration given her the opportunity to process this experience with the aid of more educated perspectives, she might have come to a more mature understanding of what upset her. For example, she might have benefitted from those who know about the long and complex history of representations of Muhammad and the prohibitions on such representations, or those who toggle back and forth between the registers of religious faith and scholarly inquiry.
Instead, this educational opportunity was blocked for Wedatalla by administrators who — in what seems to be a case of hysterical contagion — adopted the student’s upset feelings and youthful perspective as their own. Hamline President Fayneese S. Miller said that a classroom display of a major historical art monument presented with multiple trigger warnings and ample historical framing was an example of “anything goes” teaching that transgressed the imperative that instructors act “professionally in their scholarly research, their teaching, and their interactions with students.”
And something similar was apparent in the Macalester administration’s decision to post (or allow to remain posted) at the entrance to the Macalester gallery a QR link to the student petition calling for the exhibition to be shut down, without also including a link to any of the many petitions in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement — the exhibition’s theme. Macalester administrators were quick to support student claims about the “harm” caused by the exhibition but were seemingly oblivious to the exhibition’s protest against restrictions on women and the more than 500 “Woman, Life, Freedom” protesters who have been killed.
These administrators not only violated the academic freedom of their faculty, they deprived their students of the care they claim to be offering them. Students deserve to be heard and recognized, of course, but they also deserve to benefit from the patient, measured, and informed wisdom of those who have the scholarly background to understand and soberly address the issues raised.
Critical thinking is difficult. It is more like running a marathon than it is like riding a bike — that is, it is more a matter of intellectual and emotional fitness than a technique one can learn and never forget. To think contradictory thoughts simultaneously and fruitfully, to question one’s own assumptions in a way that generates better alternatives, all while charitably entertaining the views of others, is hard to sustain. It requires a lot of instruction and regular practice. Students struggle to get in condition — and administrators removed from the day-to-day practice of teaching and scholarly exchange risk falling out of shape.
Because critical thinking is rooted in the rigors of self-reflection, it is decidedly not an application of the managerial expertise that administrators often claim. We heartily appreciate administrators when they act as problem-solvers smoothing the way for the work of research and education. But too often, they fail at this role by fashioning themselves as coercive, rather than enabling, managers — either simply as bosses or as members of a self-identified, elite professional-managerial class — and in this capacity they intrude on, rather than protect, the work of research and teaching. Sometimes they even seem to believe that universities are about them.
Students deserve to be heard and recognized, but they also deserve to benefit from the patient, measured, and informed wisdom of those who have the scholarly background to understand and soberly address the issues raised.
Equally so, critical thinking can be led astray by misplaced emotion. Students facing uncertain life prospects, like anyone living with significant financial or other insecurity, are particularly vulnerable to this form of overreaction. Why the comfortable administrators at Hamline and Macalester chose to make their students’ wounds the meaning of their educational experience rather than address their cause in a constructive manner is a more complex question.
The account of kitsch that best serves our perspective comes from the Austrian novelist and midcentury theorist of mass hysteria, Hermann Broch. In Broch’s understanding, kitsch is “evident in all domains of life,” including “social conventions,” “vocational structures,” “political persuasions” and, key for our purposes, “the administration of justice.”
In historian Saul Friedländer’s Brochian account of Nazism, for example, kitsch is the affective expression of a mythical ideal of the administrative “order of things — for the established order and for things as they are.” When kitsch’s false image of managed orderliness comes face-to-face with real-world complications — such as when a student complains that they have been hurt by words or images — hysterical overreaction can be triggered as a mechanism for reestablishing the artificial sense of order.
In other words, Broch says, kitsch degrades human understanding by making it instrumental: “God becomes an idol, truth dogma, beauty effect.” The byproduct of kitsch’s dream of an administered world is “a universally contaminating infection of phraseology.” Insofar as our image of society “remains a system,” he wrote, “the system becomes closed; the infinite system becomes a finite system.” Instead of society being driven to address unmet human needs that fall outside of existing administrative systems, its capacity for enlightened action is neutered by false struggles and alliances between sanctimonious slogans, on one side, and detached technical jargon, on the other.
Arising with anthropology’s guilty reaction to its own constitutive role in colonialism, the original institutionalization of what is sometimes now called “wokeness” appeared in a 1947 statement submitted to the United Nations by the executive board of the American Anthropological Association. Human rights had been based on “respect for the personality of the individual as such,” the anthropologists explained to their audience of politicians and diplomats. In the wake of the war and at the onset of decolonization, a new “world order” was emerging that needed a different basis: “respect for the cultures of different groups.” Cultures would henceforth need to be treated as if they were persons.
This shift from individual to cultural recognition as the basis for social justice accomplished two things. The excesses of Enlightenment individualism were checked, but in so doing the metaphysical horizon that Broch insisted kept culture from being reduced to kitsch was obviated. For our purposes as art historians, this was the moment when the horizon of possibility held open by the category of art collapsed into the systemic domination of culture.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, also writing in 1947, warned of this domination. “To speak of culture was always contrary to culture,” they said. “Culture as a common denominator already contains in embryo that schematization and process of cataloging and classification which bring culture within the sphere of administration.” Their point was that when the “sphere of administration” takes on its own autonomous cultural value, separate from individual needs and desires that exceed its systems, freedom and understanding are compromised. Social justice is confined to a finite system — and thus is injustice — rather than being understood as that which bends existing systems toward unfulfilled human need.
Broch’s term for the inevitable outcome of cultural systematicity being fetishized in this way was “hysteria,” and his particular focus was on its contagious spread through kitsch. We see that contagion today in the substitution of rules for justice, of rhetoric for politics, of cancellation for critique, and of pandering for care. These are the weapons deployed in the wars between the anthropologists’ “cultures of different groups.” They are also the tools used to bury class conflict beneath the manufactured storm of cultural differences.
That this hysteria passes from students to administrators and back again before finding its way onto cable news and social media only means that there is that much more need for scholars like us to rethink the concept of culture. That the faculty role between students and administrators routinely positions us as hysteria’s target makes this task all the more pressing.
In brief, one of us introduced a debate between three critics about the intersection of transphobic and antiracist themes in Dave Chappelle’s 2021 special The Closer to a seminar of 20 graduate students. One transgender student expressed vulnerability and did not return to class after the break. This prompted a conversation among the remaining students about other class topics that had made them feel unsafe: One student felt harmed by a suggestion that members of Congress kneeling and wearing kente cloth was not a meaningful response to the murder of George Floyd; another was hurt by a reference to the gentrification that has afflicted Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood because mentioning it contributes to a “settler narrative”; and a third felt that the use of the term “hipster” to describe gentrifying artists was unsafe.
The discussion of these concerns was cut short after the two students who raised the references to gentrification and the kente-cloth-wearing Congress members filed a complaint and the course was put on hold for two weeks. Three administrators — the college dean, the director of the school that contains the art and art history departments, and the department’s director of graduate studies — took on the role of responding grievance officers. The director, in consultation with the dean, put a stop to the course. All three college administrators refused to discuss the matter with either of us (presumably because we have a personal relationship) and did not respond to repeated requests from us and from students for community mediation. Meetings excluding us were called to discuss the matter with all of the other art history faculty and with the Racial Justice Task Force, an ad hoc committee of administrators, faculty, staff, and students, although the latter did not take place in the end.
Word spread quickly across campus and beyond. A faculty member from another department abruptly dropped off the Ph.D. committee of one of our students after expressing concerns about what he had heard about the seminar, and a longtime funder of the department put a substantial planned contribution on indefinite hold based on what he had heard about the student complaints and the turmoil in the department.
Four graduate students independently reported to us that they were considering dropping out and pursuing different careers because they were so scared and appalled by the administrative handling of the matter. A division among the department’s graduate-student body emerged, resulting in a significant decline in enrollment in our courses and in attendance at department events.
As at Hamline and Macalester, the administrators justified their response in the name of protecting students, and their emails about the matter were circulated widely in student networks. Two of these emails were forwarded to the department by students complaining that they were being manipulated — or, as one put it, “weaponized” — by the administrators’ messages.
The first of these two administrative responses, from the school director, put all pretense of independent investigation aside, declaring “I am HERE for you, the students!” The email went on to encourage students to take complaints directly to the vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and engagement and the associate chancellor for access and equity, providing their email addresses, and misled them about the director’s own terms for restarting the class, which created an additional round of turmoil and distress for the department.
Like most forms of containment, the slogans and jargon of our students and administrators were first developed in the name of freedom by scholars like us.
The second email was sent by the director of graduate studies to all of the department’s graduate students, except for our advisees. It named the course’s instructor (one of us) three times, summarized the university’s guidelines about sexual harassment, explained the process for getting a professor removed from the graduate college, and provided the names, email addresses, and telephone numbers for three deans in the Graduate College and the Office for Access and Equity. The barely veiled implication was that the mention of the debate about the Chappelle special in class had itself been a form of sexual harassment and that students could pressure the higher administration to remove the instructor’s graduate-teaching eligibility in response.
The dean has since promoted the director of graduate studies to a higher administrative post, over the objections of many faculty members and several students.
Because the debate introduced in class was between three Black critics about the work of a Black comedian who centers most of his comedy on anti-Black racism, while the complainants and administrators are not Black, other students came to the conclusion that the whole episode was a clear instance of a hierarchy of oppressions.
They understood the student grievance and the administrative response to be an instance of anti-transphobic vigilance that was used to block the discussion and understanding of a culturally prominent critique of a distinctive form of anti-Black racism. In other words, the administrative effort to protect students — even, for a brief moment, in the name of a Racial Justice Task Force — turned out to be an unwitting institutional endorsement of anti-Black racism.
Had the complainants at Hamline, Macalester, or at our institution been allowed to process their difficult feelings in the classroom or in a community forum that included the artists and faculty members involved, along with other faculty experts in the areas of concern, they might have come out of the experience with a more mature and nuanced perspective. That is, they would have received the education they deserve, they would have further developed their capacities for critical thinking, and they would not have had to carry the burden of being caught up in the hysteria of university administrators and newsworthy instances of kitsch social justice.
But there may be something larger going on as well. While sexism, racism, homophobia, and other biases are no longer sanctioned in institutions like ours, the traumas they produced in our collective past are still being worked through. Educated members of the middle class, like us, have been vigilant about warding off these patterns of thought to such an extent that identification with victims and perceived victims has come to be a substitute for the class identifications that used to structure political and social life. The resulting presumption to innocence often only generates more insidious forms of structural bias by merging with cliquish professional alliances in ways that distort the work of universities and other institutions.
One routine form this takes — at least in our workplace — is what some of our colleagues jokingly call the “mean girl” social order (with “girl” standing for an enculturated emotional style rather than a gender category). Loyalty, respect for hierarchy, and teeth-baring malice in the guise of “Midwest nice” are the primary markers of this order.
Typically, a more powerful senior faculty member or administrator will call a less powerful colleague into the clique by first publicly inviting the junior person to claim a degree of victimization in the workplace, only to then procure a debt by seeming to help address that burden through advocacy. This personalized debt is repaid when the senior mean girl flexes her muscle for her own advancement or to hurt an enemy — sometimes by adopting the hysterical position of an upset student in order to sacrifice the reputation of a faculty member and thereby gain another notch in her administrative belt — while the junior colleague raises no objections. In our case, these notches appeared designed to advance the career goals of the administrators involved, each of whom has shown a strong interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion administrative roles.
If university administrators choose to be leaders rather than mere managers or bosses, they could begin this process by speaking openly and honestly in public about their own failures. Or, if such boldness is too daunting, they could take a note from the faculty’s playbook, break their code of silence, and begin to publicly critique each other.
Either way, such administrative accountability will be challenging to summon. In 1986, the anthropologist Mary Douglas provided another way to understand the problem: “For purposes of judicial and administrative control,” she wrote, administrators “veil their influence.” Echoing Freud, she explained that this veiling is accomplished through the production of taboos that exercise “coercive strength” by generating internal social pressure against any “individual’s wavering commitment” to the administrative image of orderliness. That image, she wrote in a sentence that prefigures our brave new world of artificial intelligence, is like “the pathetic megalomania of the computer whose whole vision of the world is its own program.” In short, it is kitsch.
For our purposes, the operative prohibitions can be found in efforts to substitute DEI rules for established guidelines protecting and delimiting academic freedom, or in the in loco parentis principle that underlies administratively monitored safe spaces, or in the drumbeat of pandering that invites students to report their concerns, Karen-style, to the manager. The reason this image of order works, Douglas helps us understand, is that it “is based on the classifications inside the same individual’s head,” which, in turn, are “based essentially upon the classifications pertaining to the division of labor.” That is, it reproduces the command-and-control relation of bosses to workers.
That said, if administrators are willing to summon the necessary personal character and enlightened leadership to admit to their own mistakes or critique those of their peers, they might be able to address the tendency to institutionally deadening atrophied critical thinking. If their goal is, in fact, to protect students, this would be the single most valuable thing they could do. Given their track record, however, real change and real care for students will likely only happen with dogged pushing and prodding from faculty, staff, and graduate-student unions.