[Note: This essay was posted on Nov. 1, 2016, based on information available at the time. Since then the story has gotten more complicated. Based on Rectenwald’s followup essay in the Washington Post, Nov. 3, it seems that he was not “suspended,” but that he is in trouble with his department and his dean for his twitter activity, and that it was suggested to him that he take a paid leave of absence. But a spokesman for NYU says that Rectenwald originally requested the leave himself, and he links to email correspondence consistent with that claim. We don’t yet know whether NYU acted improperly. But we leave Jussim’s original post below because we believe it makes the valid point that aggressive, uncivil, and even obscene language that supports the dominant political viewpoint is widely accepted; similar language that critiques the dominant viewpoint will elicit, at least, a rebuke from the “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group.” –Eds.] [Second note: It was reported on November 14 that Professor Rectenwald has been promoted and brought back as a full-time professor at NYU.]

Here are three rants from academics at three top American universities, made this semester, about fellow professors. Can you guess which of the three led to the professor being punished?

  • Professor A said:  “If they say that … you shouldn’t be warned to prepare yourself psychologically for that, that somehow that’s coddling, those people are lunatics.” Professor A also said that people who deny the existence of microaggressions are “idiots.”
  • Professor B wrote: “F**k those a**holes, seriously.” [But without the asterisks.] When criticized for this remark, he wrote: “I PROFOUNDLY regret not using much harsher language and saying what I really think of anyone who uses their religion to promote homophobia.”
  • Professor C wrote: “Identity politics on campus have made an infirmary of the whole, damn campus. Let’s face it: every room is like a hospital ward. What are we supposed to do? I can’t deal with it — it’s insane.” He also said: “What if Trump triggers a few hundred thousand liberal totalitarians to jump out of their dorm windows? one can only hope.”

If you guessed Professor A, you’re wrong. That was Morton Schapiro, the president of Northwestern University, in his convocation address to incoming students.  We don’t have a full transcript of his remarks, but The Daily Northwestern reported highlights and quotations. Many commentators have noted that President Schapiro committed a microaggression against the mentally ill (“lunatics”) and against people with low intelligence (“idiots”) while committing a mesoaggression against those who criticize the use of trigger warnings. But he was not fired.

If you guessed Professor B, you’re wrong again. That was Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky professor of philosophy at Yale. It was originally written as a comment on a friend’s Facebook page, in which the friend was criticizing Oxford University professor emeritus Richard Swinburne, who gave a talk at a meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. In that talk, in a panel on Christian Ethics, Swinburne argued that homosexual acts are contrary to the Christian moral tradition and are immoral. Given that Stanley’s comment appeared on Facebook, made in response to a friend’s post that criticized Swinburne, many would argue that it should not be held to the same expectations we have for President Schapiro speaking directly to the incoming Freshman class.  However, a former president of the Association for Psychological Science, Professor Susan Fiske, recently lambasted online social media discussions of psychological science, by scientists, for creating a “culture of shaming,” engaging in “unfiltered denigration,” and engaging in ad hominem smear tactics (for more information on this controversy, see How is incivility related to scientific integrity?).  Thus, the online use of obscenity and verbal aggression toward a fellow philosopher who was making an academic argument in an academic context might seem unseemly and uncivil to some, and, many would argue, is fair game for criticism.

If you guessed Professor C, you’re right. That was Michael Rectenwald, clinical professor of liberal studies at NYU, writing in a previously anonymous Twitter account he had created to criticize the prevailing norms of the academy. When his identity became public, he was suspended (with pay) and relieved of his teaching duties.

What is going on?  When do academics punish incivility? Before addressing this question, first, some nuance….

In this post, I am not evaluating the validity or reasonableness of any of these claims. They are all clearly quite sharply worded and hyperbolic. If someone tried to post these comments on my Psych Today blog site, I would delete them, contact the author, and ask him/her to consider making the same points with less vitriol. My post Rules of Engagement in Controversial Discourse lays out guidelines for having civil discussions about controversial issues, and one basic rule is not to hurl insults.

In response to Professor Rectenwald’s comments,  a group calling itself “Members of the Liberal Studies, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group” at NYU  (hence, The Liberal Studies Group) has declared Rectenwald “guilty”  of “illogic and incivility.”   They claimed Dr. Rectenwald “… indulges in ad hominem fallacies. He seeks to discredit many of us who are committed to social justice by calling us insane…”  and “We reject, too, Professor Rectenwald’s efforts to gaslight those who would disagree with him and to silence responses to his incendiary rhetoric by dismissing claims before they are reasonably made.”

Ah well, here we go again.  The response to overheated, uncivil rhetoric is … wait for it … More overheated, uncivil rhetoric.

Nonetheless, The Liberal Studies Group had every right to condemn Professor Rectenwald’s comments and declare him “guilty” of incivility and illogic.  If this group was the “prosecutor” and I was on the jury, I would vote to “convict” Rectenwald of incivility, and inflict what I believe should be the maximum penalty for being “uncivil” – a request to consider being more civil.  (Protest of all sorts has an important place in a free, democratic society, and that includes protest that is pungent, hyperbolic, and insulting; and I think we all have to decide for ourselves when civility is called for and when it is not).

I would, however, vote to exonerate on the “illogic” charge. He was not making logical arguments; he was expressing outrage at safe spaces, bias reporting schemes, and the like.  He purposely used hyperbole to make a point.

If it ended there, all we would have here is a lot of incivil speech in academia.2  But it did not end there, at least not for Professor Rectenwald.  NYU suspended him from his position, according to the NYPost, shortly after his declaration of “guilt.”  The implication is that he was suspended becauseof those comments.3

Furthermore, the Liberal Studies Group’s claims seem to have disingenuously, manipulatively and knowingly interpreted Rectenwald’s comments literally when, in my view, it is manifestly obvious that they were not meant literally. The condemned statements are obvious hyperbole. Knowingly twisting someone’s meaning is pretty uncivil itself.1  Furthermore, the term “guilty” has implicit connotations that are plausibly viewed as about as uncivil as any of Professor Rectenwald’s comments. I wonder, then, if NYU suspends its faculty for incivility, shouldn’t it also suspend the entire Liberal Studies Group for its own incivility?   (although that might render NYU less hypocritical, it is not my preferred solution, which is equally non-hypocritical and provides maximal protection for controversial speech – in short, do not suspend anyone for uncivil political speech). 

Actually, there are two serious problems here, and “civility” is not one of them.  First, the central problem is the suspension – in essence, the censorship, silencing, and violation of Professor Rectenwald’s academic freedom.  Events such as this are chilling.

The second problem is the extreme political double standards that now characterize not just NYU but much of academia.  Insulting, derogatory, obscene, uncivil hyperbole that targets anyone (regardless of their personal politics) who disagrees with cherished progressive and social justice narratives, goals, and policies is, apparently, just fine, and not subject to sanction.  Or, even if it is not “just fine,” it may be “regrettable” but not actionable.  On the other hand, similarly pungent or uncivil rhetoric directed at those very same cherished progressive and social justice narratives, goals, and policies is so beyond the pale that it has been used to suspend faculty (at NYU and Kansas).  I used to think that we had learned our societal lesson about political blacklisting from the McCarthy-era witch hunts.

Shoot me now.4

1 I would also “convict” the NYU committee of misuse of the term, “gaslight” which does not mean, “to call someone crazy.”  According to the Urban Dictionary, it means “to manipulate events and situations in order to make someone believe that he or she is crazy.”  The term comes from a 1938 play and a wickedly good 1944 movie in which Charles Boyer first marries then “gaslights” Ingrid Bergman in order to steal her fortune.  For a “liberal studies” group in a major urban environment, the pervasive failure to understand that hyperbole is not meant literally and the failure to understand a colloquialism such as “gaslight” is damning evidence of what Teddy Roosevelt might have called “a failure to keep one’s feet on the ground.”

2 Who said academia was all that different than Presidential politics?

3 Full disclosure requires me to point out that I could not find any statement by any official NYU administrator confirming or denying this explanation.  If Professor Rectenwald was suspended for something completely unrelated to his Tweets, it would be well worth finding out.  However, the sequence of events certainly appears consistent with the conclusion that he was, in fact, suspended because of his comments.  See his controversial Twitter account, as well as a controversial interview with him.

4 Dear Liberal Studies Group, given your literal reading of Professor Rectenwald’s tweets, I feel the need to explain: I am not actually encouraging you to purchase firearms, find me, and target me with your ordinance; “shoot me now” is an expression, a colloquialism, a sarcastic comment suggesting “this situation is so ridiculous and depressing, I’d rather be put out of this misery than have to endure it any longer.”