28.11.16

THEY'VE BEEN COMING FOR NORMAL PEOPLE.

The Professor Watchlist, which is an understandable act of rebellion against the one-party state that is much of higher education, occasions much fretting on the part of the house organ of business as usual in higher education.  (I'll quote extensively as the article is likely to go behind the paywall.)
But to many professors, the idea of a watch list seemed newly chilling in a political climate in which some scholars have been the targets of racist and anti-Semitic abuse. Whether the list ends up having a chilling effect on speech depends on how seriously people take it, said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that views itself as a defender of campus free speech.

Professors on the list reacted with a mix of disbelief, confusion, and pride; one scholar even took to social media to wonder why he wasn’t named. Some scholars used the Twitter hashtag #trollprofwatchlist to mock the whole enterprise, submitting false tips about Indiana Jones and Professor Xavier, from the X-Men comic-book series, among others.
Catch that "views itself as a defender?" The Foundation (disclaimer: they get Christmas money from me. Universities don't) maintain a speech code watch list, which runs contrary to business as usual at many such institutions, including the one I retired from.

But then we go down the rabbit hole.
So how does it feel to be in the cross hairs of Professor Watchlist? "It would’ve been humorous a few months ago," said Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology at Boise State University, in Idaho. "It’s not funny now."

To Mr. Hampikian, the list represents a strain of illiberal thinking that’s currently accumulating power. He was named to the list, which he called "absurd," for writing a satirical op-ed about his state’s campus-carry law for The New York Times in which he asked state lawmakers when he could shoot his students.

"They are putting normal people on the list," he said. "That’s what’s frightening. That should wake people up."
Do normal people get a platform in the Times? Do normal people get to claim satirical opinion pieces therein as public service, and count it toward a merit raise?  Check your privilege, Mr Hampikian.

It gets better.
Joan Neuberger, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, advocated against the campus-carry law that went into effect in Texas this year. The watch list’s write-up on her says she pushed to ban guns from classrooms, in violation of state law. Ms. Neuberger started her advocacy before the law took effect.

"A website that seeks so openly to discredit me by suggesting (incorrectly) that I broke the law and (nonsensically) that I have no credibility as an experienced classroom professor can only exist to chill my right to free speech," she wrote in an email.

Ms. Neuberger specializes in Russian history. She found her appearance on the list ironic. In her courses, she delves into the conservative values and interests that promoted patriotism, nationalism, Christianity, and authoritarianism in Russia.
And there is your dog whistle. Conservative values lead to problematic outcomes.  (Here is the counterargument, if you're interested.)

The list, for all the pearl-clutching, is welcome to appeals.  "Professors who refute the website’s claims by submitting contrary information can be taken off the list, but [list manager Matt] Lamb said he wasn’t sure why the professor had been removed."  That's better than being a nameless number on a list that was later misplaced, or a member of the Duke lacrosse squad or a University of Virginia fraternity.

Matt Reed also takes on the list, but he gets to the heart of the matter.
First, any “list” that singles out professors for apostasy has a staggeringly high burden of proof. This list doesn’t come close. It names several for no greater crime than taking liberal positions on political issues. That’s not a crime. It doesn’t include a call to action, instead occupying that ambiguous space that bullies prefer: intimidating without actually threatening. It never even attempts to show actual harm to students, apparently on the belief that simply being left of center is a form of doing harm. It isn’t.
The generalization to ukases from Student Affairs warning against microaggression or triggering speech is left to the reader as an exercise. I think Matt gets it (community colleges being places where people are more concerned with keeping body and soul together) but let's contemplate the wider implications of "The only reason to criminalize dissent is that you can’t refute it."

First, let's stipulate that higher education ought to be higher.
Higher education is about vigorous debate. It requires hearing points of view that you may find wrongheaded or even offensive. There is no right to never be offended. While I’m not personally a fan of every single person on the list, I’m far more concerned about the effects of a hit list than I am of some tenured lefty somewhere going overboard. The latter is a cost of freedom. The former is a direct threat to it.

In my teaching days, I routinely played “Devil’s Advocate” for different points of view. In teaching a class on political ideologies, it’s helpful to introduce each one by explaining its appeal at the time. At various moments, I could have been quoted in support of monarchism, anarchism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and a host of other things. It was role play. But when quotes are ripped out of context and thrown to an ideologically motivated sub-public looking for an enemy, they could do real harm. It would be the equivalent of calling for the arrest of an actor because his character killed somebody.
The enemies list exists, dear reader, because there are faculty members less conscientious, or perhaps so marinated in the culture-studies hothouses that they can't advance a monarchist or fascist or Marxist argument with any coherence.
And students tried on different ideas to see how they fit. They need the room to do that. If they’re never exposed to anything other than what some conservative action group deems appropriate, they’ll never develop that skill. Some of them will move from where they started; others will maintain their position, but with greater depth of understanding. That can’t happen when the range of debate runs only from vanilla to french vanilla.
Yes, or when the range of debate runs only from Clinton to Castro, or what the Guardians of Multicultural Pravoslavie, whether in the common room or in Student Affairs deem appropriate.

Matt continues, "If the list were intended to open up space for useful debate, it would have bothered to spell out its own views. It didn’t. It’s obviously intended to intimidate, rather than to enlighten."  I dissent in part.  The list appears to be for the purpose of identifying professors who themselves are closing space to useful debate, although, as I noted, it started with the usual rogues gallery.

I concur in part with his closing remarks.  "If you’re on the list, and you’re applying here, put it on your c.v. I’ll consider it a badge of honor. No professor could ever do the harm that an enemies list could. First things first."  Yes, "bear their scorn as a badge of honor" is a good way of flipping the script.  But the search committee might want to check Rate My Professors all the same.

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