A “Reverse Canceling” and its Critics

In what may be a rare (and possibly unique) example of “reverse canceling” — firing someone because he is woke, not because he is not — Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi, has recently been informed that his contract will not be renewed.

As reported by Inside Higher Ed (“Outspoken Out of a Job?”) and the Chronicle of Higher Education (“His University Celebrated His Success. Then It Fired Him”), the justification for firing Felber was based, oddly, not on his research or teaching but on allegedly insufficient communication with his department chair. Since Felber writes about “the carceral state” and has tweeted that Ole Miss “violently subjugates” communities of color through “White supremacist work,” there is widespread criticism of the university’s explanation of his firing, and the nature of this criticism is actually more interesting and noteworthy than the merits of the case.

“Since the stated reasons for Professor Felber’s firing are both arbitrary and nonsensical,” 5,442 academics (as of January 12) wrote in an open letter to department chair Noell Wilson and university chancellor Glenn Boyce, “we construe his firing as a chilling example of the university’s attempt to suppress academic freedom … , as an attack on Professor Felber’s commitment to anti-racist political organizing, ” as well as retribution for his outspoken criticism of the university.

On its face, this widespread support for academic freedom appears encouraging, but appearances can be — and here, arguably are — deceiving. Academic freedom, like free speech, is content neutral, but much of the support for Professor Felber comes from those who reject neutrality, in principle as well as in practice. They embrace what Roger Baldwin, the early leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized as “civil liberties for our side only.”

Take, for example, one of the 5,442 signers, David Palumbo-Liu, professor of comparative literature at Stanford, former chair of the Faculty Senate, and an organizer of the Campus Antifascist Network (CAN). CAN’s Mission Statement declares that its purpose is “to stem the rise of fascism, whether proudly displayed in hateful exclusionary slogans and posters, or disguised as ‘free speech….’” In calling attention to an event at Columbia, CAN states that “If white supremacy is left unchecked in academia our curricula, classrooms, admissions policies, campus events, and support systems will continue to produce and reproduce the white supremacist knowledges thereby silencing the speech of anyone who is not racialized as white.”

Professor Palumbo-Liu’s department web page emphasizes his work on “Scholarship and Activism,” through which he attempts “to create a network of activists and activist organizations on campus, and to organize and act on pressing issues such as graduate health care, sexual violence, racism and other forms of bigotry.” He expressed his endorsement of what can fairly be described as  “academic freedom for our side only” in a long article in the Stanford Daily that was regarded as influential enough to be republished on the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Academe Blog.

“Many,” Palumbo-Liu writes,

if not all, of the speakers whose ideologies are aligned with the alt-right — including the ideologies of white supremacy, hetero-normalcy, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry — are using campus groups to invite them to speak at their universities not to debate, test, advance knowledge, which is the purpose of education, but to have the legitimacy — and in the case of institutions such as Stanford, Berkeley, Middlebury and others, the luster of these institutions — rub off on them…. The debate over free speech for them is merely a pretext to gain publicity for themselves.

“One litmus test” of their “shallowness and pretense,” he continued, “is the extremism of their rhetoric. It is not subtle, nuanced, open to adjustment, correction, engagement — it is brittle, bombastic, demagogic.” The bottom line: “because they reject the basic values upon which academic freedom is founded, they have no business speaking here.”

One wonders what Professor Palumbo-Liu makes of the language of one of his co-signers of the Felber letter, Princeton Assistant Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. (Actually, she signed the letter twice, No. 90 and No. 4970.) In a “well received” 2017 keynote commencement speech at Hampshire College, Taylor described President Trump as “a racist, sexist, megalomanic.”

The AAUP came to her defense after she received abusive and threatening emails, and her department issued a statement of solidarity sharing “her unwavering commitment to speak and write truthfully about the state of the nation and the failures of its political leaders to act in the service of justice, equality, and the betterment of our common humanity.” This statement was signed by “6,577 members of the broader community” as of June 5, but the link to it no longer works.

Princeton Faculty Letter

One of the most revealing documents embodying “antiracist” views of academic freedom is the controversial 4,200-word July 4 letter signed by several hundred Princeton faculty and staff urging the adoption of a wide-ranging list of measures to purge the university of “the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.”

Most of these proposals simply called for admitting, hiring, promoting, and rewarding more blacks, but two called for measures to make the university more acquiescent to black demands — appointing “an outside committee of academics, law professors, artists, and cultural advisors from communities of color” to be engaged in all “University decisions about race, racism, anti-racism, and racial equity,” and “an internal committee of faculty and students of color” to ensure that the University remained “accountable” to that outside committee.

One demand, however, criticized on Minding The Campusas “Faculty Demand a Racism Star Chamber at Princeton,” was a blatant affront to academic freedom, at least as traditionally understood: “Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”

Since everything from criticizing Black Lives Matter to citing an article by a Princeton professor arguing that riots are counter-productive to publishing an impressive, thoroughly researched peer-reviewed article critical of affirmative action admissions in medical schools is now regarded as racist by antiracists, creating such a racial review committee to approve (or not) the research and publications of faculty would provide about as much protection to academic freedom as putting a fox in charge of the hen house would provide to the chickens working inside.

The only good thing that can be said about so many Princeton professors signing a letter including this demand is that, as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf discovered, a few of them don’t agree with what they signed. Friedersdorf emailed some questions to all but about 10 of the signatories; 17 responded, and a few of them expressed misgivings related to the committee proposal. With few exceptions, however, all those with reservations wanted to remain anonymous “as they feared that commenting publicly would be socially uncomfortable or professionally fraught.” Friedersdorf asked whether “faculty members [who] are unwilling to publicly criticize a demand that they scoff at privately … can really be counted on to protect academic freedom in a faculty vote?” The question answers itself.

More troubling is that most of Friedersdorf’s correspondents thought concern over the racial oversight committee was overblown or even affirmatively supported it, such as English professor Andrew Cole, who wrote in the Daily Princetonian that “At best, talk of academic freedom absent a thorough and honest account of ethical research conduct is grandstanding. At worst, it’s a tried and true way to sustain white privilege, uphold the culture of white supremacy, and remain comfortable while others take up the hard work of anti-racism.”

Thirteen Princeton professors who signed the July 4 faculty letter also signed the recent letter protesting Ole Miss’s treatment of Garrett Felber. It is not clear whether that treatment was unfair, but it is not too soon to mock the gall of the Princeton 13 pretending to stand guard at the gates of academic freedom. Similarly, Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor tweeted that Kelber’s firing was a “disgusting attack on academic freedom” and “also an attack on Black Liberation and carceral studies,” but so far as I know, she has not been heard to criticize the proposal of her colleagues to create what could be called an un-racial activities committee to police faculty research and writing.

No discussion of antiracism’s contribution to academic freedom would be complete without considering the views of the academic high priest of antiracism, Ibram X. Kendi, who does not disappoint. He was one of the first to defend Garrett Felber, tweeting on December 17th that “The weak justification for his firing goes to show that antiracist scholars do not have free speech, do not have academic freedom.”

Before uttering a sigh of relief that our nation’s most influential antiracist scholar supports free speech and academic freedom, it is necessary to examine what he means by those terms. Alas, hold that sigh.

In “When Free Speech Becomes Unfree Speech,” written in 2015 when he was an assistant professor at the University of Florida, Kendi laid out his views quite clearly. He explains that he has always been “a staunch defender of free speech” and a critic of those activists and others who condemned publications for printing racist articles, but he changed his mind when he came across an open letter from a “Group of Concerned and Unapologetic Students of Color” at Wesleyan. Freedom of speech, they claimed, “does not protect Black Lives Matter advocates who are trying to survive in a racist world, but instead protects the belief systems of dominant people—despite the extent of their heightened ignorance.”

“These students were correct,” Kendi concluded.

I thought I was defending the free speech of those column writers and newspaper editors, when, in fact, I was merely defending unfree speech. Just like we should not have the freedom to enslave people, we should not have the freedom to publish untruths about people. When the press publishes false or unproven racist ideas in news stories or columns without informing readers there is no truth to those claims and tales, that is not an exercise in free speech. That is unfree speech.

Kendi did attempt to qualify his support for suppressing unfree speech. “Just as companies can sell harmful products as long as they clearly label them to consumers,” he generously allowed, “so too should periodicals have the freedom to publish any spuriously racist ideas as long as they clearly label them to readers as untrue. But that would require strenuous fact checking on the part of editors” — just the sort of thing the Princeton 350 (or most of them) seem to have in mind.

One could excuse young Prof. Kendi’s youthful indiscretion, if it were youthful indiscretion, but it wasn’t. In a recent forum held by The Atlantic, he agreed with Millennials who want to censor unfree speech, explaining that “Unfree speech is speech that is false, [t]hat’s violent. That’s damaging.”

Arguments That Smell Like Fish

If Ole Miss administrators were to insist that Felber was fired because of “research and speech that is false … that is damaging,” could Kendi et al. make any principled argument in opposition?

Principled or not, their justifications for suppressing false, damaging speech unwittingly echo arguments advanced by some distinguished liberals before World War II, liberals in other contexts they would disdain. “Antifascist commentators like Walter Winchell, Lewis Mumford, and Max Lerner,” distinguished Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone has written, “argued that fascist movements could easily lay the groundwork for their agendas through the use of insidious propaganda, and that such propaganda must be squelched.” In Ideas Are Weapons (1939), Max Lerner called for a “Truth in Opinion Act” modeled on the SEC’s Truth in Securities Act and the prohibition against false advertising of drugs. “Are we to have nothing,” he asked, “to protect us against the infinitely more dangerous advertising of anti-labor, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic lies?” (pp. 23-24) Today’s antifacists could learn a lot, not all of it good, from dead liberals of the last century.

The argument of Kendi et al. — that only those who agree with them have rights to free speech and academic freedom — are especially reminiscent of the postmodernist positions put forward with great gusto by Stanley Fish. “Freedom of speech is not an academic value,” he wrote not long ago. “Accuracy of speech is an academic value.” Earlier, in his 1994 book There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech … And It’s a Good Thing, Too, he debunked the very idea of free speech, calling it “just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance…. Free speech, in short, is not an independent value but a political prize…. [S]o long as so-called free speech principles have been fashioned by your enemy … contest their relevance to the issue at hand; but if you manage to refashion them in line with your purposes, urge them with a vengeance.” (pp. 102, 114)

Similarly, in his The Trouble With Principle (1999), Fish wrote that he might attack the idea of neutral principles “as part of my attack on what it was used to do. But I might turn around tomorrow and use the same rhetoric in the service of a cause I believed in. Nor would there be anything inconsistent or hypocritical about such behavior. The grounding consideration in both instances … would be my convictions and commitments; the means used to advance them would be secondary, and it would be no part of my morality to be consistent in my handling of those means.” (p. 8)

Whether the antiracists’ take-it-or-leave-it approach to academic freedom — for themselves, take it; for others, leave it — is inconsistent, hypocritical, or merely unprincipled, it is not an argument that should be taken seriously — by the University of Mississippi or anyone else. As I wrote nearly 20 years ago about Stanley Fish’s unprincipled “with a vengeance” defense of affirmative action, “I’ve never understood why anyone bothers to argue with Fish. Since he’s announced in advance that he doesn’t necessarily believe what he says, why should anyone listen to him?”


Image: Slowking4, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, cropped; Larry D. Moore, Public DomainCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, cropped.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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