The string of recent cases in which professors have been fired, sanctioned, or placed on leave by their universities in response to public outrage generated by right-wing media sites is an alarming turn of events for the academy and for the country. The Chronicle of Higher Ed just published a summary of these recent cases, as has Inside Higher Ed. Some of the more high-profile cases include George Ciccariello-Maher (Drexel), Johnny Eric Williams (Trinity College), and most recently Lisa Durden (Essex Community College).
The basic pattern is:
1) Left-wing professor says something provocative (and sometimes truly inflammatory), usually about race, on Twitter or Facebook or in a speech or media interview.
2) Right wing media sites, particularly Campus Reform and Fox News, pick up the story and report it in a way designed to cause maximum outrage, sometimes distorting or ignoring the context.
3) Readers and viewers of such media become outraged; some of them write racist or sexist social media posts, including rape threats and death threats; many demand that the university fire the professor.
4) The university’s president and other administrative leaders are paralyzed by the public relations crisis; they do nothing to stand up for the professor, and sometimes they move quickly to condemn the professor and put him or her “on leave” in order to begin the process of termination, particularly if the professor is not tenured.
5) Everyone who tunes in to the story, on either side, concludes that their disgust with the other side has been fully confirmed. Each side is now even more certain that the other side is racist, violent, and intellectually bankrupt… which means that their own side must be even more vigilant against the outrages perpetrated by the other side.
6) Repeat, with even more passion, anger, and sense of victimization.
Before 2017, the threats to professors and their freedom to speak and write came mostly from the left. The right simply is not much of a presence at most of our universities. At Heterodox Academy we have covered several of the high-profile cases in which students used mob tactics to surround a professor, accuse the professor of racism, and then demand that the professor be fired or punished. See, for example, the Christakis case at Yale, Dean Mary Spellings at Claremont-McKenna, and Bret Weinstein at Evergreen. Such events are particularly chilling because in none of these cases had the professor or dean said anything that seems remotely racist to observers off-campus. The message is: the mob can come for you at any time, so be careful; don’t say or do anything that might provoke students on the left. The eruption of actual violence at Berkeley and Middlebury, the moral justifications of violence given by some students, and the presence of Antifa among protestors makes student mobs now truly dangerous — physically dangerous — for any professor who faces one.
But in 2017, it’s clear that the threat profile is now bipartisan. It still comes primarily from the left on campus, but now it comes from the right as well, off campus. Social media guarantees that people on each side learn of every outrage committed by the other side, while reading far less — or reading justifications — for the mob actions perpetrated by their own side.
The bipartisan nature of intimidation is likely to have a chilling effect on speech, and on the quality of teaching. Professors must think twice before trying any provocative teaching exercise or line of questioning. But given the nature of social media and mob mentalities, being careful is not enough. Anything you say can be distorted and misreported, potentially destroying your reputation and your career. So why take chances, why say anything controversial at all? Socrates would not last a month at a modern American university.
Given the dynamics of the larger American culture war, I believe that things are likely to get worse on campus. In future posts and essays, I and other members of Heterodox Academy will write about what can be done to break this cycle of escalation and restore a culture of free and fearless inquiry on campus. For now, I just want to note that many of us at Heterodox Academy are deeply disturbed that so many professors are getting mobbed and threatened and fired in the 6-step process I laid out above.
I’d like to close with a simple request to university leaders: Please stop giving in to mobs and their demands. It may seem like the easy way out of your predicament in the moment, but it encourages more mobs to form in the future – student mobs on campus, and right-wing internet mobs off campus. When professors say something truly offensive and irresponsible (and sometimes they do), consider simply talking to them. Or establishing a procedure with clear standards – ideally one that takes a while so that the Internet circus can move on and the rage can dissipate.
Real leadership in the age of outrage requires the ability to stand up to a mob and say: “No. We have procedures in place, and we will use them, but we start with a strong presumption of academic freedom and free speech. We will not be goaded or threatened into punishing a professor for something she said or wrote.”