One of the most disheartening events of this past summer on the Academe blog was the rise of invective in the comments that started with our posting of a guest commentary by a group of scholars with particular connections to–or interests in–India. The vituperation exhibited astonished me, and it came in the dozens and then hundreds (to date, there are over 450 comments on that first post, the majority of them angry). I wrote about this in a posting a week or so after the first–and found myself embroiled in a debate that I knew next to nothing about. An article for the UK publication The Register on the controversy included this: “Academeblog executive editor Aaron Barlow has also weighed in, saying he’s a bit worried by comments calling for things like ‘violent brutal purging’” of those behind the first post.”
Writing for the New Delhi publication Outlook, University of Pennsylvania professor Suvir Kaul, one of the signatories to the original post, wrote that “The level of invective has been so worrisome that Aaron Barlow, the Executive Editor of The Academe Blog, where our letter was published, felt the need to write a special commentary saying that he had never before seen such name-calling and even threatening responses to any published article.”
By trying to live up to the principles of academic freedom, at least in relation to this blog, I had, instead, found myself in the middle of a controversy that, as far as I could tell, had more to do with religious fundamentalism than with the privacy concerns at the heart of that first post. Kaul provided detail to the picture I was now seeing, teaching me a little about this unfamiliar debate:
In this paranoid vision, anyone who writes critically about Modi attacks Hinduism and by extension, a Hindu India. A Hindu India that ought to be closed to people like us, they say, for we are saboteurs waging “war on India’s development.” So writes a well-known Hindutva-vadi commentator, who also sees us as anti-democratic because we dare question an elected Prime Minister (as if such questioning is not a fundamental right, indeed obligation, of democratic citizenship). Not surprisingly, his comments are a prelude to a more sinister threat: “it is always worth remembering the names of all those who are ready to subvert India.”
This last is the most common theme of the comments following that first post, expressed most kindly as, “This is a great service you have done listing all haters names in one place. Now we know whose opinions do not count, whom we don’t have to care about and also avoid the supporting universities and/or the departments.” The comments contain much more hate than the post, but it is the signatories who are called “haters.” The threat to them, in this particular comment, is tame compared with many.
I am reminded of all this by an op-ed in The New York Times today by the writer Sonia Faleiro, “India’s Attack on Free Speech.” The article orients me even more to the debate in India (which is as violent as the comments had made me suppose). It ends:
The attacks in India should not be seen as a problem limited to secular writers or liberal thinkers. They should be recognized as an attack on the heart of what constitutes a democracy — and that concerns everyone who values the idea of India as it was conceived and as it is beloved, rather than an India imagined through the eyes of religious zealots. Indians must protest these attacks and demand accountability from people in power. We must call for all voices to be protected, before we lose our own.
That’s not only true of India–which brings me back to the concerns represented by academic freedom: We in the United States already face an emasculated reality of academic freedom. It applies only to tenured faculty and their numbers continue to dwindle. A concept once at the heart of academic endeavor and the institutions that support it is now being pushed aside by a corporate vision that sees faculty as nothing more than assembly-line workers, infinitely replaceable and of limited value.
We also have our own threats from religious fundamentalists who, if they recognize academic freedom at all, only see it as operating within the constraints of their religious vision. The movement Faleiro warns of in India is not far different from its cousin in the U.S. The attacks she writes on may be more blatant and severe in India, but they certainly can happen here, too.
In general, we Americans tend to see academic freedom as unique to our own culture, though recognizing its German and more broadly European roots. We take pride in it, flattering ourselves that even the idea of it somehow makes us better than academics in other nations. But academic freedom needs to be seen as a universal. Even domestically, we need to stop seeing it as a right of the privileged few but as a major component of the success of our universities–and that it is necessary for universities everywhere. Like freedom of speech, it is a necessary element of democracy, though it may not be as broad (academic freedom is not needed by those who are not academics).
That threats to academic freedom and freedom of speech are coming home to us from other cultures–as the comments on our posts here attest–and should make us even more concerned about its future here. Our response, though, should not be to concentrate on home, or even to concern ourselves first with the threats to the academic freedom of we few, we tenured few. We need to be looking outward, to developing ways of extending academic freedom to adjuncts and other contingent academic hires here–and to the faculties in other lands, many of whom face the same problems we do–only amplified a hundredfold.
They are our colleagues and allies. I am a bit ashamed of how little I still know of what is going on in India in particular (but elsewhere, as well), for my focus on academic freedom has been almost exclusively American. It is time for that to change–for all of us connected to colleges and universities in the United States, for ourselves and for the future of our profession.