When Academic Bullies Claim the Mantle of Free SpeechRoundup
tags: free speech, academic freedom, academic labor
Jennifer Ruth is a professor of film studies at Portland State University. She and Michael Bérubé, who collaborated with her on this article, are working on a book entitled Whose Common Good? Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. They are the authors of The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments (Palgrave, 2015). Ruth served as the editor of The Journal of Academic Freedom from 2017 to 2018 and is a contributing editor to the Academe blog.
Every week, it seems, a new organization is formed to combat “cancel culture” and “wokeness” — not in order to perpetuate institutional racism, of course, or sexism and sexual assault in the workplace, or indeed any form of injustice, but to champion free speech. Who could possibly be against that? Free speech, open debate — surely this is the bedrock of democracy. For those of us who work at colleges and universities, it is nothing less than our raison d’être. That is why we must support the academic freedom of people we disagree with; it is the condition of possibility for any form of legitimate intellectual disagreement whatsoever.
But then imagine that the following scenario unfolds on your campus: A faculty member shares with her students a CNN article entitled “Math Is Racist.” The article, published in 2016, is a brief discussion of a book by the mathematician and data analyst Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction — a painstaking analysis of “how algorithms and big data are targeting the poor, reinforcing racism, and amplifying inequality.” The faculty member would have no reason to imagine that anyone could plausibly object to discussing the article in class.
She is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”
Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.
The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.
The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.
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