When Free Speech Dismantles Diversity Initiatives

Photo by Newtown grafitti | CC by 2.0

Case # 1:

In October 2017, Drexel University’s administration unilaterally suspended Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor whose area of specialty is race and politics. His tweet about the Las Vegas shooting by Stephen Paddock, led to a campaign of harassment against him. In his series of tweets Ciccariello-Maher blamed “Trumpism” and the entitlement of white men for carrying out acts of violence.

Case # 2:

Bill Mullen, professor of American Studies and an organizer for the Campus Anti-Fascist Network requested that Purdue University (where he teaches) investigate documented incidences of White Supremacy on campus.  What Mullen received instead was a response from Purdue’s President Mitch Daniels saying, “I have spent considerable time replying to multiple messages from citizens who find your various pronouncements abhorrent and unacceptable and demand that you be sanctioned or expelled from the university entirely.”

Case #3:

On October 10th, 2017, students at Columbia University protested and disrupted a far right speaker, Tommy Robinson, an anti-Islam British activist.

Columbia University is now formally investigating the student activists.

College campuses are clearly on the frontline of the right wing’s battle against diversity and multiculturalism. These incidents at Drexel, Purdue and Columbia add to the larger narrative unfolding in colleges and university campuses across the country where students and faculty voices protesting the attacks on diversity initiatives are being threatened from both within and outside the institutions. In Ciccariello-Maher’s case, Drexel has blamed the professor’s statement for “losing some prospective students and donors because of the furor over the tweets.”

Taken together, these above narratives expose the precarious and tenuous position of our institutions as they wrestle with diversity initiatives, viewpoint diversities, left oriented critiques of free speech, while aspiring to maintain a revenue generating market model of education.

The Past Tense of Diversity Initiatives

By gone are those days when college Presidents announced their policies of “zero tolerance” for racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic provocations. What we have now, instead, are concerned voices of administrators, telling faculty in their memos that we need to be more mindful of our conservative students and speakers as they exercise “view point diversity.” The conservative base of students, we are told, are reluctant to speak up about their ideologies because they fear being silenced, or even vilified by their left leaning Marxist faculty and other students.

Vilified or silenced by whom? Weren’t diversity initiatives conceived to make legitimate spaces for promoting dialogues about forms of marginality and social justice issues? Weren’t these the same initiatives created to include the gender and identities of those that were historically marginalized?

While these above questions have remained unanswered, some colleges have new strategies to minimize vilification or silencing of conservative students on campus. Their plan: Enroll more conservative students.  According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “College With Liberal Reputation Wants to Recruit Conservative Students” the new president of Warren Wilson College, Lynn M. Morton wants “the college to seek out and enroll conservative students.”

Warren Wilson isn’t the only place trying to recruit conservative students these days. Some college administrators have said that the 2016 elections of Donald Trump have intensified these recruitment efforts.  There is fear that colleges and universities are not serving the conservatives who make up a majority in this country.

While institutions are crumbling under the pressures of their conservative base, so are the various diversity initiatives. Like Warren Wilson, colleges are beginning to actively recruit conservative students by claiming that these conservative demographics are our “new minority.”

The arrival of the “new minority” have also brought to the stage new speaker and new organizations; Jordon Peterson, Charles Murray, Milo Yiannopoilos, Richard Spencer, Professor Watchlists, Turning Point USA, Club Evropa, Vanguard America.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”

The dormancy of the free speech debate during the last eight years of Obama’s presidency has been replaced by not just free speech, but offensive free speech. This has coincided with the historical rise of extreme right wing ideologies and their fascist take-over of identiterian politics globally.

Proponents of identiterian politics are using outright “hate” speech as “free speech” where figures like Milo Yiannopoulos can say, “Now, some of the most dangerous places for women to be in the world are modern, Western, rich European countries. Why? One Reason. Islamic Immigration – it’s got to stop.”

And then there is Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt right movement whose vision of an ideal society is to build a White society.  Vanguard America, right after the election of Donald Trump distributed posters at the University of Central Florida that read: “Imagine a Muslim Free America,” and “Free Yourself from Cultural Marxism.”

It has become amply clear to those who are fighting against fascism and White supremacy on college and university campuses, that the agenda of groups like alt-right and some conservative campus clubs like Identity Evropa, Young Americans for Freedom, Vanguard America, Turning Point USA (that also maintains the Professor Watchlist) is to not promote any view point diversity.  Instead, their sole agenda is to disrupt the legal and cultural protections to protect justice by asking for platforms to legitimize ideologically racist and culturally conservative indoctrination in the name of  “political diversity.”

While diversity initiatives that emerged in the early 90’s pushed for university curriculums to disrupt Whiteness, colonialism and imperialism as dominant epistemologies circulating in the humanities and the social sciences, Trump’s election marks a serious threat to such initiatives.

The turbulent 60s and 70s that gave rise to departments such as Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and various social justice related movements on college campuses (under the broad banner of “multiculturalism”) challenged Eurocentric models of knowledge.  Such diversity-based models of education are obviously offensive to those who want to “Make American White Again.”

So they have begun a well-funded effort to invoke the principles of “free speech” to dismantle various diversity initiatives that have provided equal opportunities to the protected classes.

Here, the issue is less about freedom of speech, but freedom of expression as a strategy to provoke.  While freedom of expression may sound harmless, speech acts does affect and even harm.  The nursery rhyme logic of free speech as postulated by the right, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is discernibly false.

What these members that are proponents of free speech fail to acknowledge is that “freedom of expression’ does not give anyone an unfettered permission to say anything that want.  Ulrich Baer in his widely read New York Times opinion piece “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” reminds us that free Speech on a college and university campus, have a responsibility to “[balance] the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections . . . should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.”

Free Speech, Civility and the “disrupters”:

While the debate on free speech is dominating on most college campuses, we are also been told that offensive speech (if it has to be tolerated) then we must do so using “civility” in a “mutually respectful” climate.  Repeatedly civility is used as a smoke screen to silence speech that wants to dismantle racism, white supremacy and fascism.

In 2015, The Nation published “The New Thought Police: Why are campus administrators invoking civility to silence critical speech?” by Joan W Scott. Scott reminds us by quoting social theorist Nancy Fraser that, “Once a certain space or style of argument is identified as civil, the implication is that dissenters from it are uncivilized. “Civility” becomes a synonym for orthodoxy; “incivility” designates unorthodox ideas or behavior.”

Under the current political climate and especially on college campuses, any critique or outrage over discriminatory and vile rhetoric marks one as being “uncivil.” Organizations like Charlie Kirk’s the Professor Watchlist maintains a list of more that 200 + faculty members for their leftist ideas and viewpoints that are deemed as an indoctrination of leftist ideologies into the classrooms.  The Watchlist’s self proclaimed mission is to to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Similarly Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: FIRE blacklists institutions that have disinvited conservative speakers, marking them as the free speech violators. Under the banner of being crusaders for free speech, FIRE’s major grants, as Jim Sleepr exposed in “The Conservatives Behind the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade” “come from the ultra-conservative Earhart, John Templeton, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations; the Scaife family foundations; the Koch-linked Donors Trust.”   These are the same funders that also support and fund “conservative campus-targeting organizations that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the David Horowitz Freedom Center (whose “Academic Bill of Rights” would mandate more hiring of conservative faculty and would monitor professors’ syllabi for “balance”) and Campus Watch (which tracks and condemns liberal professors’ comments on the Middle East).”

Backed by powerful and conservative funders, in Trump’s America there is a growing fear that if one challenges the white supremacists and their narratives of culturally and morally oppressive stances, such disruptions are seen as “too disruptive,” “too offensive,” “too uncivil.” They are perceived as an infringement on the “invited” speakers right to free speech.

The alt-right, their donors, and their many followers have overwhelmingly targeted scholars of color, and those opposing racism, sexism, white supremacy and fascism.

June 2017 such an “uncivil disruptor” was African American Trinity college professor, John Eric Williams. Williams had shared an article in Fusion called “Bigoted Homophobe Steve Scalise’s Life Was Saved by a Queer Black Woman.”  He later shared another article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die” and used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag.

As a result of his hashtag, Williams received violent threats.  Rather than Trinity defending his right to free speech, administration put him on administrative leave.

Emerging Discourse on Silencing:

Perhaps we need to start thinking seriously about not the role of free speech, but a discourse of silencing and sanctions as a form of disciplining that has emerged in responding to campus climates that have historically suppressed ideas and positions of exclusions.

A debate on free speech and even offensive free speech on college and university campuses should not be at the cost of what we do not value and cannot value. Cheryl Harris has poignantly said in “More Than What Is: What Ought to Be,” “Defending the right to speak is theoretically distinct from defending the underlying message” but over and over, those who protest the racist character of the event are subject[ed] to the most strident critique.”

To not univocally denounce racist, homophobic, sexist, and Islamophobic speech, but to allow it on campuses as “viewpoint diversity” is at best an ethically irresponsible gesture.


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Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt is a professor at Linfield College in Oregon and also the author of the book The Postcolonial Citizen: The Intellectual Migrant. Her most recent article in CounterPunch was titled as On Being the “Right Kind of Brown.”

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