Stories of campus political excesses pile up like bodies. To cite a few recent examples: There was the law student group at Berkeley that banned Zionist speakers, the Stanford Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, and the Valdosta State University professor who taught that sex isn’t dichotomous.
I am not a fan of the word “woke.” I find it to be dismissive, snarky, and generally unhelpful. Yet, it’s the go-to term for many people who wish to express their concerns about colleges today. It’s meant to refer to a narrow, progressive political ideology that, critics say, limits free speech, suppresses debate, and forces students and faculty alike to self-censor. But the very real challenges have been misdiagnosed by both higher education’s critics and its defenders. Campuses don’t have a “wokeness” problem. They have a certainty problem.
Righting the ship, as they say, requires understanding what’s making it sink. I’ve written here and here about the “Certainty Trap.” The Certainty Trap refers to a resolute unwillingness to consider the possibility that we’re wrong or that we’re not right in the way we think we are. It has cousins in intellectual arrogance and incuriosity, but those concepts don’t quite go far enough. After all, if I tell someone to be intellectually humble or curious, there’s a tacit assumption that they can identify where they lack those things in the first place.
It turns out that we’re not great at recognizing exactly what it is we should be either humble or curious about. It’s a bit of a paradox in the sense that, if you understand your own need for humility, you’re already halfway to a solution. So how do we tackle a problem we can’t directly observe? We tackle it by learning to think differently—by recognizing that our clue that we’re falling into the Certainty Trap isn’t a feeling of being certain. No, the clue that we’re falling into the Certainty Trap is when we feel the urge to harshly judge and demonize those who disagree with us. When we see the answers as simple, only a stupid or evil person could think otherwise.
Here’s what this can look like in practice, taking the three examples I mentioned at the beginning. First, when things get heated over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, don’t just point to the need for viewpoint diversity. In the Berkeley case, when a student group at Berkeley Law School “barred supporters of Zionism from speaking at its events,” it was because they thought the right answers were obvious. The trick is to show them they’re not. As I wrote here, this might include asking questions like: Can people on both sides be aggressors and victims? Whose claim to victim status matters more? What is the difference between self-defense and unprovoked aggression? What is the right way to compensate people who have been wronged? Who deserves compensation, in what form, and when? And, of course, who should decide all these things? Certainty keeps us from considering these questions.
Second, when Stanford initiates its “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” to “address harmful language in IT at Stanford,” they’re making various assumptions that have gone unspoken. One of the biggest is that intent doesn’t matter. To take one example from the linked document, “crazy” is considered offensive. But, who declared this to be the case? How should we think about people’s sensitivities? Are the norms of what’s acceptable set by the most sensitive person in every room? Should they be? Taking it one step further, how should we think about the role of intent? My point isn’t that people’s feelings of being offended don’t matter or that having good intent is exculpatory. The point is that certainty keeps us from diving in.
In the third example, at Valdosta State, a parent complained about the “woke” way the professor was leading a discussion about gender and biology. The instructor had taught that “sex, instead of being a dichotomy, is bimodal, meaning there are two large lumps (male and female) with other in between (intersex).” The real problem? Certainty. There are debates in biology about whether what the professor said is right (which is part of the reason this is in the opinion section). There are also debates about the prevalence of intersex conditions and whether biological sex should be considered binary or bimodal. None of this means the instructor shouldn’t have said what she said. But it can’t, in good faith, be presented as definitive.
Certainty has at least two implications, both of which are powerful. One is that it leads us to stop asking questions. Given we can’t know ahead of time where the next question will lead, this forecloses our ability to create or access new knowledge. The second, related but subtly different, is that it leads us to conclude that there are no questions to be asked, by anyone. And this changes social norms. It changes what we think is socially acceptable and what isn’t, leading us to view dissenters and contrarians as moral abominations who deserve to be punished.
The good news is that the problem of certainty is actually easier to solve than a battle over political ideologies. That’s partly because certainty can come from the left, right, or center. Right now, the certainty that underpins several of the left’s views on hot-button issues has powerful effects on higher education, simply because that’s the prevalent political orientation on campus. But, if the pendulum were to swing in another direction, and campuses were made up of people convinced the 2020 election was stolen, certainty would still be just as much of a problem. The way to address it is twofold. The first step is to recognize the root problem. The second is to start asking questions, and to do so while understanding that the most important thing often isn’t answering the questions, but generating them.
Certainty can take any of these forms: declaring knowledge as definitive, treating the path forward or the solution to a contentious problem as though it’s obvious, behaving as though there is a clear “right” decision in conflicts between different values or the interests of different groups, or failing to recognize that, when it comes to heated issues and problems we care about, pretty much any solution has both costs and benefits. Each of these elements of the Certainty Trap assumes a simplicity that not only doesn’t stand up, but actively constrains our thinking.
In 2023, lean into ambiguity. It’s not as bad as you think.
Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a Founding Faculty Fellow at UATX. She is the founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the Faculty Director of The Mill Institute. She is the co-author of Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education and the creator of the Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes video series.