The Emerging Backlash In Academia

In the face of stories of college administrators and professors caving in to, if not enabling, the infantile demands of unduly sensitive students, there was a gnawing question of whether there were any grown-ups left in the Academy.  There are, and even though they are faced with being called words that could destroy their careers, like sexist or racist, they have chosen not to acquiesce or remain silent.

The least I can do is applaud their willingness to come forward, to say, “enough,” given that I’ve been critical in the past of professors lacking the courage to call out intellectual dishonesty.  At PrawfsBlawg, Paul Horwitz began the ball rolling.

I have not seen The Hunting Ground and cannot comment on its merits. It seems worth noting, though, both that the movie is prominently features a case involving Harvard Law School, and that a number of professors at the law school issued a public letter criticizing both the film and its treatment of that incident. They charge in the letter that the documentary “provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities” and of the student accused in that specific incident and the process in that case. The Times article also links to this critique of the film, and specifically its treatment of that case, by Emily Yoffe in Slate.

None of this, of course, is meant to question or even to comment on the very serious issue of campus sexual assault, which has been a concern of mine at my home institution. I assume that critiques of the film, and open-ended discussions about how to address the larger issue, will be very much a part of the moderated discussion and that this has always been the AALS’s intention. The filmmakers have a response to the professors’ letter here and a response to Yoffe’s piece here. They are more detailed, certainly, than the responses provided by the filmmakers in the Times story and in Yoffe’s piece itself, or here, all of which are heated but weak.

Given that one of the filmmakers will be present for the screening and discussion, I assume those points will be fully aired. At the same time, given that Dick describes himself as “both an activist and a filmmaker” (a common feature of many current documentaries and one that raises important concerns, particularly for those of us with more conventional views on journalism), and that one of the film’s producers wrote to the attorney/relative of a potential interview subject, “We don’t operate the same way as journalists — this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side,” I thought that people thinking of attending the screening might want to be aware of these criticisms, and better able to explore them during the discussion.

Yes, there’s Gertruding buried in there, but what did you expect?  While the Harvard profs can take comfort in their group, Horwitz flew solo. That took guts, as did his follow up.

In light of the hope for full and useful discussion–why else screen a movie by activists, one that has been sharply criticized for bending its narrative toward its goals?–I should note this recent story in the Harvard Crimson, in which the filmmakers, inter alia, double down on their attack on critics. Here’s the key paragraph from the story:

In an emailed statement, “The Hunting Ground” director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering . . . criticized the Law School professors, many of whom have been vocal critics of Harvard’s recently overhauled approach to handling sexual harassment cases, for their letter critiquing the film.

“The Harvard Law professors’ letter is irresponsible and raises an important question about whether the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law,” Dick and Ziering wrote.

This places the possibility of useful discussion after the screening, and hence, perhaps, the value of the AALS’s choice to screen the film at all, in a somewhat new light.

Cool trick, reducing the mere discussion of the lack of accuracy of flagrant and dubious advocacy to a shriek of “hostile environment.”  Horwitz wasn’t having any of it.  And then, the point having already been made, prawf Howard Wasserman dove into the cold waters of risk by standing alongside Horwitz.

Like Paul, I lean towards the less charitable reading of the statement by the producers of Hunting Ground. But I did not read it as a threat to any action. Rather, I read it as a normative position–anyone who publicly disagrees with our position is irresponsible, shows public bias, and contributes to a hostile educational environment. This disagreement makes little practical difference, since my reading of their position still renders discussion or debate about the film impossible–why should they be expected to be debate anyone putting forth such an irresponsible and hostile position? But it is of a piece with some of what we have heard in the recent blow-ups at Mizzou, Yale, etc.–the very utterance of the contrary position deprives me of my safe space, inflicts harm, and violates my rights, thereby giving me a reason not to engage with it.

Have the forces of feelz finally pushed the envelope too far, beyond the limits of intellectual dishonesty, so that the professoriate can no longer shrug off the ridiculousness of stifling criticism under the cries of Title IX, of -isms that are growing like cancer in universities across the country?

For years, scholars have been silent while watching the disgrace of intellectual dishonesty grow and enabling their colleagues to spew nonsense without fear of being challenged.  It wasn’t worth the nightmare of being branded sexist or racist, the kiss of death in an Academy controlled by blind progressive dogma.  They knew better, but wouldn’t take the risk.

Now they are willing to suffer the slings and arrows of their fellow academics because they’ve had enough of the bullshit.  Hopefully, they will be joined by the rest of the grown-ups in academia, who may not have had the will to speak out before but will join them in saying “enough.”  It’s about time that scholars showed the guts to stand up for intellectual honesty, and I applaud Paul Horwitz and Howard Wasserman for doing so.

3 comments on “The Emerging Backlash In Academia

  1. Luke Gardner

    Been awhile since I’ve stopped in here. I shouldn’t let it go so long. Anyway, I’m wondering if the young Yale “student” SCREACHING SHUTUP at her teacher in public about Halloween costumes was the return point of the pendulum swing. It was both horrifying and bewildering to watch. How could such a spoiled little twit have made it into Yale? Boggles the mind. We can only hope that that really did mark the end to academic cowering at student temper tantrums.

    If I’d done that at John Silber’s B.U., I’m quite sure I’d have quickly been ejected on my ass and expelled.

    1. SHG Post author

      I wrote about that incident. Shame you missed it. You might have wanted to add to the commentary at the time.

    2. Dan Hull

      BU’s Silber was a stud. But I’m confident that at most schools back then, including BU and mine, the wrath would have come from other students. At my school students would often challenge other students and faculty alike in and out of the classroom as taking certain positions as–I dislike the term but you’ll get the idea–as “anti-intellectual”. Not-Open Minds were shameful. Not being able to discuss certain sticky matters a loathsome disease.

      As I see it, though, some students on our campuses are not alone in committing these sins of free speech. We are all doing it. We’re doing it in day-to-day discourse with a certain prissiness about adherence to PC speech to advance social warrior agendas that urge well-intentioned and “nice” ideas that we’re really not thinking too carefully about. Students just do it more and more absurdly.

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