Remember Bright Sheng, a distinguished professor and composer at the University of Michigan? I reported on him earlier, also linking to the takes of John McWhorter and Cathy Young about the incident Sheng was involved in. At that time, Sheng was in the process of being demonized at Michigan (he probably still is). Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago, quoting the student newspaper:
A blackface incident has occurred at the University of Michigan, involving, Bright Sheng, Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition and a well known composer and pianist. But he happened to show the wrong film. As the student paper, the Michigan Daily, reports:
On Sept. 10, Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Olivia Cook attended her first composition seminar with Sheng. This semester, the course focused on analyzing Shakespeare’s works, and the class began with a screening of the 1965 version of “Othello.” Cook told The Daily she quickly realized something seemed strange, and upon further inspection, noticed the onscreen actor Laurence Olivier was in blackface.
“I was stunned,” Cook said. “In such a school that preaches diversity and making sure that they understand the history of POC (people of color) in America, I was shocked that (Sheng) would show something like this in something that’s supposed to be a safe space.”
The predictable outcry occurred, with claims that the film made the students feel unsafe. This resulted in Sheng’s removal as a teacher of undergraduates. He apologized to the faculty and students, but his apology was considered insufficient. Sheng says that he didn’t realize the cultural offense conveyed by blackface. As the Dean of Sheng’s division revealed in an email, “the incident had been reported to the Office of Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX.” Sheng will be lucky if he’s not fired for showing that movie.
As McWhorter points out, the best explication and analysis of this incident is by Cathy Young at Arc Digital, who concludes that Sheng’s screening of the movie induced “moral panic” and a “witchhunt,” with Sheng being the witch.
Well, the good news is that the University of Michigan is not going to punish him further, though he was removed from teaching that class and the school had begun an investigation (believe me, that itself is punishment!). The not-so-good news is that the University’s statement on Sheng, below, supposedly an affirmation of the school’s support for free speech, is a Weasel Manifesto, trying to satisfy everyone at the same time, both the Offender and the Offendees, as well as us free-speech diehards. Click on the screenshot to read:
The University first affirms that Sheng is in the clear, and that Michigan is in favor of free speech, though adding that “the depiction of a white actor in blackface is deeply offensive” without being presented “in proper context. . . and with care and sensivitity.” Of course, there’s no way Shen could have presented it at all without getting in trouble, but let’s give Sheng a break. Here’s his exculpation:
The University of Michigan strongly supports free speech and academic freedom. We also work hard to establish an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students.
Bright Sheng, the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, is a highly valued member of the faculty of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the university community. He continues to teach composition lessons this semester in SMTD and is scheduled to teach a regular course load during the upcoming winter term. No sanctions have been imposed on him.
Then it turns weaselly. First of all, they call for ENGAGEMENT and conversations:
SMTD will host a series of facilitated conversations to help community members better understand the different perspectives involved in this particular instance and Professor Sheng has said he would welcome an opportunity to meet with students in the seminar.
“I appreciate the engagement of Dean Gier and Professor Sheng in this difficult issue and also our students and faculty who have expressed their views to us. The dean and faculty of SMTD are intently focused on ensuring that their courses actively engage students with discussions of race and racism. We can all learn as we work together to be a more inclusive community,” said Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Susan M. Collins.
Does anyone doubt that these conversations will have only one approved viewpoint—that they won’t be free exchanges of views but propaganda with a preordained “consensus”? This will not be an exercise in free speech, and the dog whistle (sorry, GOP) is “we work together to be a more inclusive community.” For what Michigan hasn’t realized is this: Inclusivity and freedom of speech are not always compatible.
For example, if you question affirmative action, or “affinity housing,” you will offend minorities while exercising freedom of speech on genuinely debatable issues.
Still Michigan keeps up the pretense:
Vice Provost for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Robert M. Sellers noted that “being a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community is not anathema to academic freedom.”
“It does mean that we must intentionally work together as a community to understand what academic freedom looks like when we include voices that have traditionally not been at the table. It will not be easy work, but it is essential work. Who better than the University of Michigan to lead this conversation?” said Sellers, the Charles D. Moody Collegiate Professor of Psychology.
Well, how about any of the several free-speech organizations like FIRE, or someone like ex-ACLU president Nadine Strossen? Yes, diversity and inclusivity are not inevitably anathema to academic freedom, but they often are. You can discern that from all the imbroglios on college campuses in the last few years. Case in point: Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying getting piled on by Evergreen State students (and their own faculty) because they refused to leave campus on the “day of absence”. Both of those professors are antiracists, but are also committed to free speech. The result: they exercised their free speech, which brought them both physical and verbal threats. Both eventually left the college.
It’s time for people to stop insisting that you can have your inclusivity and your free speech too. The First Amendment is there for reasons, one being that very little political speech is completely inoffensive. Divergent viewpoints are prima facie examples of “non-inclusivity”.
And look who’s going to be in charge of the “conversation” at Michigan that will supposedly reconcile DEI and free speech:
In further support of the need for continued discourse, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and our National Center for Institutional Diversity will work with other university partners to convene a broader universitywide discussion around the challenges and opportunities associated with adhering to principles such as academic freedom while becoming a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community. The issues raised are not exclusive to higher education; they are fundamental to American democracy.
This is like putting a fox in charge of a conversation between chickens. There is only one possible outcome.