In his column “None dare call it indoctrination,” Andrew Breland doesn’t want to mince words. He isn’t hesitating to label some things happening on campus as “indoctrination” or “brainwashing.” So I won’t mince words either. I am thoroughly embarrassed to share a campus with someone who can hold the opinions Breland does, and I am disappointed that The Observer continues to publish his work. In previous columns, Breland has called for a radical reform of the SAGES program. If somebody can make it through SAGES and still write with the complete lack of critical thought that Breland does, then reforming the program may be the only thing we agree on.
Breland is terrified of discussions of race, class or gender that might take the form of “mandatory re-education programs.” Throughout his piece, he uses, at turns, phrases like “groupthink,” “thought reform,” “re-education” and more in order to bring back our high school memories of 1984 and the thought police.
To quote Breland at length: “With calls for mandatory re-education programs—a more extreme person might call it brainwashing or indoctrination—universities have a responsibility not to give in to the ‘politically-correct’ thought reformers, but instead they must double down on their commitments to academic freedom and free expression.”
And really, Breland wonders, is such reform necessary? He assures us that even before these programs, “someone shouting racial slurs on the quad would have been ostracized.” Anyone with the slightest exposure to critical thought about race will immediately recognize this as the classic canard of modern racism: It is no longer socially acceptable to use racial slurs in public, therefore racism no longer exists. Another version goes: Black President! Everything must be okay! I put my faith in the reader to make up their mind about this argument.
There is, however, a more substantive issue at stake here. Breland rails against these “re-education programs” in favor of a “marketplace of ideas.” He asks: Who gets to decide what the ‘right’ ways to think about race, class, or gender are? The only fair solution is to submit the various ideas to open expression in the “marketplace” and let the best, most competitive ideas win. The so-called “re-education programs” would confer an unfair advantage on one particular set of ideas over the rest, an unfair advantage which the market would eliminate.
It is here that the theological faith in the “marketplace” on which Breland’s argument relies most clearly reveals itself. I highly doubt I’m going to change Breland’s mind in an Observer column, so let me put it like this. Does anyone doubt that we internalize the values and norms of the culture we grow up in? And does anyone doubt that mainstream American culture continues to convey values and norms that are racist, heteronormative, patriarchal and more?
Again, I am sure that Breland and others will object to this latter point, and this letter to the editor is not the place for that debate. But if we accept as true both of the above ideas—ideas which I and hopefully most of The Observer’s readership take to be patently obvious—then the “marketplace of ideas” is a complete absurdity. It is tilted from the beginning in favor of ideas that support the status quo. The “marketplace of ideas” is not some magically autonomous and independent sphere of reality where ideas can impartially battle it out. This “marketplace,” like every other market and every other part of our society, is shaped by hegemonic ideas about race, class and gender.
Breland’s feared “re-education programs” are necessary because we all grew up in a culture that values certain identities while devaluing others. If we continue to submit this debate to the marketplace of the exact same culture, how could we expect anything different as a result? Breland appeals to some imaginary impartial marketplace do nothing more than hide himself behind the status quo. I would like to invite him out here into the area of critical thought, a place that might actually end up resembling his feted marketplace.
Breland closes his column with the following: “It seems, though, that as CWRU engages further in discussions of race, the ability to be contrarian is quickly escaping.” It is supremely ironic that during a moment of reactionary response to the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008, a moment in which we are witnessing the broadening and deepening of neoliberal hegemony, Breland somehow feels himself to be in a contrarian minority when he trumpets the hollowing out of the university in favor of a “marketplace of ideas.” But if he truly feels that his “contrarian” position is becoming less and less acceptable on CWRU campus, then all the better. Breland is not so much a contrarian as he is colossally wrong.