Last week, at a meeting of the Academic Freedom Committee of the Professional Staff Congress (the CUNY faculty union), the name Anita Sarkeesian came up. Though she is not an academic (in the sense of being employed by a college or university), she felt forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University due to threats against her life and the inability of campus security to provide adequate protection (they could not prohibit guns in the room). Sarkeesian is a blogger and videographer dedicated to critical examination of depictions of women in popular culture. The reason for the harassment is distressingly simple: Sarkeesian want to move culture, and video-gaming culture in particular, from its mindless misogyny into inclusive mind-sets. She gave a talk in September:
Over 20 minutes, she coolly analyzed the strategies that trolls have used to harass her, rooting their fears in a gaming culture that is slowly changing to improve the depiction of women. “The perpetrators do not see themselves as perpetrators at all,” she said. “They see themselves as noble warriors.” To preserve that view, she said, they deny that women are being threatened at all. “We are blamed for the abuse we receive and regularly told that we are either asking for it or inventing it entirely,” she said.
This fits a pattern of attack that is also used against academics (just look at David Horowitz and ACTA’s Anne Neal) and in a great deal of contemporary American politics where the attackers see themselves as victims. It also shows why, even though Academic Freedom is a compact between universities and their faculties, the concept needs to be extended much further into the culture by those of us who are vigorous supporters of it on campus.
Such an extension has been something I’ve long been hesitant to argue for. After all, it can be (and has been) used as a means, paradoxically, for limiting academic freedom or, at least, debate. This seemed to be the point of David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom, where student academic freedom is seen as protection against the views of professors. As I said some years ago:
Giving students the same rights of academic freedom as professors places them on an intellectual plain equal to their professors but without having to prove themselves. This makes any control of the discussion by the professor rather more difficult than it should be, taking everything back to what are really foundational arguments that, often, distract from the purpose of the particular course. By the same token, giving student the same measure of academic freedom makes student ideas and beliefs, which can come from any source imaginable and needn’t have any basis, the equals of those of their professors, who have to work much more carefully and in a peer-review structure. In the classroom, student views most distinctly are not the equal of professors’—nor can they be. To avoid chaos, students must generally accept the authority of the professor in the proscribed subject matter for at least the course of the semester. The teacher, for pedagogical purposes, may open the class up to debate and discussion, but the limits are defined by the instructor. Real academic freedom, in other words, does not and cannot apply to the student in the classroom—narrowly defined within a limited temporal and spatial framework.
Horowitz was gaming Academic Freedom, using it to try to make “belief” the equal of “knowledge” as a means for limiting the influence of what he sees as the left-wing indoctrinarians of the ivory towers. Like the people attacking Sarkeesian, he sees himself as a “noble warrior” using any means necessary to combat a threat that he has, in fact, created all on his own.
“Belief,” however, is not “knowledge,” for it is extremely defensive and even violent when its veracity is challenged. “Knowledge” encourages challenge and constantly evolves. Unlike “belief,” it does not consider itself an absolute.
And, because it is not adamant in its own defense but prefers challenge, response, and revision, “knowledge” needs something to block for it, to stop it from being knocked down by the arrogance of “belief.” Academic Freedom is just such a blocker.
Why should that be limited only to academics? Why shouldn’t Academic Freedom be extended as a principle, not as a simple compact, one that covers all who pursue knowledge even at the expense of belief? My mistake in the past was to imagine, with Horowitz, that “belief” and “knowledge,” in terms of Academic Freedom, could be considered at the same time and in the same frame. Horowitz conflates them as a means for attacking American higher education, an institution that he feels has rejected him–and that has done so ever since his leftist days of the sixties. An institution that he has hated for decades. Letting myself be drawn into a discussion he had begun, I struggled to change the terms as he had defined them. He wanted to expand the definition of Academic Freedom to include students; in response and to protect the concept, I wanted to limit it to its original intent as a protection for faculty only.
That may be understandable, but it is really too limiting, as the Sarkeesian case shows us.
Today, in The New York Times, Chris Suellentrop writes about GamerGate, an “inchoate but effective online movement” that “uses the phrase ‘social justice warriors’ to describe the game designers, journalists and critics who, among other alleged sins, desire to see more (and more realistic) representations of women and minorities.” Sarkeesian has been but one of its victims.
If we in academia truly believe in the principles behind Academic Freedom, if we support the compact with our institutions because of a real commitment to the basic needs of scientific and intellectual investigation and exploration, we should never limit (as I did) our support of Academic Freedom to the faculty. Sarkeesian came up at the PSC committee meeting because the threat to her concerned an activity on campus. Thinking about that since, and thinking about Suellentrop’s column, I have decided that I have been wrong not to see Academic Freedom as simply one facet of a broader freedom of inquiry and expression, an expression of the First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech, something much greater than a simple (though necessary) prerogative of those within the walls of academe.