The academy is under attack. Or so it seems. News stories seem to come in almost daily reporting academic witch hunts, disinvitations, demands for no-platforming, words that must not be used, ideas that must not be expressed, obstructive and violent protests, calls for firings and forced resignations at universities across the Anglophone world.
The recent controversy with Brett Weinstein at Evergreen State College has received a great deal of attention. The professor of biology had objected mildly to the suggestion that white people should absent themselves from campus for a day in reversal of a tradition in which students of color did so in protest of African Americans not being treated as equal members of society. Weinstein ultimately resigned following protests and threats which required him to call the police for his own safety. The campus needed to be closed for three days and graduation moved to another location. Many people saw parallels between this and the case of Nicholas and Erika Christakis in which highly emotional protests and calls for firing of both academics resulted after Erika wrote an email saying students should be able to use their own judgement about Halloween costumes and not be excessively concerned about potential offensiveness. They too resigned their roles. Christopher Rogers, dean of students at Fordham university also faced calls for his dismissal following his airing of a film which challenged the claim that there is a rape epidemic on US campuses and Michael Bonesteel resigned from his position teaching courses on comic books and outsider art at the School of Art Institute at Chicago after repeated complaints and the withdrawal of one of his courses for including texts and discussion deemed potentially hurtful to trans people without trigger warnings.
Highly aggressive protests of controversial figures on US campuses have also received a lot of media attention and these figures vary widely across the political spectrum. The social scientist, Charles Murray, whose work on race and IQ is the source of much fury was protested so aggressively when he tried to talk at Middlebury that Professor Alison Stanger, who was escorting him, suffered a neck injury. Christina Hoff Sommers, the “factual feminist” who criticizes feminist failures of factual accuracy and ethical integrity, is frequently aggressively protested and often requires security to speak on campus. Even the lesbian, gender fluid film director, Kimberly Pierce, was protested for her film Boys Don’t Cry which featured a cisgendered actor to play the leading trans character. Signs included “Fuck this cis, white bitch.”
Concerns about the hypersensitivity of students to potentially difficult ideas and language and the implications of this on the established purpose of universities as places for such discussions have been raised by many. A particularly good summary was by Judith Shulevitz in “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas.“ The concern about the narrowing of acceptable views is so widespread that Heterodox Academy was formed — a network of over 1300 academics who endorse the statement:
“I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic fields and universities currently lack sufficient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic field, my university, my department, and my classroom.”
Canada has also featured in many news stories about campus censorship with concerns being raised about changing attitudes towards free speech on campuses, student groups, including men’s rights groups being banned and the increase of obstructionist protests effectively halting planned events. The philosopher Peter Singer was prevented from speaking at the University of Victoria due to his views on disability and at the University of Toronto, professor Jordan Peterson’s rejection of gender neutral pronouns resulted in noisy protests, acts of malicious vandalism against him and calls for firing. At the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, a talk by Danielle Robitaille to the Criminology Students Association had to be cancelled amid security concerns that protests against her because she was part of Jian Ghomeshi’s legal team could be uncontainable.
In the UK, studies have found 90% of universities to censor speech with most of the pressure coming from student unions and to be centred around transgender debates, secularism/atheism, Israel and BDS, Lad culture and Islam. Cardiff University drew up a list of gendered words to be avoided, including “sportsmanship,” “mankind,” “forefathers.” An LSE student group were forced to cover up their tee-shirts depicting Jesus and Muhammad and a Christian group was temporarily banned from having a table at Balliol College’s Fresher’s Fair.
The ex-Muslim feminist and human rights activist, Maryam Namazie’s talk about Islamist extremism was disrupted by Goldsmiths Islamic Society, an action later supported by its Feminist Society. Goldsmiths also cancelled the feminist stand-up comedian, Kate Smurthwaite’s, show due to her opposition to decriminalizing prostitution. The radical feminist, Julie Bindel, was disinvited from Manchester Student Union due to a fear that her gender-critical views could be distressing to trans students and there were calls to disinvite Germaine Greer from speaking about women and power at the University of Cardiff for the same reason.
There is clearly much evidence of campus censorship and it has been common to describe this very simply as “leftist” or “liberal” (often used interchangeably in the US) censorship of conservatives. Whilst this certainly is part of the story, it does not seem to be the whole story. Evidence has been provided by academic faculty members that intimidation and threats can come from both right-wing and left-wing students but in terms of obstructive protests, calls for censorship, banning or firing, the justification appears to be a very specific leftist ideology and the targets to include both the right and the left. As seen above, gender-critical feminists and ex-Muslim critics of Islam have also been targeted. Gender-critical feminists are usually radical feminists, often referred to pejoratively as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” or “TERFs.” They are nearly always decidedly left-wing and include anti-capitalist analysis in their feminism. Ex-Muslim critics of Islam are politically diverse and Maryam Namazie is a communist. The situation on campus is clearly more complicated than a dominant left suppressing a minority right.
A recent survey done by Heterodox Academy also sheds doubt on a straightforward left vs right explanation. They asked students what they would feel comfortable to speak about in a small class of 20–30 students and, if fearful, what they feared. The first use of this “Fearless Speech Index” as they termed it revealed race to be the most feared topic of discussion among their American respondents and criticism of their peers the greatest fear. Unsurprisingly, they found conservatives the most afraid to speak but they also found that moderates were not too far behind them.
It is simply too reductive to call the driving force behind calls for censorship or punishment “left” or “liberal.” Whilst there is evidence that students as a whole are politically diverse or even largely apolitical, the principles underlying the calls for censorship by the student activists are very specific. They are based on a conception of society dominated by group identity and work on an understanding of systems of privilege and marginalization affecting those groups. They call upon the values of “intersectionality” — a framework for analyzing multifaceted composites of marginalized identity such as gender, race, sexuality and disability — and theoretically-specific concepts of “diversity” and “inclusion” which seek to ensure representation of all those identities.
This is a heavily theoretical form of Social Justice activism which draws on critical theory including intersectional feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory and critical analyses of ableism. Their core ideas are heavily influenced by the postmodernist theories of such intellectuals as Jean Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to argue for the power of language — specifically discourses – to construct social reality and situate groups in society within hierarchies of privileged or marginalized positions. Postmodernism was skeptical of large overarching narratives and western institutions such as the church but also of science. It called for “other ways of knowing” both factually and morally and considered both to be culturally relative.
These early postmodern ideas became more politicized in critical theory related to identity and also developed a strong activist element. Intersectionality is most commonly cited in tying all of these identities — gender, race, sexuality and disability — into an activist cause and seeking to increase the representation of women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and those with physical and mental disabilities in all fields of work and study. This becomes even more important when individuals possess a number of these “intersecting” marginalized identities. Activism focuses strongly on affirmative action, support of the members of these groups and eradication of prejudice, discrimination and discouragement of them whether explicit or implicit.
Due to the belief that language constructs social reality, ideas and speech which are perceived as detrimental to this cause of increasing representation of marginalized groups or disparaging of any of these identities are considered highly dangerous and may even be referred to as “violent.” Censorship of or punishment for the expression of such ideas, therefore becomes a necessary part of activism. Of course, it is quite possible for people to find value in intersectional forms of activism and associated ideas of diversity and inclusion without feeling the need to do this but this is the motivation of student activists who seek to censor and punish.
This very specific theoretical leftist activism is not content with targeting right-wing speech but will also seek to censor or punish left-wing, libertarian, centrist and independent ideas which do not adhere to its identity-based conception of Social Justice. Therefore, Bruce Gilley’s essay “The Case for Colonialism” came under intense fire but so too did Rebecca Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism.” Gilley’s argument is in clear contravention of postcolonial ideas which utterly condemn colonialism as an unqualified evil and he withdrew it with apologies under the pressure of intense criticism. The vilification of Tuvel was much more complicated. She had accepted trans identity and arguments for it and attempted to show how they could also work for transracialism. She had done so in the wrong language and was perceived as belittling both trans people and people of color with her argument which failed to condemn racial appropriation and associated trans people with it. 30 academics demanded its retraction in a letter which said “Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay.” Tuvel, who accepted so much of the critical theory and the principles connected to it was not spared in the least and the outrage was probably even stronger for her having engaged with the ideas “wrongly.”
These accounts of censorship and calls for punishment for dissenting ideas are alarming but, of course, only the most extreme cases make the news. The majority of academics and students with different viewpoints in universities experience no such dramatic consequences. My own experience of being such an undergraduate and postgraduate student in East London was much milder and criticism came almost exclusively from the lecturers. I was called “conservative” for saying that evolutionary psychology was valuable and “Dawkinsesque” for my criticism of religion. (I was delighted by this). I was accused of destining women to an awful beauty myth for saying that sexual selection was real and asked how black communities in the US would feel about my argument that race can be forgotten when common goals are employed. The criticism did not matter. I am far from conflict averse. But these comments were made in relation to my work. My attempt to write a criticism of postmodernism at undergraduate and do an evolutionary psychological reading at postgraduate were received badly. If I had persisted with this, I would have failed. Instead, I needed to produce very orthodox work to recover. I did recover. I won the Dean’s Outstanding Dissertation Award for use of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray in relation to Jacobean poetry. It tells us almost nothing about Jacobean poetry.
Since leaving university after my Masters and despairing of being able to do a PhD I could be proud of, I have written very critically about academic leftism, postmodernism, intersectional feminism and Social Justice activism. I have argued these to be divisive in their neglect of shared human experience and individuality and criticized the tendency to see “diversity” and “inclusion” solely in terms of identity and be intolerant of intellectual, political and ideological diversity. I have expressed concern about the increasing number of ideas and words that are deemed problematic, harmful or even violent and the authoritarian methods by which offenders are censored, vilified or punished for expressing them. Because I have written and tweeted about this problem generally as well as discussing my own experiences on campus, academics and students write to me to share theirs. They are not being threatened or vilified or ostracized or fired or failed, but they are self-censoring their views for fear of this.
Women write to me in the strictest of confidence and few were willing to allow me to share their experiences publicly and none under their own names. When I approached them asking if they would be willing for me to publish parts of their messages anonymously, most declined. Some deleted their messages and unfriended/followed me. Four women came forward when I put out a call for more personal accounts from female academics but two of them later became fearful and withdrew. Ultimately, six female academics and an administrator agreed to edit their correspondences to their own satisfaction and to have them published anonymously.
British Film and Media PhD student.
I am doing a PhD in a media and film related area in the north of England and I’m surrounded by gender and race critical theory. I think patriarchy replaced capitalism in the academy as a way to not deal with class / wealth inequality. There is an assumption that as a woman I am a feminist and want to look at everything through the lens of feminist theory. Postmodern intersectional theory dominates. Everything tends to be a discussion about why (insert any media text) is racist and/or sexist. Everything is a tool of “the patriarchy.” Often gender theory and queer theory is pushed onto historical texts which take them out of their original contexts. I do archival work and am guided by the evidence in the sources. I do not write in jargon and want to reach a wider audience with my work. I am aware this is deeply unfashionable in my field. There’s hardly any British conferences I can attend to present my work as they are always about race or gender theory.
I self-censor by not really integrating myself in the department and I don’t feel I fit in anyway (I’m not a middle class liberal). I don’t put anything political at all on Facebook for fear of retaliation. Everyone knows everyone else in my field and they are all on social media so I don’t interact with them over anything political. I stand my ground with my work though — I will not just do a thesis on postmodern gender theory simply because it is the trendy thing to do – trends come and go and I hope that archival research will stand the test of time. In the 70s psychoanalysis was all the rage in my field and now hardly anyone reads it, whereas the work grounded in primary sources are still key texts.
I fear I won’t get a job. It does affect my enjoyment as I’m aware I don’t fit in. I have already felt their wrath on other issues. I feel jaded that I am in an environment that claims to care so much about diversity except when it comes to opinion or social class.
I have always been very focused on my own research and studies, and always thought I was a feminist, since, for a long time, feminism for me meant equality. During my Master studies I made a lot of friends that study criminology (Foucault is very loved amongst criminologists in Brazil, apparently, and Butler is the new passion) and sociology. Those friends and colleagues are influencers. I have realized that a lot of them went deep inside the rabbit hole of intersectionality (saying stuff like “men don’t get to have a say in this”), and don’t shy away from publicly ostracizing people that strongly disagree with them (they appear to think it’s a good strategy). This affects me on a more personal than professional level, since I work with a subject PoMo activists are not very interested in. However, I know soon I’ll need a job and I don’t want to put myself in a complicated position for entering those “debates” online. In any case, I’m not looking forward anymore to working at a university if the prospect is assuming a defensive stance in lectures just to placate radicals.
I love to discuss ideas, but I have the impression they don’t. It’s weird, but I do end up treating them the same way I treat my deeply Catholic brother who is now impossible to reason with on some matters. There’s a lack of impartiality and clarity in most arguments, as well as a general unwillingness to discuss ideas without making use of confusing, ambiguous concepts. I met colleagues that refused to quote an author they dislike for personal reasons (such as the author being openly sexist) regardless of the quality of the paper. One time a colleague told me they received a paper to review (they worked at the time for a journal) and since the title featured “an important LGBT issue,” they thought it should be published. They said that before actually reading the paper and I pointed out that, aside from the title, the paper itself had to be good – kind of obvious you would think. I usually don’t hold back on discussions when I think I have a good point, but if the other person seems adamant and I know they’ll distort what I’m saying, then I’d probably refrain from speaking my mind. One thing that would compel me to not manifest my opinion is the fear of consequences and of being deliberately misjudged. I found a way of being far from such subjects in my career and intend to carry on like that.
American Mental Health counsellor
I have just started a master’s program in mental health counseling. In my program, our progress is marked by narrative evaluations rather than grades. At first, I thought this would be a freeing way to be assessed; in practice, though, I am reluctant to engage in classroom discussions for fear of how it may impact my professor’s opinion of me. Rather than question the common narratives of intersectionality, post-modernism, cultural relativism and the blank slate, I find myself observing rather than participating in the conversation, all the while trying not to let my silence reveal my skepticism. I evaluate every question before asking it. Will my professor see that I doubt some of the assumptions behind this narrative? Can I ask it in a way that doesn’t reveal my critical examination of what is being taught? If I can’t, I don’t ask. I don’t want to get a bad grade in this class and jeopardize my degree.
I just want to ask questions. We are taught that racial identity is a significant aspect to a person’s life, but we are also taught that we should be led by the client’s goals. However, if a client does not consider their race to be significantly impacting their life, we are encouraged to get them to think and talk about it—in effect, to suggest that it is more significant than they believe. I am being constantly asked to both think of myself and my clients and classmates in these terms
When I’m asked to evaluate my oppression/privilege based on identity markers but I don’t agree that I’m oppressed as a woman, I adopt a naive attitude rather than openly question the narrative that all women are oppressed by men. When my classmates and professor are raving about parents who raise their children without making their gender known, I do not ask that we also look at the potential harm that may be caused by this parenting strategy. When post-modernist thought is condensed into the statement that the therapist no longer thinks that he/she is the expert in the room, I don’t bring up what else post-modernism is. I don’t say that it is incompatible to want to help people and yet believe that there is no reliable way to measure better or worse in human experience.
This saddens me quite a bit; I really love discussing big ideas and I put a high value on the role that honest and difficult conversation can play in helping individuals (including myself) come to a better understanding of the world. This self-censoring is compromising my education. Right now, I’m keeping my head down as I work through this program. In the end, I hope to do more good in the world as a counselor with a degree than I would by strengthening a classroom discussion.
I am an Indian woman who undertook postgraduate study in medical anthropology in England. Having studied evolutionary anthropology at undergraduate level and received positive feedback, I was excited to study the ethical dilemmas behind cross-cultural, gender-specific health issues; the myriad of cross-cultural ideas pertaining to reproductive health strategies, moral issues of violence or fertility control rooted in sex and sexuality across the globe. I found the subjects confined to a prison cell; a prison cell built with bricks made of gender ideology and cemented by a deep fear of ethnocentrism.
The fluidity of gender was a core belief which needed to be adhered to but the use of factual, medical data was discouraged. The purpose of seminars was to over-complicate this one perception of gender, indulge the idea, marvel at its ambiguity, break it down in many ways and then do it all over again. My attempts to bring studies in endocrinology into a discussion of testosterone levels in athletes was received badly and I was told to go away and reconsider the complexity of gender and see why categories were unfair. My argument that the consequences of hormone treatments needed to be evaluated was simply dismissed. The fear of upsetting the gender studies students was a strong influence on this. There was also much anxiety about saying the wrong thing to the ethnic studies students and this also seriously limited discussion. During a lecture on an African community who practiced FGM due to a false belief that without it, the clitoris would continue to grow and become a penis and the girl become a man, I wanted to discuss the ethics of simply observing and not correcting this misconception. I was immediately informed that this was the worst form of ethnocentrism and a form of colonialism and we must respect that this is how they choose to define gender. The community did not have the information needed to make an informed choice but when I pointed this out, I was simply ignored and another question taken.
There was no room for any other ideas in medical anthropology and I began to feel afraid to voice any of my own thoughts. I was not threatened or directly ostracized or vilified but every contribution I made which did not fit the belief system was shut down immediately without discussion and another student asked to speak. I blamed myself for “not getting it” and felt ashamed of my inability to think in the right way. I felt that everyone else saw me as ignorant and unfit to practice anthropology. Although I had intended to go on to PhD and make a career in it, my experience in cultural anthropology disillusioned me with the field or made me doubt myself. I am still not sure which. I have to re-evaluate my goals now.
I am a female university administrator in the UK and have been observing with concern a growing obsession with labels which is shifting the responsibility for academic success from the student to the teaching and administration faculty. This is most evident on the grounds of mental health where increasing student complaints (most notably from women) accuse the university of failing to support them emotionally.
Studying for a degree is hard work and requires a great deal of commitment. Too often when a student is failing to achieve the grades they had anticipated, their natural reaction is to blame a “mental health condition” that adversely affected them and put them at a disadvantage rather than to question whether they have devoted sufficient time to their academic studies. No longer is the stress of assessment simply a reaction to the pressure of performing to the best of your ability. That stress is being labelled as depression and anxiety disorder. Of course, these conditions exist and are genuinely debilitating for many people, but resources are being over-stretched and not reaching the people who really need it because as a society, we have become obsessed with labels. There are a variety of support services available for students at our university, especially at institutions where they celebrate their inclusive and diverse student community. But the responsibility for achieving a degree seems to be shifting away from the student and is being laid at the feet of the University. Coping mechanisms for dealing with normal academic stress are non-existent. The student has developed a sense of entitlement. They often feel they are being charged £9000 a year for the privilege of Higher Education, so can demand to know what universities are doing to help carry them through to graduation? The rationale appears to be: “If I’m failing, you obviously haven’t done enough to support me.”
I agreed to discuss this issue anonymously but as an employee, questioning the increasing statistics of students registered with mental health is not something I feel comfortable doing. “Discrimination” is a term that provokes fear; not necessarily just from those who have directly experienced prejudice, but also from those who are constantly wary of being labelled “prejudiced” if they question the way Universities deal with the student body as a whole. Nevertheless, the question “Are increasing student complaints a result of a lack of support from universities or a by-product of a sense of entitlement and wanting to blame anyone but themselves for poor academic performance” needs to be asked.
I am a Caucasian woman, who works as an archaeologist and who hitherto has only been attracted to men. I am totally aware of the fact that two of the traits listed above can be considered as a “norm.” However I do not feel privileged within my field because of this. On the contrary, I find it limits what I can say and how. I fully understand that various minority groups (and women who really should not count as a minority) have been treated badly in the past and that current attitudes are a response to this. However, I am concerned that aggressive or abusive behavior towards people considered to have normative or dominant “identities” is being accepted as appropriate when in reality it is normalizing prejudice on the grounds of race, sex or sexuality. It is divisive and serves to legitimize prejudice and discrimination against women and minority groups. This behavior is both very offensive and also tends to scare people off. They only increase the status quo. One cannot live in the past. One can only learn from it after all.
I have at times tried to raise these issues and argue that we are all human beings with the same feelings and that prejudice of any kind should be considered unacceptable. I have suggested that we would do better to acknowledge past oppression and address any discrimination against minorities that remains but not live in the past as this can only serve to perpetuate an unequal status quo that we need to move on from. However, this invariably results in an appeal to identity and accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia and a wish to uphold white supremacy. Men who try to make the same point are accused of mansplaining. Discussion is made impossible.
We need to be able to discuss things and also to take in other people’s different opinions in order to come to an understanding of what works best. This, however, is made impossible because people who are in some way or another considered to have a privileged, normative identity are forced to censor themselves in order to avoid being hated upon or threatened.
Recently I have been feeling under pressure to conform to various strong, almost aggressive, feminist/liberal/diversity-related opinions on campus and I have been losing myself.
I am extremely open-minded and tolerant of most opinions, in fact I like to hear from people who hold opposing views to my own. That’s one of the reasons why I was attracted to academic study! I try to treat everyone fairly and equally in my daily life regardless of their race, gender, sexuality etc and I am critical of claims of discrimination/inequality that do not redress a balance but seek to promote a group or individual to an unfair advantage.
These opinions have the potential to be interpreted by observers as an intolerance or dislike of certain groups or individuals, but those who know me well know this is certainly not the case. I tend not to categorise my friends by what they are, but by who they are and if I am critical of them then I am critical of them as a person. They understand that my opinions can vary from theirs and they accept me for who I am. We have a rational and adult respect for each other and this allows us to live and work with each other in harmony.
However, I have discovered that this kind of mutual understanding is impossible to achieve on campus. I am repeatedly bombarded by extremely strong views regarding feminism and diversity in particular on campus, but when I have tried to test the water and let my own opinions slip then I have been shocked by the response. One male senior professor once heard me criticizing aggressive feminism and hauled me into his office for an hour long “telling off,” saying that no-one would want to work with me if I didn’t identify as a feminist and I might lose my job as a result. I was very shaken afterwards and the encounter stayed with me for a long time, so I decided that it was safer to self-censor in future. Now I do not tell colleagues that I am not a feminist and that I am critical of enforced equality because I fear that I will be ridiculed, cast out from amongst my academic peers and I may even lose my job. I deliberately agree with my colleagues on most things, even though I often fundamentally disagree and I am rarely true to my own beliefs on campus.
The greatest irony here is that the individuals who expend great energy ensuring that women on campuses are heard and that they have the ability to express themselves freely are the same individuals who have made me feel more oppressed than I have ever felt in my entire life.
Perhaps most poignant of all was the email I received from a Canadian historian who had agreed to contribute after chasing her up for several weeks. (Published with her permission.)
“Helen, I’m sorry and I apologize. I’ve drafted and redrafted that paragraph over a dozen times now, and I just cannot follow through. The truth is that I’m terrified to submit it. Please understand: I’m far from a coward, and I’m no stranger to standing up for what is right. In my life, I’ve dealt with bullies, hostile colleagues, and a stalker. I pursued a domestic violence case through the courts and took my employer to human rights tribunal. A few people of my (real life) acquaintance have called me fearless (I think ‘stubbornly indignant with zero tolerance for bullshit’ seems more accurate) … but I’m not fearless about this. What’s unfolding in the humanities, in North America — perhaps in the anglosphere more broadly — is tribal, retaliatory McCarthyism, and it’s a battle too far for me. (If I could make a career of standing up to it that would be one thing, but that seems even dicier than academia and I’ve nothing to fall back on).
Although my CV is very strong, my situation is somewhat precarious. I’ve not had an easy path to where I am now. I’m working class, and the first in my family to pursue an academic career. I started late and my disabilities potentially limit my prospects, and I’ve no partner to rely on for financial support if things go awry. Thus, I feel incredibly apprehensive of jeopardizing my future. I hope you understand.”
These correspondences and all those I am not able to show from women in academia who do not share the intersectional feminist ethos of their universities and fear punitive or social consequences if they express themselves freely feel led me to want to reach out to more women feeling this way and ask them questions. For this purpose, I devised a survey asking women in the academy who supported the general aim for equality but disagreed with intersectional approaches and found they had to self-censor those views to tell me about it. The results of this will be published in the second part of this article, coming soon to Areo.
Latest posts by Helen Pluckrose (see all)
- When Intersectionality Silences Women - November 7, 2017
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