In examining various efforts to “cancel” professors and their work, one often sees anonymous letters and social media campaigns employed in the crusade. This was true of the attempts to cancel a research paper written by University of Cape Town economics professor Nicoli Nattrass, who was denounced by the “Black Academic Caucus” for asking why black South African students were less likely to enter the biological sciences than their white peers. Media coverage of this case noted that “[i]t is not known who, or how many members constitute the [Black Academic Caucus] as they do not make their membership, their executive, nor their structure publicly known. Their statements are released as unsigned documents.”
Anonymity also played a role in the attempts to cancel my colleagues William McNally and David Millard Haskell. After they challenged claims about “systemic racism” and attempts to place restrictions on freedom of expression at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU), the group “WLU Change is Due” accused McNally and Haskell of expressing “racist and white supremacist ideas and values.” It then attempted, with the help of a journalist at the WLU student newspaper The Cord, to pressure the university to fire them.
A student newspaper and anonymous accusers were also involved in the attempts to cancel Portland State University professor Peter Boghossian, when twelve anonymous faculty members wrote an article in Vanguard criticizing him for his role in exposing the low academic standards in “grievance studies” journals. The article was accompanied by an image that depicted Boghossian as a snake oil salesman peddling “pure nonsense,” and alleged that he was a threat to students’ education.
When one looks at these cases, it is obvious why the people trying to cancel these professors and their work would choose to remain anonymous. Anonymity enables the cancelers to make defamatory statements without having to take responsibility for their irresponsible and unethical conduct. In many cases, where they make accusations of “racism” and “white supremacy,” it also shelters the cancelers from legal action.
Unfortunately, I am very familiar with this particularly odious enabler of cancellation. Anonymity played a role in my own case at Mount Royal University (MRU), which eventually resulted in my termination from a tenured position in December 2021. In fact, MRU professors hid behind it even before I became their target. More disturbingly, it often flourished with the tacit consent of administrators eager to pander to “anti-racism” activism so as to bolster MRU’s “You Belong Here” slogan.
[Related: “Be Quiet So You Can Hear the Free Speech at Yale”]
The use of anonymity at my university began in September 2019, when MRU instructor Mark Hecht wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun arguing that too much ethnic diversity undermined social trust. This resulted in the anonymous “Indigenous and People of Color Support Network” printing posters with the words “WE BELONG HERE RACISM DOES NOT.” These posters were made available by the president of the Mount Royal Faculty Association at a pre–General Faculties Council discussion, and a number of faculty members burnished them to denounce Hecht at the September 19, 2019, university governance meeting. About thirty faculty members also wrote a secret letter to MRU administrators expressing that they were “deeply concerned” about Hecht’s op-ed (most of what they wrote is unknown, because, again with the help of the MRU administration, almost the entire letter, including the names, has been redacted). These faculty members were angry that administrators had not “condemn[ed]” Hecht’s op-ed.
The Indigenous and People of Color Support Network morphed into the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition in the fall of 2019. According to MRU indigenous studies professor Renae Watchman, this anonymous entity had “about 70 people in it, mostly academics at MRU.” These academics, Watchman claims, sought “to advocate against what they perceived to be mounting racism and rhetoric in the institution and to advocate for anti-racist causes.” The “mounting racism and rhetoric,” they claim, included “instances such as anti-Islamic graffiti and anti-Indigenous propaganda circulating on campus.”
It soon became apparent that “anti-Indigenous propaganda circulating on campus” was a reference to my research on indigenous–non-indigenous relations in Canada. This was clear when the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition created an anonymous Twitter account (@MRUAntiRacism) in June 2020 and reposted an article with a quote implying that I was “affiliated with discrimination, white supremacy or hate speech … .” I then posted a Tweet tagging MRU’s president, Tim Rahilly, asking who was behind the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition and whether they were using this Twitter account as “a vehicle for woke MRU community members to anonymously defame people … .”
At the same time that the Coalition created its Twitter account, another anonymous account, MRU Racial Advocacy (@RacialAdvMRU), appeared. This account claimed to be a “student-led initiative” and began to target me after I defended the journalist Wendy Mesley for referring to the book title White Niggers of America and mentioning the word “nigger” in an anti-racist context. Because I repeated this word in showing my solidarity with Mesley, another MRU indigenous studies professor mobilized MRU Racial Advocacy against me and encouraged people to complain about me to MRU’s president. MRU Racial Advocacy’s growing opposition to my presence at the university eventually resulted in its petition demanding that I be fired for being a “racist professor.”
Although the Twitter account for MRU Racial Advocacy was deleted in early 2021, @MRUAntiRacism continues to use its anonymity to defame me and a number of other individuals. It has called me a “racist prof,” referred to the “racism of Frances Widdowson,” and amplified false claims that I was “bullying students and colleagues” and had “harassed and threatened a group of students.” It also reposted an article from the Calgary Herald with the following quote highlighted: “The former MRU faculty member says Widdowson ‘dehumanized’ the suffering of residential school survivors and challenged the validity of Indigenous knowledge while ‘passing it off as academic freedom.’” Finally, it promoted a press release from the MRU Students’ Association claiming that I exhibited a “tolerance for lethal behaviour” and had created a “culture of fear” on campus. This press release was one of the reasons given for my termination.
[Related: “When Questions Become Harassment”]
All members of the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition remained anonymous until November 3, 2020, when three MRU professors were revealed as participants through an interview with the podcast Talking Radical. One of these professors was Renae Watchman, who claimed in the interview that MRU has “an unspoken climate of anti-Indigenous racism.” Watchman, because of her own social media activities, was then found to have harassed me by engaging in “Ostracism” through “Amplifying calls for the silencing of [Widdowson] by threatening her publishers.” After finding out that I had filed a complaint against her, Watchman then filed a retaliatory complaint against me for engaging in such activities as not capitalizing the letter “I” in indigenous and using the acronym “DIE” to refer to diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives.
In his investigation of the Watchman complaint, the investigator hired by MRU briefly examined the activities of the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition. In this examination, he noted the following: “Dr. Watchman took pains to note that MRU was not involved in the group’s formation or the Twitter account. However, there can be no doubt that the choice of name (intentionally or not) arguably gives an impression that the account is somehow associated with MRU.”
Although Watchman and the other two identified members of the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition were never held accountable for the activities of @MRUAntiRacism—presumably because it was not clear who exactly was posting the defamatory Tweets—the “impression that the account is somehow associated with MRU” is important. Why did MRU continue to allow its name to be associated with this Twitter account when it learned of its existence? Wasn’t it incumbent upon MRU administrators to at least demand that the account holders cease and desist using the institution’s initials in their Twitter handle? I know for a fact that MRU has opposed unauthorized uses of its logo in the past—this raises the question of whether the continued activity of @MRUAntiRacism amounts to MRU’s tacit endorsement of the defamation in which the Coalition is engaged.
The actions of the Mount Royal Anti-Racism Coalition highlight one of the most disturbing aspects of the use of anonymity in academic cancel culture: the extent that university administrators—either because of cowardice or because of public relations concerns—do not try to oppose the mob. As I have discussed elsewhere, the corporatization of universities has meant that their major concern is not upholding the academic character of post-secondary educational institutions, but in protecting their reputations. These “diversity managerialists” often appreciate mob rule because the mob’s arbitrariness enables them to coerce loyalty to the university’s brand. In the case of MRU, its slogan “You Belong Here” means that all dissident professors will eventually be pushed out. Because our ideas are thought to make the campus “unsafe” for favored identities in need of protection, we must be purged to create a “welcoming” environment. Evidently, we don’t belong here.
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One thought on “Anonymity: The Cowardly Enabler of Cancellation”
Excellent article and resonates with my own experience at the University of Alberta. The role played by university administrators is also well explored here: