Is social-media criticism by professors bullying and a violation of academic freedom?

March 28, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here we have a back-and-forth in The Chronicle of Higher Education between two professors at Portland State University (“PSU”; a public college). The first piece is by Jennifer Ruth, a professor of film studies, and the second by Peter Boghossian, a philosopher, anti-woke writer, atheist, and one of the three people involved in the “Grievance Studies Affair“.  Ruth complains that critics of Critical Theory have been bullies by engaging in social-media pile-one (does she know how the Woke do that much more often?), and refers specifically to Boghossian and another professor, Bruce Gilley, who has argued that colonialism is good for the colonized, which of course caused a huge fracas.

As far as I can determine, what happened here is that a student (none of the principals already named) took pictures of some slides in a teacher education course which “offended” him/her because they were of the “Math is Racist” genre, and put the slides on Twitter. Boghossian and Gilley retweeted the slides. Apparently, though, some of the first names of students were on the slides, and so the dean asked Gilley and Boghossian to take down the tweets. They did so immediately. But apparently others joined in on the discussion, and that was considered bullying by Dr. Ruth.

Click on the screenshots to read.

Why was this considered “bullying”? According to Ruth:

[The professor who showed the slides] is shocked, then, to find her name and picture tied to the phrase “math is racist” — shorn of any context or any reference to the CNN article — and posted on Twitter by two of her male colleagues. It is picked up by the anti-woke warrior Chris Rufo, who tags the professional provocateur Joe Rogan and Fox’s voluble and influential Tucker Carlson. She has now become the latest exhibit in a national right-wing campaign to frame university professors as the new apparatchiks of a racially motivated totalitarianism. She shares an article with her students, and she is cast as one of Stalin’s henchmen. She is one of the “new racists.”

Anyone who has lived through one of the right-wing rage-gasms of the past decade — and they are disproportionately women and faculty of color — knows how terrifying they can be. All you have to do is say, “It’s true that the Greeks painted their statues,” or, “Hmm, it seems that the far right is appropriating a lot of medieval imagery,” and you can find yourself in the cross hairs, subject to doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats.

Note that neither Gilley nor Boghossian engaged in this pile-on and did not encourage it; others took up the issue and (I didn’t follow this) there was a social media pile-on—one of the kind with which we’re familiar but apparently coming from the anti-woke. Nevertheless, Gilley and Boghossian suffer the consequences and take the blame for the mob. Peter, by the way, is a classical liberal, not “right-wing”.

Ruth continues:

The two men who circulated the “math is racist” meme were outsourcing the harassment of a colleague to the legions of trolls flying from Mr. Potato Head to Dr. Seuss to rapping librarians to the next faux-outrage fury-fest. Every time this happens, the targets of right-wing rage can only hope that a shiny new object will come along to distract their tormentors. But there is always the possibility — given the apocalyptic rhetoric that higher education’s attempts to reckon with systemic racism constitute a Maoist Cultural Revolution — that one of these stunts will get someone hurt.

The above scenario is not a hypothetical. It happened at my university, Portland State, and was instigated by our very own anti-woke warriors, Bruce Gilley and Peter Boghossian. Gilley and Boghossian have been working this beat for years now, on Twitter and on blogs. And they claim to be doing so in the name of academic freedom.

No, Boghossian and Gilley—and no, I don’t agree with Gilley’s thesis, but he has the right to his opinion—did not outsource harassment or encourage it. They were simply exercising the right to criticize ideas like “math is racist.” That is both free speech (PSU must adhere to the First Amendment and academic freedom). And the “math is racist” meme certainly does deserve examination, criticism, and, to my mind, a fair amount of ridicule.

As for the worry that “one of these stunts will get someone hurt”, it’s ironic that Ruth is part of the group who is always claiming that speech itself is considered harm. She’s already been hurt!

The details of this kerfuffle are described in a document by the Oregon Association of Scholars. which links to the following resolution of the PSU Faculty Senate which was the result of the two retweets (click on screenshot):

Part of the resolution:

While we all have the right to express our opinions in accordance with The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are limitations to free speech when it violates our laws and when it results in a true threat for an individual or a group of individuals or incites actions that will harm others. It is crucial to ensure that the members of our academic community can learn and work in an environment that is free of hate and hostility.

Whereas When faculty become active in, or even endorse or tacitly support, public campaigns calling for the intimidation of individual colleagues they disagree with, or with an entire faculty they disagree with, they are undermining academic freedom. Intimidation and explicit or implied threats to physical integrity are not accepted as academic methods.

. . . . BE IT RESOLVED

As Faculty, we must be thoughtful in our exercise of academic freedom and guard against its cynical abuse that can take the form of bullying and intimidation. This kind of abuse of academic freedom destroys academic freedom by eroding the trust that makes possible open dialogue, which is a central tenet in university intellectual life as well as in the practice of participatory democracy more broadly.

Again, this meeting was occasioned solely by the two taken-down retweets by Gilley and Boghossian who, needless to say, are not greatly beloved at PSU. And the resolution accuses them, though it doesn’t mention them by name, of intimidation, making threats, and academic bullying.

None of that was true; remember that this comes from just two social media posts taken down at the behest of the Dean. This is, pure and simple, chilling of free speech and academic freedom (which, though Ruth claims are not the same thing, are so closely related—identical in this case—that one must be careful about distinguishing them).

At any rate, Peter (full disclosure: he’s a friend of mine) wrote a response to Ruth’s piece in the Chronicle, and it’s quite good. The take-home lesson is in the title, and we should all make this a mantra:

I’ll give two quotes. Given that two retweets brought down official opprobrium of PSU on Boghossian and Gilley, Peter is quite measured in his response (the bolding is mine):

By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny. The academic process depends on having the freedom not only to state ideas but also to criticize other ideas. Limiting criticism in academia is tantamount to telling potters they can make all the clay pots they want so long as they never use clay. This is particularly disturbing because the claims in question — almost always about race, gender, and sexual orientation — are presented as knowledge and then used to influence public policy.

It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. Civil engineers are not claiming that criticism of truss bridge design is harassment. Physicists are not claiming they’re being persecuted when their contributions to quantum theory are criticized. Philosophers are not claiming victimization when their arguments about free will are scrutinized. Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.

The internal rationale for calling criticism “harassment” is as simple as it is absurd: because these Critical Theories are believed to proceed from one’s “social position” as an occupant of some “identity category,” the person and her ideas are treated as though they overlap. They do not. Thinking they do is a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, not least institutions that are nominally devoted to Truth. The backbone of rational thought is separating people from ideas to protect the dignity of the former while being free to criticize the latter.

Boghossian defends the use of Twitter as a way of alerting people to what’s going on inside the academy, and also as a way of making arguments—not the best venue for extended discourse, though! However, scholarly journals aren’t accessible to the public. Boghossian ends like this:

There’s a dual irony in Ruth’s accusations. First, if there’s an institutionalized rule that criticism of academic work is harassment, how would Critical Theory, which is entirely predicated on criticizing existing systems, have emerged? It would not have. The ability to criticize has enabled the existence of disciplines in which my colleagues work, and from which they have framed criticism as harassment. Second, Ruth is doing to Gilley and me exactly what she claims we are doing to our colleagues — criticizing us. The only difference is, she takes aim at us, while we take aim at ideas.

16 thoughts on “Is social-media criticism by professors bullying and a violation of academic freedom?

  1. Note that neither Gilley nor Boghossian engaged in this pile-on and did not encourage it; others took up the issue and (I didn’t follow this) there was a social media pile-on …

    Do we know that there actually was a pile-on of the sort of that could be regarded as “intimidation” (and/or “doxxing, hate mail, physical harassment, and death threats”)?

    I don’t particularly trust people like Ruth to report such interactions fairly.

  2. This is generally the case so that one might consider it a part of the laws of nature: when woke people “call out” someone, and they do this with the most extreme labels, racist, sexist, misogynist or transphobe, this is always fair and mild criticism, or doesn’t even happen (because Cancel Culture is not real). If it did happen, it was acceptable, and the consequences are anyway negligible. After all, speech “has consequences” as they always ominously say.

    However, when there is mounting pushback, when the tides turn or the scutiny falls on the woke, it is always harassment. All the talk about “… has consequences” is forgotten. Many called them “crybullies” for such behaviour.

    Harassment is always wrong, regardless if who is on receiving end. I oppose woke culture because it is defacto advocating for harassment on social media, affirmatively called “call out” and generally in favour of firing employees, doxxing and other intimidation tactics. While they are correct to also complain about harassment, I cannot take them seriously, because they are such utter hypocrites about it.

    1. “However, when there is mounting pushback, when the tides turn or the scutiny falls on the woke, it is always harassment. All the talk about “… has consequences” is forgotten. Many called them “crybullies” for such behaviour.”

      Indeed. That was the playbook of the #FTBullies (PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Svan, and many others) a decade ago. The tactics were not new, but it was what destroyed the atheist/skeptic movement that I followed and was when I noticed what was happening. When Sikivu Hutchison called Richard Dawkins a “white supremacist” on a panel, and there was no pushback, I knew it was “game over.” You could say it was when i got “woke” to this phenomena.

      Since then, it has only got worse, and has infected every single movement.

      1. Greta Christina and Stephanie Svan are no longer part of the Freethought Blog network – I’m not sure why. Ophelia Benson, however, had a catastrophic falling out with FTB in which she experienced the full force of #FTBullies herself. She’s on the wrong side of the “are trans women women” debate.

        There are a lot of people who Myers previously respected and who he used to count as friends who are now persona non grata. I wonder if he’s ever considered the possibility that they are right and he is wrong.

  3. Boghossian’s paragraph

    “It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. […] Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.”

    puts it extremely well.

    1. Before I got to that part of the article, I had thought to coin JeremyP’s fourteenth law which goes “if a rational argument against an idea is claimed to be harassment of the idea’s proponents, it’s because they can’t refute it”.

      As usual, I see better people than me got there first.

  4. From reading Professor Boghossian’s piece, I wonder for whom the PSU president has five minutes to spare, if not for Professor Boghossian. From Dr. Ruth’s job description, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen “grievance” associated with “academic freedom” in an academic job title. In this case, the former seems to heavily predominate over the latter.

  5. It’s not difficult to distinguish criticism of ideas from that of individuals, as long as the criticism is properly phrased so as not to allude to any individual espousing the idea. This should not be a problem. It’s a shame that college administrators can’t seem to grasp this.

    1. Is it really this easy? Isn’t someone espousing racism a racist, and someone with a fascist ideology a fascist? Are we not supposed to identify people in this way? Why not? And how do we criticize an ideology without inevitably, if sometimes implicitly, also identifying and criticizing the holders of it? And how should we investigate or report about who the proponents of various ideologies are without even alluding to them?

      1. “Alluding to” is different from treating someone as inherently and inextricably tied to an idea. People can change their views. Bad ideas can be abandoned. It can be hard but you have separate these things if you hope to change minds.

  6. “By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny.”

    And this is one of the most critical tactics for the Woke. Don’t want someone debating the merits of various forms of immigration law? Call any questioning of the Woke position “racist.” Don’t want discussion of whether people with male bodies should be allowed to compete in women’s sports? Call any discussion of it “transphobic.” Don’t want people to do research in a given area, from the spike in crime caused by BLM riots and policies to the antisemitism problem among the Woke? Call all such research “harm,” “violence,” “erasing [x] voices,” or any number of -isms and -phobias. Don’t want people to criticize certain areas of research? Do the same. Stamp out all discussion and ensure that only your position is allowed to be espoused, and try to get people fired or destroy them in other ways if they don’t toe the line.

    It’s totalitarian in the purest sense of the word: it’s not enough that people keep quiet; they must also sit through indoctrination sessions and profess the “correct” views, and they sure as hell better not stand up and say they have a problem with any of this, lest they be punished. It is totalizing. It’s George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or with the terrorists.”

    The Woke don’t debate or discuss. They tell you what’s right and wrong. The very idea of questioning or debating is anathema to the Woke religion. Plus, debate is a tool of whiteness.

  7. I almost freaked out when I read this since PSU is Penn State University (established 1869). But then I saw it was after thought school (established 1948).
    I could also point out that UC, the University of California, was established in 1868, while the University of Chicago was established in 1890. But I won’t.

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