Saturday, July 29, 2017

Actual examples of "censorship"

tl;dr: I do not at all support the freedom for anyone in academia to say racist stuff. Academia is a complicated environment with a variety of specialized functions; these circumstances make even a no-government-censorship comparison — much less a "free speech means I can say whatever I want wherever and whenever I want" comparison — completely inapt. Fredrik deBoer's article, Yes, Campus Activists Have Attempted to Censor Completely Mainstream Views, basically argues for a free speech right to be a racist asshole on a college campus, harassing, excluding, and marginalizing students of students of color, so long as that harassment is entirely verbal (or a "speech act", like painting a swastika out of feces). I can't think of a more egregious example of a leftist being a bourgeois stooge.

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I'm about to begin my eighth year in academia. We in academia like to think of ourselves as objective seekers after the truth, unafraid to address even the most morally challenging issues and ideas, but even for the most honest and careful, it's never that simple. All research projects, even the physical sciences, are bound up in a lot of social constructions: what to investigate, who gets to investigate it, how it's investigated, and, crucially, how investigation affects the participants' status. In addition to being an institution (meta-institution) that engages in the objective search for truth, academia as an institution confers status, making it possible (or much more likely) for students and professors to achieve social positions of relative power, importance, and wealth. Finally, the university is not ideologically neutral: the university exercises substantial influence on the social legitimation and delegitimation of ideas.

Even a single university is also one of the most complicated coherent institution I've seen. Multinational corporations are larger, but they use a rigid authoritarian hierarchy to manage that size. Universities by their nature cannot employ this strategy. Universities do, of course, employ authority and hierarchy, but nowhere near to the degree of large corporations: a university cannot just tell a professor or student, "Do this task this way or you're fired." A university brings together scores or hundreds of faculty and hundreds or thousands of students, all of whom are pursuing interests of the utmost seriousness and making substantial commitments of time, and for the students, a lot of money. I lived in a commune of only about 30 people, and just reproducing the institution on a daily basis was an exhausting chore; trying to manage the interests, goals, preferences, and desires of thousands of people trying to do something they consider extremely important presents enormous challenges.

The notion of "free speech" and "censorship" is itself complicated. Just the most fundamental sense of the whether government may impose criminal or civil penalties for speech has generated entire specialties of legal scholarship and jurisprudence. What qualifies as "speech"? Under what circumstances can the government engage in censorship? What specifically justifies categorizing this as speech and that as action, and what justifies this censorship and not that? Just to address one narrow component of these questions requires a PhD thesis or a hundred-page Supreme Court decision. Trying to decide what constitutes "free speech" and "censorship" when we're considering the actions of people outside the government is a thousand times more complicated. When does criticism become censorship? When does expressing an opinion become harassment or oppression? How do we explore these questions when people are stuck with each other, when their relationship is fundamentally non-transactional? We cannot simply declare "free speech!" and automatically gain the moral high ground.

We also live under a system with profound privilege and power for Christian, white, male, heterosexual, and cis-gendered people. Members of other religion (or no religion), people of color, especially the descendants of black chattel slavery, women, queer people and people who do not conform to conventional gender norms have for centuries been marginalized, exploited, oppressed, assaulted, and murdered, often in genocidal quantities. The only "objective" questions are whether there is such social privilege, and whether those with social privilege have marginalized, etc. those without it. These objective questions has been answered decisively in the affirmative; to deny these manifest truths is akin to arguing a flat earth. Either you believe this oppression is good, and should be perpetuated, or it is bad, and should be eliminated, root and branch. There is no middle moral position, only arguments over tactics.

If a college professor teaches the flat earth in geology class, if they teach Intelligent Design in biology class, if they teach that vaccines cause autism in medical school, that professor should be fired. For their ideas. If that's "censorship", I'm OK with that.

When we were living together, my (now ex) girlfriend came home absolutely livid. She is black, and her (white, duh) professor told her straight to her face that black people can't learn math. She complained to the head of the department, and he was later gone. Is that censorship? Even if it is, I will say straight out, I'm perfectly OK with that sort of censorship. It was not only wrong, it was oppressive and harmful.

Recently, one of the math professors used an egregiously sexist metaphor in his class. The professor was forced to apologize; I believe the apology was actually sincere, but that's not the point: sincere or not, he had to make it, he had to make it good, or he would have been out on his ass. Again, I will say I'm fine that he was forced to apologize.

I am not, however, saying that anyone in the university — administration, faculty, or students — should have or seek the power to arbitrarily censor anything they don't like. I tutor freshman composition, and I have helped students write papers denying global warming, opposing vaccination, endorsing the hijab, arguing for creationism, and any number of ideas I disagree with. I don't want to tell them their ideas are wrong (my job is to get them to learn how to argue, and (sadly) how to craft grammatical sentences and coherent paragraphs), but even if I didn't think so, I am (as, I think, are their professors) obligated not to tell them that they're wrong and not to write about something else. One important component is that freshman have very little power, and a freshman comp paper will typically not be read by anyone other than the professor, so its potential harm is extremely low.

My point is that we have to think carefully about speech on campus, and not just shout, "Free Speech!" We have to look carefully at the effects of speech, and how this or that speech fits with the institutional constraints and goals of academia.

I do have a few principles more fundamental than free speech (in the sense that people should be able to say whatever they want without any kind of coercive social sanction). First, racism — by which I mean anything that is both false, stupid, or normative and that endorses, perpetuates, legitimizes, or erases the documented, proven oppression of people of color by white Europeans — has no place in academia. Period. People in academia should not say anything even a little bit racist. The government should not fine or imprison anyone or subject them to civil penalty for saying even egregiously racist things, but racists' protection ends there. No academic should ever express any racist idea.

And not just on campus. Both professors and students are public intellectuals, which confers special importance on what they say in public. If a freshman student even tweets a racist joke from home, they have no place in academia: they need to apologize and correct their behavior or go someplace that is not in the business of credentialing intellectual competence. If that is censorship, I'm openly, directly, and completely in favor. And if you're against that sort of censorship, well, I have to ask: what do we gain by legitimizing and normalizing — especially in an institution that proclaims its role at certifying intellectual competence — any sort of speech that perpetuates oppression?

So too with (just off the top of my head) sexism, hetero-normativity, cis-gender-normativity, and religious discrimination. As public intellectuals, academics have zero business perpetuating these evils. I don't care what you really believe; I just want you to shut up about them or get the fuck out of my university.

Sorry for the long-winded introduction to what will be an even longer post. I just want to make my position crystal clear.

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On the one hand, bless you, Fredrik deBoer: in his essay, Yes, Campus Activists Have Attempted to Censor Completely Mainstream Views, he provides actual examples with links of the kind of behavior he considers objectionable censorship. For context, deBoer is a self-identified leftist, with a PhD in (IIRC) English composition instruction. (He's also a pretty good statistician.) On the other hand, I don't think his argument or examples are very good.

Just his claim is highly problematic in itself:
Republican support of colleges and universities has collapsed, likely because of constant incidents on campus that create a widespread impression of anti-conservative bias, and that since our public universities are chartered and funded as non-partisan institutions, and because Republicans control enormous political power, our institutions are deeply threatened. I stand by that case.

I absolutely despise the "impression" claim. This is pure concern trolling. Are these incidents actually creating anti-conservative bias, or are they just creating some "impression". Look, people have gotten the "impression" that I endorse the starvation of millions of people (I have been called both a Stalinist and a Maoist with precisely this implication) because I support a communist state, and not some infantile anarchist utopia. I am just not responsible for people's impressions that are not supported by the actual content of what I say. If you want to argue the fact, argue the fact, not impressions (which are probably self-serving and stupid) about the fact.

deBoer also makes a causal fallacy (For an excellent introduction to causal fallacies, see Siggy's excellent post, Trump’s Past Light Cone.) I agree that Republicans are fighting academia, and it is probably true that there is some impression of anti-conservative bias in academia, but the causal connection is unproven. As a competent statistician, deBoer should at least try to exclude reverse causality: perhaps the incidents that create the "impressions" are the result of, not the cause of, Republican opposition. There could also be other, unmeasured, causes influencing the connection (what we econometricians and statisticians call omitted variable bias). One hypothesis is that the professional-managerial class took state power from the capitalist class, but made a fatal mistake: they did not destroy the capitalist class as a class. The capitalist class regained state power, and they do not intend to make the same mistake: they want to annihilate the professional-managerial class and plow salt in their fields. The university, as the foundation of professional-managerial class legitimacy, is their most important target. Just deBoer's claim is a variant on the argument that leftist intransigence somehow created the racist alt-right, an argument that JMP demolishes in The Alt-Right Was Not A Response To Some "Alt-Left".

deBoer also conflates partisanship with ideology. (If he simply claims that Republicans conflate party and ideology, well duh. Of course they would.) As an employee of a public university and a public community college, I am required to be nonpartisan only in the sense that I am not allowed to endorse or condemn specific candidates, political parties, or ballot measures during an election. That doesn't mean that I have to be ideologically neutral (whatever that means). I can be for good ideas and against bad ideas. Indeed, academia as a whole cannot be even as ideologically neutral as the math department (and math has its own ideological norms). Academia is in the business of conferring or denying ideological legitimacy.

Famous Moments in History, Reimagined By Centrists
Even granting the most charitable possible interpretation of his argument, i.e. the noted incidents really do create "anti-conservative bias" (and not just some "impression"), and this impression really is the most important or dominant cause of the "collapse of Republican support" for academia, it does not then follow that we should refrain from these incidents. Much depends on what deBoer means by conservatism. If conservatism really does mean just the perpetuation of the white Christian patriarchy, with rigid sex and gender essentialism and norms, then academia shouldn't just have a bias against conservatism, we should be fighting conservatism tooth and nail, and not whinging when the racists, etc. fight back. It doesn't matter how much power the conservatives racists Republicans have: we won't undermine that power by not putting teeth in our demands.

On to the examples. (Links are original.) There are a lot, so this will take a while.

Student activists at Amherst University demanded that students who had criticized their protests be formally punished by the university and forced to attend sensitivity training.

This is not an original source; neither deBoer nor Katie Zavadski, the author of the linked Daily Beast article, link to the students' demands. However, the article does quote one demand, "that President Biddy Martin issue a statement saying that Amherst does 'not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the "All Lives Matter" posters, and the "Free Speech" posters.'” "All Lives Matter" is facially racist; according to Zavadski, the "Free Speech" posters are related to Robby Soave's article, Students: Fight Racism, Not Free Speech, which seems to defend the rights of "a random jerk in a truck shouting racial slurs at Mizzou’s black student body president and [those who created] a swastika made of feces appearing on the wall of a residence building." Color me censorious, but I'm 100 percent with the Amherst students.

At Oberlin, students made a formal demand that specific professors and administrators be fired because the students did not like their politics.

The formal demand appears in a 14 page manifesto, alleging pervasive and egregious racism at Oberlin. Presumably, deBoer refers to this specific demand on p. 12, reproduced in full (I cannot copy and paste; I apologize for any errors in transcription):
12. We DEMAMD the immediate firing of:
  • Marjorie Burton, Head of Safety & Security for the mishandling of Black students' safety needs.
  • David Alvarez, & Sergeant David Bender for their complicity and role in the violent mishandling of Zakiya Acey.
  • Gerri Johnson, Accounts Payable Supervisor for their rude behavior towards Black Students and inefficient running of the office delaying the printing and releasing of checks and funds.
  • Ellen Sayles, Associate Dean of Studies due to her mishandling of students [sic] mental & emotional needs.
  • Kathryn Stuart, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives due to her GRAVE mishandling of the mental & emotional needs of students of color, as well as her history with the mishandling of documents that would have allowed students of color to graduate on time.
  • John Harshbarger, Director of Student Health and Counseling Services for his inability to act when students of color have urgent needs and need to change their housing arrangements due to mental health concerns.
  • Allen Cadwallader, Professor of Music Theory in the Conservatory, due to the racist undertones of his course as well as the ways in which he treats Black jazz students who take his course, which is rooted in white supremacy.
  • Stephen Hartke Chair & Professor of the Department of Composition, for his blatantly disrespectful remarks about students [sic] pronouns, racist views on musical composition as well as his lack of effort in hiring Black composers here at Oberlin College.

So basically, the students are demanding that administrators be fired for racist incompetence, and professors for just being racists. Although their punctuation is atrocious, I'm with the Oberlin students.

"The Evergreen State College imbroglio involved students attempting to have a professor fired for criticizing one of their political actions."

This is a little more gray. But the students who are demanding Professor Weinstein be fired not because he criticized their political action (asking white students instead of minority students to observe the Day of Absence) but because they saw his criticism as specifically racist in character. I'll take the professor's side on this one, at least tepidly: I don't think professors should have the freedom to say racist things, but I don't think he said anything actually racist; if he had, he should be fired.

At Wesleyan, campus activists attempted to have the campus newspaper defunded for running a mainstream conservative editorial.

Neither the article nor deBoer link to the offending Argus article; I assume they mean Bryan Stascavage's September 14, 2015 article, Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think, which seems pretty fucking racist.

Regardless, there is not now nor has there ever been a free speech right to funding anywhere. This issue is about whether the student government has a right to control its own money.

A Dean at Claremont McKenna resigned following student backlash to an email she sent in response to complaints about the treatment of students of color.

God damn, but saying that minority student's "don't fit the C.M.C. [Claremont McKenna College] mold" seems just a wee bit racist for the president of the college.

The trend seems clear. Maybe I'll get to the rest later, but I suspect they'll all be the same.

I do not believe that anyone — student, staff, faculty, administration — has a "free speech" right to be a racist, sexist, etc. on campus. If you're fighting for this right, you're fighting to let racist, sexist, etc. conservatives violate the rights — including the free speech rights — of people of color, women, etc. The question is not whether we support this or that rights, but whose rights we support: the bigots' or the victims.


  1. I flushed many (most?) of the best years of my life down the sinkhole known as university. I was sold the proverbial bill of goods: False hope, false dreams, false promises. I am still struggling to pick up the debris of what was once my life.

    Larry, do you ever consider that you might have it backwards? Do you ever consider that academia might not have the moral high ground here, and that it in fact might be part of the problem? All cults, not just racist/neo-Nazi ones such as the KKK, look for people who are dog-depressed and down on their luck in order to recruit.

    Universities have dished out false hopes, false dreams, false promises to people for as long as I can remember. They're being "sold" to working class people as the ticket into the middle class. They're being "sold" to middle class people as the way to not fall out of the middle class, like so many others. All too often, the reality = no job, no prospects, nothing to show for the 4 (or more, in some cases) years except large sums of non-dischargable student loan debt.

    Again, it's people down on their luck, it's people who are being harassed by debt collectors and feel like there is no way out, who are fertile recruitment ground for cults, including race-hate cults such as the KKK. Just something to think about.

  2. I flushed many (most?) of the best years of my life down the sinkhole known as university. I was sold the proverbial bill of goods: False hope, false dreams, false promises. I am still struggling to pick up the debris of what was once my life.

    I'm sorry to hear that.

    Do you ever consider that academia might not have the moral high ground here, and that it in fact might be part of the problem?

    Of course I do. I'm a communist in an institution — an economics department in a university — dedicated to the reproduction of capitalism. Damn straight academia is part of the problem.

    I just don't think specifically anti-racism in academia is the problem, and I don't think it's a threat to free speech.

    All cults, not just racist/neo-Nazi ones such as the KKK, look for people who are dog-depressed and down on their luck in order to recruit.

    Well, I've actually been in a cult, and I've studied a few others informally. There's a lot of range, from relatively nice places like Oneida to really creepy places like Scientology.

    I would say that academia doesn't really resemble the creepy side of the cult spectrum.

    [False hopes, false dreams, false promises are] being "sold" to working class people as the ticket into the middle class. They're being "sold" to middle class people as the way to not fall out of the middle class, like so many others. All too often, the reality = no job, no prospects, nothing to show for the 4 (or more, in some cases) years except large sums of non-dischargable student loan debt.

    Mais oui, mon frère. This is a huge problem. But the capitalists created this problem, not the socialists, not the PMC, and not the anti-racists.

    Again, it's people down on their luck, it's people who are being harassed by debt collectors and feel like there is no way out, who are fertile recruitment ground for cults, including race-hate cults such as the KKK. Just something to think about.

    Again, I agree completely. But whose fault is it? I lay the blame primarily on the capitalist class, with some going to the PMC for not fighting back hard enough. I really do not blame it at all on anti-racism.


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