On Double Standards and Fantasy-Land Arguments

The controversy over the Chronicle essay by Naomi Schaefer Riley provided an unusually rich insight into the mindset of defenders of the academic status quo. Over and over again, Riley’s critics advocated either a blatant double standard or transparently absurd positions. Take a few examples:

On the double-standard front, in a twitter exchange with FIRE’s Adam Kissel and me, Indiana (PA) professor John Wesley Lowery criticized Riley on the following grounds: Riley’s “essays were intellectually dishonest. A. [Readers should] know field is worthless by reading dissertations B. I didn’t.”

Yet in her posting, Riley didn’t pick these dissertations out of a hat–they had been identified, in a Chronicle article, as representatives of “a new generation of Ph.D.’s advances the discipline,” the work of “young voices [that] are rewriting the history of race.” As my colleague Mark Bauerlein pointed out, “The article also offered the work of the students as the primary exhibit of black studies, and so Riley, too, accepts them as representations of the field.”

Moreover, there was little if any indication the article’s author, Stacey Patton, had read any of the dissertations before bestowing upon them fawning praise, so by the Lowery standard, did she, too, deserve dismissal? No, he tweeted, because “there is meaningful & real difference between profiles Patton wrote and the claims offered by Riley.” Indeed there was: one was a piece of journalism that instead resembled a press release from the Northwestern Black Studies Department, the other was a searing criticism of a field notorious for its political correctness.

On the transparently absurd front, consider a criticism of Riley that attracted considerable attention: a piece by her (former) Chronicle co-blogger, Laurie Essig, who wondered whether Riley’s post had raised legitimate questions “wondering whether Brainstorm [the Chronicle blog] is racist.” On the issue at hand, the Middlebury professor wildly asserted, “I do not believe all speech is free. I do not believe attacks against the most marginalized members of academe or society (and believe me, that is Shaefer Riley’s oeuvre) are ‘free’ as opposed to ‘hate.'”

The idea that up-and-coming professors of Black Studies–in an academy where advocates of the race/class/gender worldview dominate most humanities and some social sciences departments–represent “the most marginalized members of academe” is so absurd to be almost comical. And to describe African-American professors or graduate students as among “most marginalized members” of society is equally absurd.

Chronicle editor Liz McMillen wrote that she dismissed Riley from the Chronicle blog because Riley’s post did not meet the publication’s “basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.” Given that subjective standard (which McMillen did not further define), will Essig likewise be dismissed? Surely a post that casually tosses around allegations of “hate” speech, or which makes such absurd reporting claims as Black Studies professors are “marginalized” in contemporary society, does not meet Editor McMillen’s standards.

Or could it be that Editor McMillen applies those standards only when the Chronicle blogger expresses an opinion that inflames defenders of the current academic majority viewpoint?

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

2 thoughts on “On Double Standards and Fantasy-Land Arguments

  1. “The idea that up-and-coming professors of Black Studies–in an academy where advocates of the race/class/gender worldview dominate most humanities and some social sciences departments–represent “the most marginalized members of academe” is so absurd to be almost comical.”
    Really? Are Black Studies professors getting praised for their scholarship outside of their departments? Are they getting super-high salaries? As far as I know, Black Studies/African-American studies is not taken seriously by dominant fields in the humanities and the social sciences. If you’re talking about the select token minority scholars that white liberal scholars like to throw in to advance their careers while pretending to be “radical” or “conscious,” then yes, there are some black studies scholars who gain a lot of attention in the academic mainstream.
    Some of the critiques of the Chronicle article are asking why she chose to go after Black Studies versus other fields that could be considered equally worthless (critical theory, Buddhist studies, anthropology, [insert foreign language here] studies etc). There was an article in the Chronicle earlier this year that was hyping Northwestern’s Black Studies program. Riley’s article felt like it was written by someone who feels like this group of Black scholars need to be put in their place. The problem with the type of reactionary politics that people like Riley and this website seems to support is that it often goes for easy targets, rather than actually focusing on what’s important and trying to bring about real change.

  2. I’d be happy to forward you a copy of Northwestern’s press release so you can compare it to the lengthy feature that I wrote about the students?
    Cheers,
    S. Patton

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