On Christmas Eve, professor George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel tweeted “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” He later clarified it as satire, invoking a white supremacist meme that refers to race mixing. He really did not want to slaughter whites but wanted to make a point about the alt-right.
As someone who has worked hard to promote useful interracial communication, you will excuse me if I characterize his “satire” as extremely distasteful and unnecessarily provocative. His comments suggest to me that he is a professor who wanted sensationalist attention, regardless of the effect his comments have on inhibiting healthy interracial relationships and exacerbating our racial divide.
But his employer, Drexel University, should not have publicly rebuked him. I can use my free speech rights to critique his poor satire. However, I am commenting as one professor to another one. When a university comments on the arguments made by professors then there is an implied threat due to the power of the institution. After all, he was hired by the university and, contrary to what most people think, the university can find ways to fire even tenured professors. I am grateful that Drexel walked back its criticism (seemingly in response to criticism of Drexel). However, the fact that they were so quick to publicly condemn Ciccariello-Maher was troubling and sets a bad precedent, for it encourages online mobs to put pressure on universities to rebuke and renounce their faculty members.
There is a deeper issue at stake here: does freedom of speech depend on whether you agree with the speech? As predictable in such a case, conservatives have been supportive of sanctioning the professor and progressives have tended to defend him. But if it had been a conservative making an outrageous statement, the roles would likely have been reversed. Such conditional and content-based support for free speech is one of the reasons why I joined Heterodox Academy. We are committed to academic freedom across the political spectrum. I strongly disagree with Ciccariello-Maher, but I am willing to defend the free speech rights of everyone, from the most radical leftist to the most reactionary conservative. Any failure to do so means that my assertion of free speech rights is conditional and that I only support the speech rights of others when their words resonate with me to some extent. Nothing Ciccariello-Maher stated resonated with me, but the whole controversy has reminded me of a statement I hold dear. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, while describing Voltaire’s views on speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.