Rebels Without a Cause: The Assault on Academic Freedom

In a recent article in Anthropology Today, “Anthropology of Law, Fear, and the War on Terror,” Laura Nader analyses how words have been treated as violence under U.S. policy in its “Global War on Terror.”  Nader examines the ideology of guilt through a language which is deemed “terrorist-like” which has resulted in witch hunting in the U.S. since the Patriot Act, such as the case of Sami Al-Arian, a professor at the University of South Florida.  After being interviewed on The O’Reilly Factor  just two weeks post-9/11, Al-Arian found himself accused of supporting Islamic jihad even though the interview consisted of his explaining jihad and correcting O’Reilly on his misinterpretations of what the term “jihad” means.  After eleven years of trial, over five years in prison—many of which were spent in solitary confinement, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty in exchange for his release and deportation to Turkey.   In 2014 a federal court dropped all charges against Al-Arian, yet he was still deported in 2015.

This format has been replicated around the planet to include countries like Canada, Morocco, and beyond where innocent men are imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, and even killed merely because of being suspected of sympathising with terrorists despite their not having committed any act of violence whatsoever.  They are committed to guilt because of the words they have employed are deemed to fall outside the acceptable political orthodoxy.

Nader writes:

Since 9/11, US government agents have arrested hundreds of people, mainly American Muslims and Middle Easterners, and mainly men. Accusations become the same as guilt. Notice the words used: words that are not simply speech acts, but speech that can kill – ‘deadly words’. During the McCarthy witch-hunts the communists were the Devil. President Reagan spoke of the ‘evil empire’ in the 1980s. With President George W. Bush we hear words like ‘Crusade’, ‘axis of evil’, ‘God v. the Devil’, ‘terrorists’. A climate of fear, moral panic, is raised with talk of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, ‘war president’, ‘enemy combatants’, ‘secret prisons’, ‘secret laws’, ‘secret evidence’, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and more. War becomes a fight between good and evil. Witch-hunting is based on words like terrorist. Thus it is not surprising that Islamophobia is on the rise (26-27).

Carried through from the Bush presidency to Obama’s and now the current Trump administration, we are not seeing any shift in international policy on guilt through language.  “Words as violence” is a mantra that as a tool of the right resulted in its exercise of extreme violence and was seamlessly carried over into the Obama administration with a certain ease.

Over the past sixteen years this format of “guilt through language” has troublingly been co-opted far outside the workings of the White House and the Pentagon.  Recent events evidence how this strategy has been employed by those in academia—from professors to students—who are taking language and casting it as violence, no matter the intent, no matter that the language being critiqued is entirely non-violent.  And this deployment of the “war on ideas” is being carried out by individuals who generally consider themselves “progressive.”

With the rise of safety pin, trigger warning, campus callout and no-platform cultures over the past several years, we are currently in the throes of a political miasma whereby many on the left are using totalitarian tactics which aim to abuse, shame, and cause professional and economic harm.  And in many cases all the above are consciously employed in order to bring about the real punishment whereby the original perpetrator remains with his hands clean, the assurance that his callout will result in a social media pile-on towards the unsuspecting victim. And what has this individual done?  She has merely taken a political position that goes against the current trend.
How have we arrived at this moment when right-wing rhetoric once employed to “root out” terrorists and convince entire populations that there are people who deserve to be invaded, occupied, and murdered is now being turned onto the domestic sphere?  The current academic culture which falsely labels “words as violence” is being employed to shame scholars who write about race and gender, to oust speakers from their speaking events, and to cause terror to a professor who refuses to be caste out of a university campus because of the colour of his skin.

The recent events of the witch hunt against Rebecca Tuvel, assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis are well-known to those in academia.  Thanks to Jesse Singal’s well-researched article on this story, this sort of academic hazing is now familiar with a wider audience far outside academia.  And many people are gravely concerned by that which is passing as academic rigour is in fact ideological cronyism.  Singal hones in on the problem that sparked the abuse of Tuvel from within academia:

Starting with (1) [that “Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay”] as fashionable as it is in some academic circles to refer to certain arguments as “violence,” it’s important to pause for a second and reflect on how misguided and counterproductive this sort of framing is. Trans people face the threat of real, physical violence every day in huge parts of this country and this world. A nerdy philosophy paper trying to suss out the specifics of identity and identity-change is not an act of violence, and it’s really unfortunate that this sort of “speech is violence” language has caught on given that it makes it much easier for opponents of trans rights (or the rights of other marginalized groups) to sweep away legitimate claims of violence as mere hysteria.

If anything, Tuvel’s paper makes the argument for the legitimacy of identity politics by extending the logic of that theory towards Dolezal’s assumed self-identification as a black woman.  Instead of receiving the support of those in the humanities who have long buttressed arguments that support identity politics over historical materialist assertions which argue the body as more legitimate than self-identification, Tuvel was targeted by over 800 scholars from various fields in a rather mean-spirited attempt to denigrate her work all because disagreement is now framed as violence.  And worse, this letter brought about an onslaught of social media harassment whereby these academics could keep their hands clean while emboldening others to do their bidding.

Yet, prevailing ideologies tend to wrangle control within departments and entire disciplines and everyone is getting harmed in the process. When a paper which posits an analysis of transracialism is presented to a philosophy journal, peer-reviewed, and published, it seems to me that the logical thing to do when we  disagree with the article at hand is simply to publish a followup paper.  The merits of further academic papers in response cannot be overstated here because this is not only the obvious response to intellectual disagreement—it is the only ethical response, even if the ethos of said paper is entirely rejected by the cultural left establishment.  The lunacy of hounding a young scholar by hundreds of senior scholars with an axe to grind seems at best unprofessional and at worst anti-intellectual, demonstrative of the cruel and punishing environment that academia has become.

But this circus of punishment is far from over.  More recently is the case of Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at the Evergreen State College, where after years of abiding by the university’s long-standing tradition of its Day of Absense, this year’s observation of this day was altered. Weinstein elaborates in his op-ed piece how a massive shift in praxis was requested:

Day of Absence is a tradition at Evergreen. In previous years students and faculty of color organized a day on which they met off campus—a symbolic act based on the Douglas Turner Ward play in which all the black residents of a Southern town fail to show up one morning. This year, however, the formula was reversed. “White students, staff and faculty will be invited to leave the campus for the day’s activities,” the student newspaper reported, adding that the decision was reached after people of color “voiced concern over feeling as if they are unwelcome on campus, following the 2016 election.”

With this new information in hand, Weinstein wrote an email response in March to the university’s faculty and staff in response to this call for white faculty, staff, and students to leave the campus, stating:

There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles . . . and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away.  The first is a forceful call to consciousness which is, of course, crippling to the logic of oppression.  The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself…On a college campus, one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.

The reaction to Weinstein’s email has been fierce since Tuesday with students demanding that he resign, asking the administration of Evergreen State College to fire him, and as he discusses in this interview with Dave Rubin he details the threats of physical violence and kidnapping he and his family have faced.  It is worth watching this interview in its entirety as Weinstein is particularly articulate about what is going on within what he characterises as a “left-leaning campus” and the left in general.

For instance, Weinstein notes the growing culture of fear on campuses where there is a “tremendous amount of structure inside the larger coalition of people of colour” within which relationships are obscured to the outside. He notes that there is a “tension between…a very aggressive vision, on the one side, and a much more traditional vision of equity on the other… But the tension is not visible, and because it is not visible there is a sense that this is a two-sided issue.”  He intelligently deconstructs the theatre of his character assassination in this interview with Rubin, treating the issue with great integrity while linking the actions of a few students of colour to a larger group of even angrier white anarchists, the latter who dominate much of the video footage readily available to watch online.

Sharing various insights into what he has experienced this week from students and colleagues, Weinstein’s experiences mirror, in many ways, the onslaught of aggression that Tuvel faced from her colleagues just over a month ago.  Weinstein deconstructs the surreal theatre unfolding around him, stating:

I feel like the only thing that makes this not a literal witch hunt is that there aren’t literal witches.  But this is very much this mindset which has unfolded here. But in this case there are three witches being demonised on our campus—and I am one of them.  The chief of police, Stacy Brown, is another and Andrea Seabert who is our grievance officer, they have demonised for other reasons. And the fascinating thing is that in all of these cases, the individual being demonised is not just not guilty of what they have been accused of, but the inverse of it. And it is shocking.  If it was just me, it would be lost in the noise. But to see it repeated three times is remarkable.  

Caricatured images of the chief of police were circulated by the angry students, an image which shows a skimpily dressed woman with a KKK hood on her head.  The message was clear as each person became victimised for being exactly what they were not.  Weinstein theorises the possible causes which results in individuals being targeted in the way that he and the two other women been vilified:

What causes you to end up in the cross hairs is some value that you hold deeply enough that you’re willing to stand up for it. In order to shut down people who will endure harm over a value, you have to level a deeply stigmatising accusation.  It is exactly the people who are the least deserving of those labels that have to be silenced…You have to work the hardest to silence them. So, they break out the big guns and this results in the inversion of the truth.  

Critiquing the media specifically, Weinstein points to the lack of nuance in how news stories are constructed, such that if any narrative of equity might be present, the media latches onto this and is entirely unable to address the complexity of issues beyond.  Nuance is lost on identity politics because it relies on the rigidity of that which it sets out to topple.  Paradoxically, it topples nothing and reconstructs newer edifices of power through the negotiation of personal experience all steeped in the rationale that the individual who evokes offence and violation has the upper hand.

Not coincidentally, Weinstein mentions that only the centrist and right-of-centre media has covered his story. No left-wing media sources have, as yet, contacted him.  It should come as no surprise that media outlets are staunchly partisan and today news is driven by clickbait wherein there is a structural tautology of what the reader desires to read: news that fits ideology, ideology which formulates news. It is the perfect capitalist wet dream. And most identitarians have no idea that the ostensible leftist politics they have assumed are built into a larger framework of materialist culture where even, as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe once coined, “antagonistic articulatory discourses” are woven into the fabric of mass capitalism.  Thus “words as violence” is not only the mantra for identity politics, “words as violence” is feeding into the very structural powers of right-wing systems of power.  You can even buy rainbow safety pins on Etsy, the contemporary rosary that speaks to the believer’s faith in the entire alphabet soup.

Identity politics attempts to supplant material reality with an essentialist reading of the individual which relies upon denying the social constructions of these identities while conterminously building up the notion that this identity is inherent, felt. Identity politics is a discourse which functions precisely to reify subjectivity such that any questioning of this identity ends up being answered with claims that the question itself is “discursive violence.” Paradoxically the adherents to identity politics claim its ethos speaks for the oppressed group, but in reality it speaks for the individual.  For instance, while racially-motivated and sex-based acts of violence are known phenomena, even discussions in the classroom when teaching rape law have come under fire by aspiring attorneys in law school because of individuals who hijack these discussions as “violence”.  The bracketing of personal experience has made its mark in academia such that identity politics requires, much like religion, that the subject not question it, that she should just feel it and the truth will set the subject free.

These events within academia in the U.S. and the myriad speakers no-platformed in the UK in recent years (ie. Greer and Bindel) demonstrate that identity politics has merely taken the dialectic of power imbalances and has inverted it without undergoing the dialectical process itself.  Identity is also incredibly unyielding.  The construction of identity politics relies specifically on the neoliberal experience of the individual whereby it is impermeable to change, it never shifts, and it is entirely blocked off to dialogue with competing discourses.  This is what I call hypertrophic subjectivity—where each individual confers her own truth based on rigid notions of the singular identitied experience. Dare you question my experience, my right is to claim a violence that your words commit to me.  These are times of faith-based unreason where disagreement is understood as an obstruction to one’s freedom.  (I think to the tired phrasing of “Let’s agree to disagree” which merely contorts disagreement as agreement from the party who is uncomfortable to find herself before a person who refuses to be her mirror.)  Surely, we might begin to consider that one can both be free and in a state of disagreement or challenge.

Speaking with my friend, Geneviève, a few years ago, we framed our experiences as women who come from families where one parent is “white” and one parent is brown within this troubling scene of identity politics.  This conversation left us with several conclusions, one being that identity politics never could embrace us (or us it) because the very narrative which claimed to free the sexual or racial other, merely turned on its head the dynamic of who others and who is othered.  And logically our lives and bodies were such that no intractible narrative of identity would ever capture our subjectivity simply because identity politics, by attempting to break down homogenous notions of race, gender, and sexuality, ended up reconstructing newer monoliths of the same. In reviewing the problems of callout culture, the bashing of those who make materialist readings of the social, and the general atmosphere of intolerance for divergent opinions within academia, we came to realise that these social behaviours were the result of a hermetically sealed notions of selfhood whereby nothing permeates the discursive membrane separating individuals.

Identity politics requires that the subject remain frozen in time, immutable and vocal only when parroting the latest dogma, much of which is patently incomprehensible.  It is no wonder that one of the main scholars credited with creating the theory of identity politics, Judith Butler, in 1998 was awarded Philosophy and Literature’s first prize in its annual “Bad Writing Competition” which celebrates “bad writing from the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles.”  And as someone who has taught queer theory throughout my academic career, Butler’s Gender Trouble was the only text I could never teach entirely, having to assign graduate students only a chapter to read due to its inaccessible language.  One must wonder how so many scholars from various backgrounds in the humanities have produced such vast quantities of scholarship which now results in, a generation later, absolute incoherence on the one hand, and extreme rage directed at anyone who dares question these identitarian constructions or language.  Where racism and gender were to be undone by anti-essentialist reasoning, today we are instead given very essentialist notions of both race and gender, setting us back to Darwin.

While the value of the liberation of all oppressed groups should be the moral undertaking of any enlightened culture, the discussions which are necessary to effect this liberation have never really taken place productively as they have become diluted by narratives of the self, and more poignantly, narratives of the suffering self.  Now, when one reads scholarly articles, we are subjected to an almost MI6-like background report of the author by the author, where he must confess his ethnicity, check off his various privileges, and then plead guilty even before getting to the point of his article.  Engaging in scholarly discussions necessitates that the subject be invested in the culture of long introductions to clarify our essence, our guilt, and our vulnerability, first and foremost. And by so undertaking this process, we are ostensibly rinsing our sins of our forefathers away.  But these are mere political theatres that do nothing to enact political change.  Personal experience today trumps any sort of rational discussion—debate is treated as high treason and dare one effect a conversation that might advance toward disagreement, the discussions will surely be quickly terminated.  Guilt by using language incorrectly is met with a postmodern auto da-fè where the burning takes place largely on social media and academic Listservs.

Weinstein notes how language is used to turn the innocent into the guilty party, whereby reason is meaningless and debate is driven purely by emotions:  “The fact that the accusations they level have no content to them, tells you that they are actually tactical. They can turn you into a straw man, it doesn’t mean they have failed, just because they are incorrect about you, as long as the stigma attaches.”  He describes how these public hazings take aim at individuals using the most weighted words in our society, “bigot” and “racist,” to publicly brand the subject, to shame her into submission and silence in order to reproduce the dominant ideology.

Where Tuvel and Weinstein should become lessons to those on the left who traffic in identity, I fear that most will continue in their denial of the fact that identity politics is not that which will liberate us from oppressive structures, but that which results from them. What we are witnessing today is the struggle between those who are attempting to tackle the material structures that create oppressive realities and those who think that language is instrumental to overhauling social inequality.   It is not happenstance that rise of identity politics came about with the ascent of the free-market ideology where the cosmetic changes demanded by these language games failed to result in social change.  Identity politics has ultimately hoodwinked its very adherents, allowing them to believe that social revolution relies upon the deemphasis of the actual violence realised by social inequality while focussing its efforts on the “discursive violence” embroiled within the superficial terms of language.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: