Conservative Scholar Opposes Harassment


Right-wing media organizations and some conservative faculty members often have been quick to condemn student protesters and allegedly “leftist” faculty members for their efforts to disrupt or silence conservative speakers as well as for their sometimes silly demands for so-called “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”  Much of this criticism is well-merited; even a scoundrel like Milo Yiannopoulos should have the right to speak on campus.  However, as I have argued at considerable length in my ongoing series on “Outside Speakers and Academic Freedom” (see here, here, and here), the extent of the problem has been grossly exaggerated and to deem the most extreme protesters representative of some broader “left” is a major distortion.  But perhaps most troubling has been how those who denounce the alleged intolerance of the protesters remain silent in the face of the emerging epidemic of targeted online harassment directed at liberal, leftist and especially minority faculty members.

It was thus encouraging to read the strong “Conservative Defense of Free Speech for a Black Activist” published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Ursinus College political science professor Jonathan Marks.  Marks and I have debated on this blog in the past and our political views are quite different.  But I have grown to respect his intelligence and his principled commitment to academic freedom, so I was thrilled to see him take up the cause of Lisa Durden, the African-American activist dismissed from her part-time teaching position at Essex County College in New Jersey after she argued with the odious Tucker Carlson on Fox News that black people have the right to limit attendance at some meetings to those of their own heritage and ethnicity.

The Durden case is complicated a bit by the fact that she has a full-time career outside of academia and has only taught once or twice for Essex (and is not currently employed there).  But there can be little doubt that the college’s handling of the case was beyond atrocious.  Even though the institution was never mentioned on the program and Durden said nothing remotely suggesting violence, school administrators swiftly ran to the media to denounce her, boasting that she would never teach there again.  This, without question, amounts to a total violation of the most basic principles of academic freedom.  Marks puts the argument as well as anyone:

If you had your outrage meter tuned really high, you could be angry that Durden spoke of “you white people,” though, in her brief exchange with Carlson, it is clear that she does not regard white people as a monolithic group.  For my money, the most offensive words were uttered by Carlson, who said that Durden’s substantively, if not stylistically, unremarkable argument in favor of a Memorial Day party for black people was “indistinguishable” from what “a Nazi” would say.

Yet if someone proposed that Carlson should be denied an adjunct position at Essex County College because he has said some insensitive things, we conservatives would object.

We would object strenuously if this denial were justified in the way the Durden firing has been justified.  The president of Essex, Anthony E. Munroe, says he fired the adjunct because he believes “that institutions of higher learning must provide a safe space,” and because the college is committed to “diversity and inclusion.”  He says that he had “students, faculty, and prospective students and their families expressing frustration, concern, and even fear” over Durden’s comments.

If Carlson’s imaginary adjunct-instructor position were in jeopardy, we would ridicule President Munroe for coddling the “snowflakes,” who mustn’t be frustrated, and who are frightened by edgy talk-show commentators.  Lisa Durden behaved on Tucker Carlson Tonight, and spoke no differently, than others who appear on that show and on its combative counterparts.  Lisa Durden said that it is all right to ask white people not to attend a Memorial Day party.  Pass the smelling salts.

Mr. Munroe adds that the college “also supports and affirms the right of free speech and independent views and expressions of those views for our faculty and staff.”  We conservatives would point out, if Durden were one of our own, that a college cannot claim to be for free speech and then fire people because their views depart, however slightly, from its diversity and inclusion orthodoxy.

This year we conservatives dutifully stood up when Charles Murray was shut down at Middlebury College because he co-wrote The Bell Curve.  We even stood up for a man of the left, Bret Weinstein, also undone by an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, when his colleagues at Evergreen State College called for him to be disciplined.  We like to say that we stood up for Weinstein in the name of free speech, but a reasonable person might suspect that we really stood up for him because he was bashing his more radical colleagues.

If we do not stand up for Lisa Durden, who has not merely been denied a forum or threatened with discipline but actually fired for airing her views publicly, then that reasonable person’s suspicions will be confirmed. . . .

If [Durden] can be fired because her views on race offended someone, so can any critic of affirmative action, or of the field of ethnic studies, or of immigration policy under the Obama administration.  If a college administration can fire Durden because some in its community were frustrated, concerned, and even frightened by her views, then they can fire anyone, but maybe especially us.

I am certain there are more academic conservatives who share Marks’s principled position, and I urge them to step forward in defense not only of Lisa Durden, but also Johnny Williams, George Cicciariello-Maher, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Danielle Allen, Dana Cloud, Linda Sarsour, or Melissa Click, to name but a few.  It is time for principled academic conservatives to join Marks in denouncing this most dangerous — and potentially violent — threat to academic freedom from the right at least as forcefully as they denounce, say, student complaints about Halloween costumes or even graduates who boo and turn their backs on commencement speakers.

It may not be fully accurate to call NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt a conservative, but he has been among those who, in his words, claim that “intimidation is the new normal on campus.”  But in a piece published yesterday Haidt acknowledges that “Professors Must Now Fear Intimidation From Both Sides.”  I’m far from convinced that the two “sides” are equally threatening, but this does mark a significant step forward and I welcome Professor Haidt to the battle against online harassment of faculty.  Still, I must dissent from at least two of his contentions.

For one thing, Haidt claims that “before 2017, the threats to professors and their freedom to speak and write came mostly from the left.”  News to me.  Is he not aware of what happened to Stephen Salaita and Melissa Click back in 2014 and 2015?  The Click case is particularly illuminating.  She acknowledged wrong-doing when, in the heat of the moment, she pushed aside the camera of a student claiming to be a journalist and told him to leave a public space.  But did that justify the massive and threatening harassment campaign, including threats of death and rape, to which she and her family were subjected?  (And, by the way, as the person who led the AAUP’s investigation of this case I might also note that this campaign extended to a death threat against us, phoned into the AAUP office, which necessitated that we register in the local hotel under false names.)  Professor Click was summarily dismissed from her job with no genuine due process after immense pressure was exerted on the university by Republican lawmakers who threatened massive cuts in funding were she not fired.  Yet for many on the right the real danger to academic freedom was posed not by these right-wing politicians and the board members who cravenly did their bidding, much less the cowardly cranks who mercilessly harassed Click, but by peacefully protesting African-American students and their allies on the University of Missouri football team!

The Click case was but one example of many instances prior to this year in which threats to academic freedom came from the right (and also from the “center,” that is, those largely non-ideological corporate administrators and trustees seeking to protect the “brand,” avoid embarrassment, and contain controversy) and not the “left.”  But I single out the Click case because nearly two years ago it established a frightening pattern of targeted harassment of and threats of violence against allegedly leftist faculty members — a pattern Haidt actually summarizes quite well — that has now become a seemingly well-orchestrated national campaign.

Second, Haidt argues that while threats come from both sides the danger “still comes primarily from the left.”  Really?  Please provide examples.  Name a conservative professor who has received death threats and been forced into hiding like Johnny Williams has.  Name a conservative professor who has been summarily dismissed from employment for public speech, like Lisa Durden was.  Name a conservative professor with tenure who was fired from her position for standing up for minority faculty members like Erline Grise-Owens at Spalding University was.  And I wonder if Professor Haidt or anyone else can identify a “lefitst” organization comparable to Campus Reform, generously funded by right-wing foundations, which regularly incites harassment of faculty they deem too liberal.  Or if he could identify a left-wing blacklist equivalent to the notorious right-wing blacklist of allegedly leftist faculty members maintained by the Professor Watchlist.

The “both sides do it” argument may mark a step forward for some on the right (and a few on the left as well), but in the end it is facile.  It is facile because, first of all, all sides do it, including (and often most dangerously) the “center,” as I’ve already mentioned.  But it is facile mainly because while both sides do it, they never do it to the same extent and at the same time.  And one needs to be blind to believe, at a time when the most conservative Republican Party in more than a century holds both houses of Congress, the presidency, as well as a great majority of state legislatures and governorships —  and when the president himself daily models abusive online behavior amounting to harassment — that somehow the campus “left,” composed in good part of perhaps overly earnest students, has become the main danger to free expression.  As McGill professor Jacob Levy, a libertarian, slyly put it, “It turns out that 18-year-olds seized of the conviction of their own righteousness are prone to immoderation and simplistic views. (Who knew?)”

I’m glad that Haidt and others acknowledge the threat posed by right-wing harassment campaigns.  I only wish they would oppose those campaigns, as Jonathan Marks has forcefully done, without the compulsion to appear falsely “even-handed” by always coupling their opposition to critiques of the much-exaggerated and arguably far less dangerous threats from the most foolish and extreme elements of what is, after all, a weakened and even isolated “left.”

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