Very Selectively Applied Norms


In an article for Salon titled “Freedom of Speech Only Goes So Far on College Campuses,” Charlie May reports:

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wants the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) to investigate one of its professors after she strongly criticized President Donald Trump and the consequences of his election as the city reeled from the mass shooting.

Recordings of assistant professor Tessa Winkelmann showed her speaking to her class about the president’s violent rhetoric and the power of his words.

“Right when he got elected, I told my classes, three semesters ago, that some of us won’t be affected by this presidency, but others are going to die,” Winkelmann said in the video, obtained by the Las Vegas Review- Journal. “Other people will die because of this.”

One student was “dumbfounded” and said the professor’s comments were “appalling,” in the wake of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Review-Journal reported.

 “He’s [Trump] threatened to declare violence against North Korea and other places,” the professor added. “And words, especially if they’re coming from someone who is the president, have consequences. . . I don’t know that these events would have inevitably happened whether or not he got elected, but he has rhetorical powers every president has to encourage or to discourage [violence]. So far all he’s done is to encourage violence.”

 The White House condemned the comments and said the school should “look into” the professor’s actions.

 “It is sad she is teaching students such divisive, inaccurate and irresponsible rhetoric,” Sanders said. “She should be ashamed of herself, and the university should look into it. What a terrible example to set for students.”

Winkelmann apologized in an emailed statement to the Review-Journal and said she wished she had been “more thoughtful in how I directed the conversation.”

“This week has been very difficult for members of our community, and we have allowed students space in our classes to discuss how they have been affected and to openly convey their feelings,” she wrote. “I regret that my comments caused more pain during this difficult time. Emotions were running high and I wish I would have been more thoughtful in how I directed the conversation.”

UNLV issued a statement that said Winkelmann’s comments were insensitive, but did not announce any potential disciplinary action against her.

“While we respect academic freedom in the classroom and the right to free speech, we believe the comments were insensitive, especially given the series of events this week and the healing process that has begun in the community,” university spokesman Tony Allen said, according to the Review-Journal. . . .

May closes the article by noting: Conservatives have long advocated for free speech on college campuses, yet have remained quiet when the White House suggested disciplinary action be taken against a professor who was well within her free speech rights.

One could argue perhaps, that the Far Right has been advocating for the free speech rights of speakers invited to campuses and that the context in this instance is very different: that someone teaching a course has an audience that is, in effect, captive, rather than an audience voluntarily attending an extracurricular event.

One could make that argument, but most commentators on the Far Right have not made it when politically Conservative faculty members have made similarly controversial remarks in their classrooms or on social media. In fact, those commentators have almost always argued quite the opposite, not just in defending like-minded individuals but also in defending academic enterprises funded by Far Right billionaires for the express purpose of promoting their very partisan and provocative political agendas.

Unlike many on the Far Right, I would argue that the norms that govern these kinds of judgements are not absolute but relative, measured not against some fixed standard or ideal but on a scale against similar cases. But if one wishes to argue that the norms are absolute, then, quite obviously, one cannot credibly argue that they ought to be applied selectively. Likewise, if one accepts that the norms are relative, then one must also ask whether the accuracy of an observation mitigates whatever seems to make it inappropriate—that is, to what degree it is inappropriate to respond in kind to statements that have themselves very flagrantly violated norms.

Beyond the astonishingly selective self-righteousness in Sander’s condemning Winklemann for “such divisive, inaccurate and irresponsible rhetoric,” the Far Right’s fundamental conundrum is that if it does not condemn Trump for his obliteration of the norms of behavior and rhetoric to which all previous presidents have been held, then it has reduced its assertions about norms to empty talking points grounded not even in ideology but only in reflexive partisanship, in simple political expediency. In short, in not condemning the complete disregard for longstanding norms, they are complicit in their obliteration.

In the current context, arguments over the appropriateness of certain types of speech no longer have any real baseline. Appropriate speech is becoming the equivalent of loitering. It not only depends on how you look and where you are, but it also excludes whole classes of people. For instance, someone in an expensive suit or dress will never be arrested, or even challenged by police, for loitering on a street corner in a low-income neighborhood. Instead, if the police do stop, it will be to ask the person if he or she needs any help.


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