comment, highered

We Can Haz Moar Watchlist, Plz?

The early social-media era leet-speak in the title telegraphs the more important move I’d like to make here.

Like a lot of folks, I’m alarmed by the way that the Trump campaign emboldened (word of the year 2016) white nationalists, men’s rights activists, and a whole other set of toxins masquerading as political positions. I’m angry at the cocky way that the conservative and right wings of American politics have started leveraging their new positions to threaten their old enemies, all the while claiming that they didn’t mean any of it, really.

So like many others, I was annoyed when the new academic watchlist was announced. Any such list is an attempt at intimidation at the very least, and it must also minimally be considered a concerted attempt to undermine the autonomy of institutions of Higher Ed by creating an ‘enemies list.’

So I added my own name to the funny AAUP-sponsored petition to “Add My Name To the Professor Watchlist.” I even included a straight-faced satirical ‘confession’:

I teach the anthropology, history, and sociology of Religious Studies. As a consequence, I frequently refer to Marx, Durkheim, and Weber: a commie, a socialist, and a liberal. The first two were also Jews, which I gather is something you want to know, for reasons I’m sure are very complex and shouldn’t concern me as much they do.

These biases clearly disqualify me from a teaching position in the The Greatest Country In The World, and my curriculum should be replaced with true classics, like Evola, Eliade, Heidegger, and Schmitt, good fascists all.

I look forward with Fear and Trembling at the judgment that will decide whether I am admitted to this enemies list or not.

But I need to confess I’m also a bit exhausted at the level of outrage that has suddenly manifested itself in a largely otherwise apolitical academy. Oh, I know you hear all about how weird-liberal-radical the academy is, and there are in fact a lot of professors who adopt very leftist academic viewpoints. But there are also good reasons for jokes like these:

Q: How can you tell the marxist professors?
A: They’re the first ones to cross the picket line.

A group’s discourse is not necessarily closely related to that same group’s practices. Like any other group of humans, there are a number of hypocritical academics. And in spite of the widespread stereotype that faculty are generally radical, we should hasten to point out that this is not, and has never been the case. There are a great many conservative and even fascistic faculty in the institutions of Higher Education. Thankfully, many of them are as hypocritical in their practices as are their ‘marxist’ counterparts.

Additionally, consider that whatever your critiques of ‘identity politics‘ (the First KKK would seem to me to be the first self-consciously modern identity political movement based on race, but people like to skip over that), it is in the institutions of Higher Education that a disproportionate number of hate crimes take place, where sexual assault is considered an epidemic by government, students, faculty, and administrators alike (though many disagree on the proper responses), and where openly hateful opinions espoused by students in the classroom (“Everyone knows that IQ scores and race are connected,” e.g.) are considered proper political opinions that faculty must ‘respect.’

Consider the following in any assessment of how safe ‘safe spaces’ on campus are, and how ‘wilting’ you imagine students to be:

One of the first studies of hate crimes on college campuses was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in 1998. This study included 450 higher education institutions in 40 different states. Of the 450 institutions surveyed, 222 (49%) reported a hate crime on campus in 1998, with a total of 241 incidents occurring on campuses that year. The most common motivation for hate crimes cited in the FBI report was racial prejudice, followed by anti-Semitism, bias against sexual orientation, and “other” biases. The International Association of College Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) also conducted a study in 1998, surveying 411 campuses in the United States. In this study, 88 of the 411 campuses reported a hate crime incident, with these campuses averaging 3.8 hate crimes in that year.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a leader in studying hate crimes and pursuing legal action against hate groups, suggests that hate crime rates are actually far higher. Its researchers assert that more than half a million college students are the targets of bias-motivated slurs or physical assault each year, and state that an incident occurs each day on college campuses. A major factor in this widespread prevalence is the tolerance for biased speech on college campuses. SPLC maintains that students on campuses hear racist, homophobic, sexist, or other biased-speech every minute. No campus is immune to the problem, with small and large, urban and rural, public and private colleges all experiencing hate crimes.

So why I am I annoyed with some of the people who now agree with me that academic watchlists are not just bad, but worth responding to?

Because watchlists, like racism, discrimination, and sexual terror, aren’t new. Back at the beginning of the social media moment, when the sort of silly internet-speak that characterizes the headline above was current, I ended up on similar watchlist.

Frankly, it’s clear that the folks running this new list are not taking it very seriously. The majority of complaints on the current list refer to celebrity faculty who have said something in the press that a conservative finds mildly objectionable.

Those of us who’ve been on watchlists before, for equally ridiculous reasons, were asking for support from many of these same people throughout the institutions of Higher Education years ago, and were told we were overreacting, that we shouldn’t take it seriously, and in fact were making ourselves look silly by even noticing it. Thankfully, some of these older efforts have been scrubbed from the internet today.

These can often be the same faculty who previously responded to Black student requests for more serious responses to anti-Black racism on campuses, or Jewish students who demanded a bolder response to swastikas on campuses, or students who demanded stronger responses to the epidemic of sexual assaults on campus, by saying they understood, but that there was no effective path forward, or that they were hobbled by various administrative or policy constraints.

It is true that the Trump campaign and election have had a magnifying effect on the United States’ daily life and political culture, and that the effects are toxic. But those problems have been there for many people for their entire lives, long before 2016. Native and Black people in America have not suddenly found themselves in a qualitatively different situation after Trump than before it, for all that the stakes have been raised significantly. Women and LBGTQIA folks are not suddenly vastly more likely to be murdered for not being men, the right type of men, or available to men for sex, than they were before Trump’s election. These problems have always been serious, and life-threatening. While it is welcome that suddenly a new group of people are taking this seriously, we might be excused for being somewhat suspicious that the minute some of them feel that they are personally safe, their outrage will similarly subside.

I’m very glad we’re all agreed that this stuff is wrong. Let’s get the important work done, and not let any of it go unaddressed in the future.


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