The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment

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.
Continue reading “The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment”

Further thoughts on the prevailing political affiliations of academics

What if it turns out that no professional group is closely aligned with the distribution of political affiliations in the general public? What if that differential distribution were in part driven by values inherent in the respective professions themselves?

What if — and stay with me here — professional groups are among the demographic segments out of which political parties build their coalitions? And what if some of that coalition-building takes the form of demonizing certain groups — to pick a random example, let’s say… teachers?

That is to say: the two political parties — and the “conservative” and “liberal” leanings that they imperfectly reflect — are neither a fact of nature nor are they exhaustive of all forms of political thinking and loyalty. The two parties are two competing organizations that have basically monopolized American politics over the course of the last 150 years, in large part by being opportunistic in the building of political coalitions.

There is no reason to expect any particular group of people, especially a self-selecting one, to display a 50/50 divide between Democrat and Republican (or liberal and conservative, to the extent that those terms are proxies for the existing political parties). Nor indeed is there any reason to believe that a 50/50 split along those axes would represent an important or meaningful form of intellectual diversity.

It would be safer to assume just the opposite, because a perfect 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans would indicate that the group in question was completely and exhaustively defined by the conventional wisdom constructed around the current balance of power between the two political parties. If I found a university that was perfectly divided between Democrats and Republicans, I would advise potential students to just save their money and read the New York Times opinion page for four years.

What if I told you that the entire world was your safe space?

There is a piece by a well-known New York Times columnist alleging that universities are somehow discriminatory toward conservative views. This is one of the most boring cliches in all of higher ed reporting, not least because it depends on gerrymandering the university: yes, if you cut out economics, business, athletics, and the administration — which is to say, all the most powerful groups at most major universities — then there turns out to be a disproportionate number of Democrats, and that creates social discomfort if someone wants to express Republican views.

For some context, let’s look at what happens at universities that are overtly run by conservatives. I recall a case within the last year where a professor was forced out at Wheaton for making the controversial but arguable theological claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I could name many other similar cases from my former denomination’s higher ed system.

Conservatives may feel uncomfortable talking about how much they love small government at the departmental holiday party, but there’s really no comparison. And if conservatives get tired of the hostile environment in comp lit circles, then I suggest that they practice some self-care and find a “safe place” where their ideas are taken for granted — namely, the entire rest of American society.

The irony, of course, is that conservatives are most opposed to “safe spaces,” but perhaps that’s because they’re so thoroughly ensconsed in “safe spaces” that they don’t even notice them. “Safe spaces” are just the air they breathe. And for that reason, I think campus activists should consider rebranding the “safe spaces” concept.

My suggestion for a new name: “interesting spaces.” It’s not that you can’t handle contradiction or are afraid to hear painful truths — it’s that when you’re dealing with something really important to you, you don’t want to waste your time engaging with someone who feels entitled to pass judgment after 4.3 seconds of half-distracted thought. This is doubly so when we reflect that the compelling ideas that these gadflies are bringing are actually cliches that everyone has heard a million times. If you want to create a space for interesting discourse, you need to do some pruning of tedious, thoughtless ideas. And if you want to participate, you should try to be less boring.

“But I’m not boring!” Yeah, I knew you’d say that. Try again.

Diminishing returns

Yesterday afternoon, the harrassment campaign against me seemed to have reached a low ebb, and I felt confident that this particular storm had passed. Yesterday evening, however, it kicked back into high gear and I started receiving so many hateful Twitter messages that I literally could not keep up with blocking all of them. Since then, it has continued to ebb and flow — a few hours of quiet will be followed by a burst of activity. The Daily Caller and Washington Times have both picked up on the breaking news that I tweeted, though thankfully they have focused their ire on my claim of white complicity with slavery rather than the ludicrous smokescreen of their outrage at my obviously sarcastic call for “mass suicide.”

After last night’s outbreak, I woke up this morning ready to take my Twitter account private. I talked myself down after there were only a handful of people to block, but since then I’ve learned of further harrassment directed toward Shimer College and the people who work there. This particular case is probably out of my control at this point, but now I’m clearly on some people’s radar. It seems to me that there is no way to be sure that this won’t happen again unless I take my Twitter private and carefully choose who can follow me — or else just quit altogether. This incident and the Charlie Hebdo blow-up are probably going to be with me forever at this point, but why provide more fodder? Shimer has been very supportive, but what if I need to find another job?

In short, I’m seeing a lot of downside to continued Twitter participation. Much of the upside could be replicated if my regular dialogue partners followed my private account, but my ability to make new connections would be severely limited in that case. Plus it would completely destroy Twitter’s potential as a promotional forum for my work. I’d still have the blog, which would probably benefit if I were deprived of Twitter — and it seems like blogposts aren’t as vulnerable to this kind of thing.

I know the high-minded thing would be to say that I’m not going to let these bastards silence my voice — but screw that. Is my voice really making this huge contribution? Am I doing anything other than making an ass of myself at best, or exposing myself and my school to systematic harrassment at worst? The dog has pretty much healed up, which resolves the outstanding loose ends of my Twitter saga.

What do you think, dear readers? I know a certain number of you are going to say I should lead by example and commit suicide, and your comments will of course be deleted — I’m more asking the actual worthwhile human beings who know and care about me. What’s the upside of not letting myself be silenced?

Branding and Thought: Some Reflections on “Radical Theology”

Recently some of us have been pulled into discussions about “radical theology”. Sometimes these discussions have been useful, but sadly most of the time they have not. I’ve appreciated the efforts of authors here at AUFS to try and tease out the actual sense of this term and trace the ways in which its original meaning has shifted when used by emergent groups to name their own work. Often these emergent Christians — who I know will be upset that I am naming them in this way, but I see no good reason to really differentiate them — do pull on the work of thinkers who have historically taken on this title of radical theology for the work they do. It has been rather strange to see the line be extended from Nietzsche to Alitzer to Derrida to Tillich to Caputo, but setting aside certain issues I have with the supercessionist claiming of Derrida for postmodern Christian thought, I can see a certain family resemblance. Yet, it is still far from clear to me how this is “radical theology”. With Altizer I get it, proclaiming the death of God is radical in so far as it goes to the root. I won’t pretend that I have spent as much time with Alitzer’s work as I should have, and I often wonder how he continues to do work constrained by the Christian frame after proclaiming the death of God. But Derrida is far from a theologian, and I think that, rather than Hägglund, those who read Derrida in this way need to contend more with Michael Naas’s reading. Naas presents a Derrida whose work on religion is far more classically liberal than radical, and of course, we do see in Derrida the same problem of exclusion we find in classic liberal secularism (namely with regard to Islam, the tempered valorization of the Judeo-Christian link, etc.). And Caputo, who I respect a great deal as a scholar and as someone who continues to engage with new work, has presented a version of theology that may be considered radical in terms of the distance it takes with institutional forms of theology and the history of orthodox policing. Continue reading “Branding and Thought: Some Reflections on “Radical Theology””

On choosing a major

I often advise students to get a major in what they’re interested in, with no reference to job training. This article makes that basic point in a particularly powerful way:

I came to college with few resources, but one of them was an understanding, however crude, of how I might use my opportunities there. This I began to develop because of my father, who had never been to college—in fact, he’d barely gotten out of high school. One night after dinner, he and I were sitting in our kitchen at 58 Clewley Road in Medford, Massachusetts, hatching plans about the rest of my life. I was about to go off to college, a feat no one in my family had accomplished in living memory. “I think I might want to be pre-law,” I told my father. I had no idea what being pre-law was. My father compressed his brow and blew twin streams of smoke, dragon-like, from his magnificent nose. “Do you want to be a lawyer?” he asked. My father had some experience with lawyers, and with policemen, too; he was not well-disposed toward either. “I’m not really sure,” I told him, “but lawyers make pretty good money, right?”

My father detonated. (That was not uncommon. My father detonated a lot.) He told me that I was going to go to college only once, and that while I was there I had better study what I wanted. He said that when rich kids went to school, they majored in the subjects that interested them, and that my younger brother Philip and I were as good as any rich kids. (We were rich kids minus the money.) Wasn’t I interested in literature? I confessed that I was. Then I had better study literature, unless I had inside information to the effect that reincarnation wasn’t just hype, and I’d be able to attend college thirty or forty times. If I had such info, pre-law would be fine, and maybe even a tour through invertebrate biology could also be tossed in. But until I had the reincarnation stuff from a solid source, I better get to work and pick out some English classes from the course catalog.

Since I started at Shimer College, I’ve had a related thought — if none of us is guaranteed a job anymore, if even the “sell-out” options such as law school are clearly no longer a sure bet (if they ever were), then suddenly it seems a lot more “practical” to get a thorough humanistic education than to get training in accounting or whatever. A trip through the Great Books will bring benefits no matter what happens, while the four years you spent learning to be an accountant are going to be a total loss if you don’t get an accounting job.

A Rude Question

Is it just me or is Halden increasingly coming to argue for things that AUFS contributors and readers have argued, often against him, for years? Or maybe it just feels like years because it is on the internet. Either way.

Roland Boer’s struggle against censorship

Recently, Roland Boer has been engaged in an experiment, submitting very explicitly sexual papers to various venues for biblical studies. A recent example is his SBL paper entitled “Too Many Dicks at the Writing Desk, or How to Organise a Prophetic Sausage-Fest.” Much to his delight, he’s been asked to change the title — and bizarrely, the request is only to change the term “sausage-fest,” while leaving “dicks” unmolested. This has led to a series of posts over the controversy, culminating in a post in which Roland copies over a letter from the executive director of the SBL chastising him for making this private and courteous discussion public — and above all, for violating SBL culture, which apparently consists in “discussion not argumentation.”

Now on the one hand, Roland’s project here is almost tautological — he knows that the biblical studies establishment is prudish in certain ways and he’s intentionally submitting papers that trigger that prudishness, so that they can be rejected, thereby demonstrating the prudishness we all knew was there to begin with. What’s startling to me, though, is that the paper was initially accepted at all — if there was a time to quash it, it was surely at the stage where there was the plausible deniability of “a high volume of submissions.”

Once it was accepted, though, it’s hard to believe that anyone seriously thought that a person who would submit a paper with the term “sausage-fest” in the first place would respond to a request to change it with something like “Oh, wow — I had no idea people would react negatively to my title! Of course I’ll change it!” Now it appears that the only play left is to represent Roland as a terribly rude person who blew this all out of proportion, such that it’s best for the SBL if he’s not allowed to present and further disrupt the warm collegiality that we’ve all come to expect, etc., thereby making the classic move of pretending a substantive disagreement is really a procedural issue and giving people who were uncomfortable with the term “sausage-fest” (and yet, I repeat, apparently fine with the term “dicks” — who exactly are these people with these super-precise sensitivities?!) a seemingly more principled ground for objection.

In which I blame the “victim”

Inside Higher Ed has published my response to Timothy Larsen’s piece on discrimination against Christians in academia. I argue that the evangelical community itself bears most of the blame for any tension that evangelical students experience in higher ed.

I already have my first comment, from someone who apparently thinks the purpose of liberal education is to turn students into New Atheists and who refers to me as Mr. Kotsko. Ah, IHE commenters: you are truly amazing.