heterodox: the blog
The Blasphemy Case Against Bret Weinstein, and Its Four Lessons for Professors
In the wake of the violence at Middlebury and Berkeley, and in the aftermath of the faculty mob that coalesced to condemn gender studies professor Rebecca Tuvel, many commentators have begun analyzing the new campus culture of intersectionality as a form of fundamentalist religion including public rituals with more than a passing resemblance to witch-hunts. The second-clearest case of these dynamics that I have ever seen is currently underway at Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. (The clearest case was the protests, hunger strike, and struggle session in response to one word in a well-intentioned email from Dean Mary Spellman, at Claremont McKenna College in 2015.)
The accused witch is Heterodox Academy member Bret Weinstein, a professor of biology. On May 23, a group of Evergreen students disrupted a class he was teaching, surrounded him, cursed at him, screamed at him, called him a racist, and called for him to resign or be fired. Campus police have told Weinstein that for his own physical safety, he should stay off campus for a few days. He held his Thursday class in an off-campus park.
What did Weinstein do to cause this reaction? He violated blasphemy laws. Here’s how.
For several years, Evergreen has held a “day of absence” in which students, staff, and faculty of color are invited to stay away from campus and take part in discussions about racism and other intersectional issues, organized by the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services, Rashida Love. But this year, the event was inverted; people of color were invited to stay on campus while all white people were asked to stay away from campus. White professors were asked to not teach their classes. White students were asked to not attend their classes.
You may or may not think this is a good idea. But do you think that all professors should simply accept it and do as Ms. Love asks? Or do you think that it should be permissible for a professor to question the policy – perhaps even object to it? Professor Weinstein objected. Here is a screenshot showing the full text of his email:
In response to this email, and to Weinstein’s refusal to take part in the “day of absence/presence” (by staying away because of his race), a group of around 50 students marched to his class to disrupt it.
As with the famous videos of students confronting Nicholas Christakis at Yale, the professor tries to hold a dialogue, but students scream obscenities and slurs at him. They make it clear that they are not interested in discussion or dialogue; they accuse him of racism and demand that he apologize and resign. Later that day, the protesters occupied the library; they also found the president of the university, George Bridges, and issued demands to him, including that he fire Weinstein. The video of their confrontation with the president is hard to watch — they scream obscenities at the president of their university, and tell him to “shut the f… up”.
It is important to remember that the act that triggered the Yale protests in November 2015 was also a professor questioning—in a polite and reasoned way—a diversity policy. Now is a good time to go back and read Erika Christakis’s email to students at Silliman college asking whether the university’s heavy-handed guidelines about Halloween costumes was really appropriate. In retrospect, we can see that while there was not a hint of racism in Erika Christakis’s email, the mere act of questioning a policy constituted blasphemy and justified the students’ demands for the punishment and expulsion of both Erika and her husband. Few people understood this back in 2015.
Similarly with last month’s witch hunt at Duke, where Paul Griffiths, a chaired professor of theology objected to the email sent out by the chair encouraging all faculty members to participate in diversity training. He dared to say in public what many faculty know and say in private about diversity training. Once again there was no racism in his email, but the mere act of objecting to the policy was taken as evidence of racism, which must be punished. (He soon resigned, under pressure from disciplinary proceedings launched against him by the administration.)
There are several lessons that American professors can draw from these three events:
1) Never object to a diversity policy publicly.* It is no longer permitted. You may voice concerns in a private conversation, but if you do it in a public way, you are inviting a visit from a mob or punishment from an administrator.
2) Do not assume that being politically progressive will protect you (as Weinstein and the Christakises found out). Whatever your politics, you are eventually going to say or do something that will be interpreted incorrectly and ungenerously. Your intentions don’t matter (as Dean Spellman found out at CMC.) This is especially true if your university offers students training in the detection of microaggressions.
3) If a mob comes for you, there is a good chance that the president of your university will side with the mob and validate its narrative (as the presidents at Yale and Evergreen have done, although the presidents at Middlebury and Claremont McKenna did not).
4) If a mob comes for you, the great majority of its members will be non-violent. However, given the new standard operating procedure (which I described in a recent Chronicle article entitled “Intimidation is the New Normal”) you must assume that one or more of its members is willing to use violence against you, and you can assume that many members of the mob believe that violence against you is morally justifiable.
As political passions and political polarization continue to rise, Intimidation and physical violence seem to be becoming more common as a part of our political life. Off campus, such tactics are widely used by extremists on the right, as well as the left. And not just by extremists — by a new member of Congress too. I generally oppose zero-tolerance policies, but if we are to have one, it should be for violence and intimidation on campus. Many faculty and students report being afraid to speak up openly and honestly on many issues, even in seminar classes. What will presidents and administrators do about it? What will alumni and trustees do to put pressure on presidents and administrators to do something about it? When will the faculty begin to stand up en masse?
There is one hopeful sign: in the wake of the Middlebury violence we had a surge of new applicants at Heterodox Academy, raising our membership by 20 percent. More than 800 professors from across the political spectrum HAVE stood up and said that they support viewpoint diversity at universities. Together, we are developing tools that will, in the long run, change the campus climate and make more room for dissent and open discussion. (See in particular our Fearless Speech Index, our Guide to Colleges, and our Viewpoint Diversity Experience).
We think we can turn things around and end the witch-hunt mentality. Fundamentalists can’t survive in an open marketplace of ideas. If you are a professor or a concerned grad student, please join us.
*1. I am not really urging professors to keep quiet. I am trying to dramatize the growing authoritarianism of some campuses on which calm, reasoned questioning of the sort the Weinstein engaged in is now likely to be punished. I hope that professors will in fact model their behavior on Weinstein. But I would suggest that in the future they consider finding a few others who agree with them and are willing to co-sign the email. It will be harder for a university to punish or fire a group of professors than a single professor.
2. New video is emerging frequently of the events that occurred after the protesters left Weinstein’s class. Here is a 7 minute clip that someone edited to show the most dramatic and angry moments of the day, many from a meeting at 4pm that day, a few hours after the initial confrontation with president Bridges, shown above. Can anyone find a video of the full session, unedited? Thanks to commenter Pjc below who found this hour-long video of the main discussion session that was held at 4pm on May 23.
3. If you want a deeper look into Weinstein’s politics and character, look at this footage of him being interviewed by a local TV station. He is extremely measured, diplomatic, and elliptical in what he says, until they turn the camera off. Start watching at the 11 minute mark. At 11:20 he asks “is that thing still on?” When assured that the TV camera is off, he relaxes and speaks more openly. But someone in the small crowd watching the interview was recording everything. If you can find a hint of racism in the way Weinstein speaks when he relaxes, please let me know where it is. The man is an extremely thoughtful, principled progressive.
4. If you wonder why these witch hunts seem to happen so often at highly progressive schools, then this is a good time to read the amazing 1969 prophecy in which Judge Macklin Fleming argued that the very policies Yale Law School implemented in response to protests by black students were likely to make future black students feel more angry and marginalized. The set of policies widely implemented to increase diversity may be backfiring — raising the raw numbers of people in various categories, but doing so in ways that increase tensions and harm the very students they were trying to help.
5. For a view of events that differs from Weinstein’s, see this critique by another professor at Evergreen, Peter Dorman.
About heterodox: the blog
As an organization that prizes pluralism and disagreement — with 5000+ members holding diverse views on most issues — Heterodox Academy almost never takes positions as an organization on current events and controversies. Opinions expressed here are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We encourage readers to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn — and to join in the conversation on those forums — to weigh in on this or other posts.
Heterodox: the blog is a platform for academics, researchers, professors, and students to share the challenges they face within their academic communities through both analysis and actionable solutions. We aspire to have every reader walk away with a richer understanding of the challenges of the university environment, as well as practical tools and techniques for addressing them. Interested in contributing? Please see our submission guidelines.