Earlier this week, a fellow academic who shall remain nameless posted a link to this story of an academic being fired for expressing their own private political views. The lesson this individual had drawn from this incident is that academics need to learn to think before they tweet. Maybe so. But colleges and universities also need to learn to think before they throw their faculty to the wolves. The crime of saying something questionable on Twitter is much less serious than the crime of destroying someone’s career.
Nothing that any of these professors have said is any different from what dozens of people have said at the pub or the proverbial water cooler. Political events recently have been frightening and infuriating, and people are naturally going to need to let off steam. Let’s say, for example, that someone says that it would have been better if John McCain had died rather than allow the cruel debate on health care to go forward. Are they expressing a general principle that their political opponents deserve to die? Do they even really wish McCain were dead? I would say no on both counts — they are expressing strong negative emotions in hyperbolic terms. It is a very human thing to do, and people do it all the time.
Professors should have the self-control to avoid saying such things in the classroom, but in the situations that got most of these people fired, they are precisely not saying it in the classroom. They are saying it in a social setting. It is a different kind of social setting than the pub, insofar as there is (by default) a record of everything you say and (by default) any given tweet can reach the widest possible audience. But what it mostly feels like is not dissimilar from sitting at the pub — yes, anyone can overhear, but you are talking with your own social circle and don’t expect your message to leave that circle. Only creeps and stalkers comb through old tweets, just like only creeps and stalkers maliciously record pub conversations in order to find incriminating statements. Even if right-wing harassers are doing something that the platform makes possible, they are violating the norms that most users abide by. They are abusing the platform in order to hurt people.
Professors should be more cautious in their use of social media as a prudential matter, and I certainly have been since I suffered from systematic right-wing harassment. But if professors are not cautious, that doesn’t make it their fault that the right wing has set up networks of surveillance and persecution targetting academics. That is not an immutable brute fact of nature — it is a result of free human agents making choices to stigmatize and victimize other human beings, with the aim of destroying their reputation and livelihood. Whatever questionable statement a professor said while blowing off steam cannot possibly be a greater moral wrong than the harassment campaign. Administrators are also free moral agents who have a choice in who they side with in these “controversies,” and when they side with the harassers, they are choosing wrongly. They are siding with the bad guys.
What makes the situation all the more galling is that the harassers are not only unconnected to the institution in question, they are actively hostile. They are not stalking and harassing academics on social media because they want to be part of a constructive dialogue about the place of politics in higher ed settings. They are not potential donors or allies. They are people who hate higher ed and want to destroy it. The means they are using are underhanded and cruel. More than that, they are actively anti-intellectual — they decontextualize statements and twist them to fulfill their own preconceptions about “radical academics.” If a student turned in a paper like that, we would give them an F, not reward them. In short, the harassers are the opposite of the kind of people who should be influencing decisions in an institution of higher education.
The fact that academic administrators are effectively siding with these people over members of their own community is appalling. It is a cruel injustice. And it is amazingly short-sighted. The very fact that such harassment campaigns are increasing shows that these people will not take yes for an answer. They smell blood and they are doubling down. There is no possible future scenario when they will be satisfied that all the leftist extremists have been purged and will therefore call off the dogs and declare peace. And that means that there will be a continual shifting of the “red line” of unacceptable sentiments.
The classic examples of right-wing harassment stemmed from statements that could be construed as evincing a deep anti-white prejudice. But even now we are starting to see a shift toward more “mainstream” positions. Who will be the first professor to be fired for saying that they hate Trump, for instance? That will certainly be a dangerous precedent, because essentially every academic I know hates Trump.
The harassers will claim that such views show that professors can’t be trusted to be fair with Republican students, but academics are professionals who are able to separate their personal views from their professional activities. If someone is really behaving in a way deserving of firing, that will show up in their actual job performance and should be dealt with in that setting. So for example, if someone really is discriminating systematically against Republican students, that is unacceptable — and it will become evident by means other than some random tweet. Conservatives believe that such behavior is pervasive, but the very fact that they have to stalk people on social media or solicit students to inform on their professors show that it is actually rare — otherwise, why would there be a need for such extreme measures to turn up the evidence?
Administrators may counter that they are merely bowing to public pressure and trying to save the reputation of their institution. But right-wing harassers are not the relevant public for an institution of higher education, nor is should any academic institution covet a reputation for undermining academic freedom by victimizing their own faculty members in order to placate hostile strangers. This vicious cycle of appeasement needs to stop. Colleges and universities should adopt strict policies protecting faculty member’s freedom of speech on social media. And they should refuse to contribute to the cycle of demonization by issuing statements condemning faculty member’s social media activity. In short, universities need to treat right-wing harassment with the contempt and scorn it deserves — ignore them, and they will go away.