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Free speech on campus holds the cure to America's growing polarization
Outrage culture is causing provocative issues to be pushed out of public discourse and important artworks to be literally white-washed. Teaching civil discourse at universities is key to sustaining the American experiment.
- In July 2019, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington – in part depicting dead Native Americans and laboring slaves – over concerns that the painting presented traumatic content.
- The mural, by Stanford University art professor Victor Arnautoff, was created as a pointed critique of Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans.
- The reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of America's growing outrage culture, which removes the opportunity for people to practice the skills they require to have difficult conversations.
In early July, a California school board voted unanimously to paint over an 83-year-old, 1,600-square-foot mural chronicling the life of George Washington that hangs over a staircase in George Washington High School in San Francisco. The reason: Concerns the images of minorities, including white colonists stepping over a dead Native-American and slaves laboring at Washington's Mount Vernon estate, will traumatize students.
In his historic painting, Russian-American artist and self-described communist Victor Arnautoff, a Stanford University art professor who specialized in social realism, was pointedly critiquing Washington, a slave owner, and a society built on land that belonged to Native Americans. Eliciting reactions from students is the point. It's an invitation to learn about this history that is often swept under the rug, and it makes a pointed assertion about the importance of countering the prejudice it reveals. Censorship often harms the very people it's intended to protect – in this case, it would strip students of an important opportunity to grapple with racism in our past and deprive them of an opportunity to discuss solutions to the problems that history has created in the present.
The vote to destroy a "significant monument of anti-racism," reads an open letter signed by more than 500 academics across the country, "is a gross violation of logic and sense." It is. But that's not all. The school board's reaction to Arnautoff's deliberately disturbing artwork is characteristic of broader cultural trends.
"[W]e're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether."
With social media facilitating our tribal instincts to gang up on the 'other,' universities grappling with pressure to remove faculty who work on provocative issues, and iconic works of art being literally whitewashed, we're seeing the symptoms of growing outrage culture—an environment in which controversial or offensive ideas aren't met with challenge but calls to push them out of public discourse altogether.
Research confirms the trend too. A new Pew study found that nearly 60 percent of Americans are "not confident that others can hold civil conversations with people who have different views." Even more alarming, a recent academic paper found many people in each political party don't only disagree with the other, they believe members of the opposing party are "downright evil." And the latest Gallup/Knight campus expression study found that students today (61 percent) are more likely than they were in 2016 (54 percent) to think the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind because others might take offense.
The student findings are notable when viewed as one symptom of this trend. They point to the fact that challenges facing campus speech aren't unique to the academy. This is a cultural problem, and we're seeing its reverberations across sectors of society – including higher education.
If it's a cultural issue and not a sector-specific one, it changes how we approach the solution. In fact, by zooming out, universities come into focus as uniquely positioned to help America address our growing divisiveness. Consider the environment that campuses traditionally provide for conversation and deliberation. They invite students to understand diverse views in their intellectual complexity while practicing the skills for having these important and difficult conversations.
"These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn."
Policy change can play a role in aiding that ideal. Though the past few years have seen a number of gross overreaches from state houses – bills to dictate what classes can be taught, establish partisan litmus tests for staff hires, and mandate minimum punishments for students – there's a role for principled, targeted policies in shoring up legal protections for free expression on college campuses. In a recent essay Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), pointed out that the percentage of colleges that maintain severely restrictive speech policies declined from 74.2 percent in 2009 to 28.5 percent in 2018, while at the same time a number of problematic Department of Education regulations have been repealed or revised. That is, in part, attributable to policies tailored to addressing those barriers.
While legal protections of free expression alone don't foster an open environment, they help clear the way for civil discourse, open inquiry, and peaceful pluralism in general. And in that space, we're seeing a largely untold story unfolding through the efforts of innovative, path-breaking scholars who are expanding opportunities to come together in productive and scientific exploration. Courageous crusaders like those at Interfaith Youth Core who are gathering students, faculty, and staff from different cultures and backgrounds to build the will, skill, and knowledge to respectfully engage deep difference. Leaders at the newly growing HBCU Debate League who are giving students a platform to grapple with myriad ideas. And countless others tailoring opportunities to their own campuses at schools across the country.
These academic entrepreneurs are asking tough questions, conceiving new classes, and promoting a culture in which generally enlightening, often-discomfiting, ideologically-impartial programs are seen for what they truly are – an opportunity to learn.
These projects stand to equip individuals to overcome the challenges of the present moment. And we have reason for hope. The American experiment – distinct from every country before it – is built not just on tolerance of difference but the invitation of it. Our diverse, dynamic society, with its rich mix of religious, cultural, ideological, and other differences, is made possible by civil liberties and a culture that values them. And higher education is at its best a microcosm of that.
Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America
Viewing art that doesn't look like anything makes your brain take extra steps to try and get it.
- A new study finds that viewing modern art causes real cognitive changes in the viewer.
- Abstract art causes to viewer to place more psychological distance between themselves and the art than with more typical works.
- Exactly how this works is not yet known
Abstract art alters your cognitive state? Kandinsky would be proud to hear it.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="SlxuWYpH" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6729aae7d0a5a84ff0da7d8a99104a1"> <div id="botr_SlxuWYpH_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SlxuWYpH-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/SlxuWYpH-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/SlxuWYpH-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><a href="https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-94-007-0753-5_2306#:~:text=Psychological%20distance%20is%20a%20cognitive,persons%2C%20events%2C%20or%20times." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Psychological distance</a> is the mental distance you place between yourself and other people, things, times, and events. We tend to view abstract notions as very distant and concrete thoughts as very close. Likewise, events that are occurring tomorrow are often more "real" to us than things happening next <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Construal_level_theory" target="_blank">year</a>.</p><p>As an example of how we all use this, imagine that you've made plans to spend the day go-karting with your friends. If it is a month away, you might focus on the general details like how much fun you'll have. If it is tomorrow, your focus might be on small details like the logistics of getting there. The first event is psychologically and temporally distant, so we tend to view it abstractly; the second case is the opposite.</p><p>For this <a href="https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/abstract-art-mindset-study" target="_blank">experiment</a>, the researchers gathered 840 test subjects to test how the viewing of abstract art related to how psychologically closely or distantly they viewed it. </p><p>The test subjects were asked to view artworks defined as purely abstract, having a clearly defined object, or partly abstract with a definable object. They were then asked to imagine that they were going to decide where to place the painting on display. They could either put it in a gallery "around the corner" or "in another state." The date of the showing could either be "tomorrow" or "in a year."</p><p>The subjects were substantially more likely to choose to place the abstract works in a distant gallery in the future than to do the same with the more grounded works. This tendency to associate abstract art with faraway places or times, even after controlling for how much people liked the artwork in question, indicates that we tend to place psychological distance between ourselves and abstract art. </p><p>Study Co-Author Daphna Shohamy generalized these findings for <a href="https://cosmosmagazine.com/people/behaviour/evocations-of-abstract-art/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Cosmos</a>:</p><p>"This means that art has an effect on our general cognitive state that goes beyond how much we enjoy it, to change the way we perceive events and make decisions."</p><p>This study, published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/07/29/2001772117" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, points in the same direction as previous investigations into how we interact with abstract art. One <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21734876/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">2011 study</a> tracked the eye movements of people viewing representational art and those considering the work of Jackson Pollack and found that people tend to view all of an abstract work as they scour it for meaning as opposed to focusing on small details in a more representational painting. </p><p>Exactly how abstract art causes our brain to take a step back when considering it is a subject for further research.</p><p>The notion that a work of art must evoke a particular reaction from the viewer is the subject of some debate, though it is unlikely that many of the people advocating for that idea had the findings of this study in mind. While this study won't settle any debates in aesthetics or make a modern art lover out of everybody, it might lead to new understandings of how art affects the viewer and serve as a reminder of how much artwork and beauty influence the mind. </p>
A clever new study definitively measures how long it takes for quantum particles to pass through a barrier.
- Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
- Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
- By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.
When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.
Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.
That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.
Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."
Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."
Frozen rubidium atoms
Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think
One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.
Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.
To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)
Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.
With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.
Reactions to the study
Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.
"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."
What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."
As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."
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