Understanding The Recent Slew Of Attacks On Public Scholars

Note: this blog post originally appeared on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared at Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted.

Weaponizing Free Speech

The political right has developed a coordinated network to systematically target the free speech of presumably left-wing professors. Over the course of the last few weeks, this network of activists has launched a vicious series of attacks, leading to intimidation, calls for firing and even death threats. Colleges and universities have shut down operations, while scholars have canceled speaking engagements and even gone into hiding with their families.

Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, Johnny Eric Williams, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry and George Ciccariello-Maher are the most recent targets of the right’s campaign against higher education. As the attacks have spread and intensified, the American Sociological Association joined the American Association of University Professors in condemning the targeting of individual professors and calling on universities to protect those whose speech is targeted. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an excellent overview of why and how universities should support these scholars, and Eric Anthony Grollman offered a model for scholars to protect their colleagues from public attacks.

The specifics of these professors’ statements have been covered and analyzed elsewhere. My concern here is twofold. First, it appears that free speech is policed differentially based upon the identity of the speaker and whether they are supporting or challenging power. Second, the right is exploiting these manufactured outrages, using free speech as a wedge issue as part of their years-long strategy of delegitimizing higher education itself.

There is little doubt that some on the right disdain the institution of higher education. We, as faculty members, are regularly caricatured as effete, out-of-touch liberals with an overabundance of leisure and job security. By attacking faculty of color in particular, these organizations have brought a Southern strategy to higher education. Research shows that allegedly principled free speech arguments are often thinly veiled defenses of racist attitudes.

As Steven W. Thrasher argued in The Guardian, free speech is often a disingenuous framing device, with racial and ethnic minorities’ speech less likely to be protected. Wendy Moore and Joyce Bell document this selective application of free speech, showing that protected racist speech promotes a hostile racial climate. Campus Reform, the National Review and Fox News gamble, correctly, that the magic of racial alchemy will silence so-called principled free speech activists.

The disingenuousness of this strategy is apparent in the worry about hypothetical bias against white students, while ignoring the well-documented, ingrained, pervasive and routine bias against people of color on and off campus. The fake news outlets promoting these attacks outsource violence to maintain a veneer of plausible deniability. They hope to silence critics and make an example of those who stand up. White supremacy becomes frictionless.

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors

The broader political climate has emboldened white supremacists. And their fellow travelers’ violent attacks from the right are supporting and driving official policies. The full impact on academe writ large is of course unknowable, but I fear their use in undermining tenure, diversity and the very notion of empirically verifiable knowledge. The well-publicized sabotaging of faculty governance and proposed cuts to funding are furthered by the selective policing of free speech. These manufactured outrages are quickly leveraged into attacks on higher education. Legislators have already seized upon them to call for the firing of tenured professors, and Trinity College has placed Johnny Eric Williams on leave. Those academics without the protection of tenure face greater speech restrictions, as they often lack even basic employment protections.

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

A Queer Confession: Academia Made Me Conservative

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.



Like most of my scholarly projects, it began as a joke. I had just entered an English doctoral program, where my fellow students hotly protested the blood drives held on campus by the Red Cross. As a gay man, my heart bled with the crusaders, who opposed the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on donations from men who have had congress with men.

But, again as a gay man, I recoil from groupthink with Pavlovian predictability.

My new program placed me smack-dab in a crowd of radical queer compatriots, and I instinctually cringed about jumping on the gay-blood bandwagon. Suddenly, a wicked impulse seized me. I started drafting an essay in support of the FDA’s embargo, which appeared as an op-ed in The Advocate.

With a lust like de Sade for unfettered reason, my essay gorged on intellectual perversity. The essay did not reflect my actual views but merely celebrated rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake. Soon, however, I grew ever more skeptical about the leftist activism so prevalent in the humanities. My whole life, I have espoused progressive views — but graduate study steadily drove me to conservatism. At first, I performed conservative poses only in order to resist the tedium of conformity, but soon those postures seduced me, as they provided a resource for dealing with some of the excesses of leftist thought.

Let me clarify what I intend by “conservative.” I proudly pay my union dues, and I cohabitate with another dude. And I write plenty of poems about sodomy. Most citizens would register me as a New York City liberal, and right-wingers might denounce me as a bohemian. But friends have cautioned me about my old-school rep, and some of my colleagues have condemned me as a conservative — a word that they use as a slur. It seems that, in the academic cloisters, moderates look like reactionaries. So when I say that the university made me conservative, I mean this literally. Academic culture has defined me as such. And as the liberal catechism teaches, people tend to conform to the categories placed upon them. Slotted as a conservative, I became one — that is, in the sense that Roger Scruton defines the term: someone who believes that they have inherited traditions worth hanging on to.

I consider my conservatism a queer positionality for three reasons. First, it arises not essentially, but in response to social norms. My conservatism responds to the culture of my department, which sees the “good, beautiful and true” as oppressive. But it does not seem truly conservative relative to the culture of my hometown in Appalachia, which sees English professors as propagandists for decadence, decline and decay. Second, it finds expression in camp — in rhetorical pranks that decline sincerity (like this sonnet). And, third, such an ambiguous stance defies partisan classification and often incites phobia and panic. Someday I hope to make this positionality more legible by writing about my coconspirators in the secret subculture of queer academic conservatives. But to make my own Brexit from theoretical exposition, let me turn to my story proper, and let me tell, as a cautionary tale, how I came out to myself as an academic conservative.

First Flowerings

I began to feel the latent stirrings of my tendencies during my last semester of doctoral course work, in a seminar on textual criticism (i.e., the tricky process by which “Old, learned, respectable bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines / That young men, tossing on their beds / Rhymed out in love’s despair”). My classmates, like the lovers of Yeats’s poem, despaired of ever arriving at any certainty in editorial matters. But I found myself proposing that, at least, we can accept the basic existence of facts. “Some things,” I said, “are true, like that we are here in Manhattan.” This naïve statement turned me into an object of pity and derision.

Another student insisted, “But there’s no such thing as facts! Everything is just a social construction!” And my professor more politely offered, “There’s no guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow.” Horrified, I realized that no other member of this graduate-level university course would dare to defend a priori truth. At this moment, I experienced my first full-fledged conservative yearning: “If I ever have children,” I promised myself, “then I must homeschool them — to protect them from this nihilism!”

Mind you, I understand that culture inflects knowledge and that humans participate in the creation of facts. But — call me old-fashioned — I still assume that truth exists (perhaps beyond our grasp) and that scholars ought to quest for truth (even if futilely). Whereas one of my previous articles cites Saint Augustine ironically (as an argument for queer identity), now I took honest refuge in the Bishop of Hippo. In Against the Academicians, Augustine eloquently responded to those who claim that humans can never know anything for certain. Augustine pointed out that such a claim must call its own certainty into doubt, thus nullifying itself and demonstrating that reason demands faith.

During this first flower of my conservatism, I started to craft a dissertation prospectus, and my interest in theology irked some of my medievalist co-workers. Christian doctrine, as you can imagine, plays no small part in the culture of medieval Europe. And as a scholar of medieval literature, I feel comfortable saying that no full account of the subject can ignore its Catholic context. In any case, my dissertation, like most of my scholarly projects, began as a joke. I proposed to examine the ways that premodern theologians and poets thought about language using metaphors of the foreskin.

The topic titillates me. Yet I also consider the project swishy in its ambitions, since it cruises the locker rooms of literary history, peeping at the ways that male poets related to one another by way of the prepuce — a tissue that queerly belongs to, but elides, the phallus. I know that certain queer scholars have called my relationship with theology “reactionary,” while theologians are just as likely to consider my project perverted. Maybe publishing offers some degree of protection. But it seems as though there is no way not to offend somebody.

Reflecting on how some queer scholars dislike Augustine, my ears became more attuned to such biases. Teaching a class on Chaucer last semester, I noticed that several of my students felt free to describe Chaucer’s religious references as “weird.” And I noticed how many of my students share the same lukewarm prejudices and postmodern platitudes. Like the student who announced in my linguistics class this semester that she disliked a certain medieval devotional lyric because “I don’t like anything that’s religious.” I noticed, too, how few of my students converse with the ancient spiritual traditions that might provide some electricity for defibrillating contemporary culture.

And — though I feel nervous about saying this publicly — I also noticed that my Muslim students, most of them quite pious, rarely suffer from such clichéd thinking. In my Chaucer course, one such student earnestly investigated Chaucer’s abiding love for the Christian stoicism of Boethius. This student, in an email, recently prayed for me, writing, “God reward you with good and make your studies successful!”

This prayer fills me with fear and trembling. This prayer makes me regret the flippancy with which I have participated in the culture wars, and it makes me wonder how a belief in revealed truth might redefine what humanists think of as successful studies. Too much of my own work — shaped by the fashion for partisan scholarship — has promoted cynical, one-sided mythologies instead of seeking a genuine encounter with the summum bonum. But many conservatives partake of the same type of cynical mythologizing. And my student’s prayer reminds me that successful scholarship means trying to escape the trap of easy binaries by queerly accepting ambiguity, ambivalence and mystery.