Saturday, June 24, 2017

Academic Freedom and Reasonable Doubt: The Johnny Eric Williams Case

Professor Johnny Eric Williams
This started out as a comment to a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms, entitled “Sought: An Ethical Reason Why This Professor Should Not Be Fired Immediately, And Never Hired For A Teaching Position Again, Anywhere.” Soon, however, my reply took on a life of its own, extending well past the length of a mere comment on someone else’s post, sort of demanding multiple links, and, well, putting my lengthy commentary on current events in higher education on someone else’s blog instead of my own.

The background is this: on the evening of Sunday, June 18, Trinity College (CT) associate professor of sociology Johnny Eric Williams took to social media to re-post an article from Medium by “Son of Baldwin” with the shall we say provocative title of “Let Them Fucking Die.” There’s a preface there now: “NOTE: This essay is in the context of bigotry and is speaking about bigots. If you aren’t a bigot, then it doesn’t apply to you. But, if you happen to feel hit, then holler, dog.” One suspects that was a later add-on, but in the absence of a screenshot of the post as it first appeared (maybe there’s one out there?), Curmie can’t say for sure.

What is clear is that Son of Baldwin is less than pleased with the state of race relations in the country right now. His prose is more fiery than most, but ultimately he presents a rather familiar argument:
In a battle between the moral and the immoral, the immoral will always win because they have no qualms about not abiding by the rules. Whereas those of us who imagine ourselves as moral gladly die at the immorals’ hands because we think better glories await us in some other, unseen realm. We, the moral, are terrible at memory. We never remember who created these rules and for what purpose. The immoral created morality so that we would accept their abuse and never even dream of retaliation. Like any drug white/cisgender/heterosexual people have ever given us, we get high on this notion that forgiving them after they slaughter our grandparents in churches, obliterate our siblings in the streets, and mangle our children in playgrounds makes us better people than they.
His screed concludes:
Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous.
Let. Them. Fucking. Die.
And smile a bit when you do.
For you have done the universe a great service.
Ashes to ashes.
Dust to bigots. [emphasis in original]
Williams was subsequently to claim that his re-posting of Son of Baldwin’s piece was a response to the police shooting of Charleena Lyles in Seattle on Sunday morning. That would make sense in terms of timing, but given the fact that the article on Medium opens with a photo of recent shooting victim Rep. Steve Scalise and an accusation of racism and homophobia against him, commentators who argue that Williams seems to be endorsing Son of Baldwin’s implicit claim that Rep. Scalise somehow deserved to die can be forgiven their misinterpretation… if indeed it is such.

Screen capture of the posts that led to the controversy.
Anyway, Williams re-posted Son of Baldwin’s essay with the comment, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” And he added the hashtag “#LetThemFuckingDie.” A few minutes later, he added, “I’m fed the fuck up with self-identified ‘white’s’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexually and racially oppressed people. The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.”

Needless to say, this set off a firestorm in right-wing echo chamber circles. Calls for Williams’s firing were immediate, and (of course) there were threats of violence against him and even his family—you know, the kind that mouthpieces of the right claim never happen to leftist firebrands. Let’s be clear: Prof. Williams, contrary to the assertion in an otherwise thoughtful editorial in the Hartford Courant, did not “[create] an unsafe atmosphere at the college.” Other people did. Just as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are not responsible (short of actual incitement) for the violence their mere presence on a college campus might engender, neither is Prof. Williams to blame for the fact that people who disagree with him threaten violence. It is important to note here that neither Williams nor indeed Son of Baldwin advocate violence. The latter’s advocacy for selective non-intervention and the former’s condoning of, if not actual support for, that position may be abhorrent and unethical (Curmie thinks so), but it falls far short of incitement.

Just yesterday, I wrote in a comment on another of Jack’s posts (one in which Curmie’s insistence that the higher education classroom is not, in fact, a site of leftist propaganda was honored as “Comment of the Day”) that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education generally supports conservatives, but not because they’re conservatives. This statement is an ideal example of what I meant. Whereas as FIRE release concentrates more on the threats that Professor Williams has received (and that other faculty who have taken controversial positions in recent times have received), they do explicitly endorse a statement by the chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure:
There is only one option consistent with academic freedom. Professor Williams is entitled to his right to express his personal views on social media and the university has the right to differ with those views. But Trinity College must defend the professor’s right to express them without fear of retaliation by the institution. Trinity College should refuse to let the sort of threats and intimidation directed against Professor Williams and the entire campus achieve their insidious aims.
Despite literally dozens of false media reports to the contrary, Professor Williams did not write the screed that generated the current brouhaha. Nor did he explicitly endorse it, although his re-post of someone else's blog piece could be interpreted that way. What he said himself is angry and vulgar, but Curmie sees it as well within the realm of protected speech that ought not inspire more than a raised eyebrow from university officials... except, of course, for the hashtag, which on the one hand merely references the article’s title and on the other seems to approve of the content.

And that’s the key. Does Professor Williams’s post actually advocate what the right-wing media storm says it does? Or was it merely an example of a moment’s sloppiness, worthy of an apology and nothing more? Does Professor Williams conflate whiteness and bigotry, or did he merely re-post an article which appears to do so? Does it matter that Professor Williams was not acting as a representative of the university when he made the offending remarks? I know of a case in my own experience in which a common colloquial expression was interpreted literally and led to accusations of advocating violence. Is this a variation on that disturbing theme? 

The answer to all these questions, to me, is unclear, meaning that those of us who don’t know Prof. Williams, haven’t read his scholarly work (which presumably is of a standard that a respected institution like Trinity considers worthy of a senior faculty member), haven’t sat in on his classes, aren’t equipped to make such decisions.

The person who is in the best position to make those determinations is Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who seems to be handling the situation with finesse: she shut down the campus for the safety of all and re-opened it when it appeared there was no imminent threat. She issued an official response which states that Son of Baldwin’s call for “indifference to the lives of bigots” is “abhorrent and wholly contrary to Trinity’s values.” She argues that the use of the offensive hashtag was “reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.” But she also insists that Trinity “[continues] to uphold our fundamental belief in academic freedom and support our community members’ constitutional right to free speech,” and deplored the threats to Professor Williams. She forwarded the case to the Dean of the Faculty, who will advise her on “whether college procedures or policies were broken.” This strikes Curmie as absolutely the right path to take. Let’s see what the actual facts are, if this case is an anomaly or fits a pattern, if Professor Williams can muster a more persuasive apology than simply arguing that he did not intend to incite violence (well, of course he didn’t, but that’s not the point).

There is also a petition of support for Professor Williams. Like many such documents, it started off locally (it opens “We the undersigned faculty at Trinity College”) but has expanded to include signatories from well outside the college. Importantly, it stands alongside the FIRE statement in affirming academic freedom and, specifically, the use of social media as subject to its protections. The drafters of the petition are correct that many of the attacks on Professor Williams are founded on distortion and misrepresentation. That doesn’t mean they all are, of course, but the use of intimidation and fear-mongering is an all-too-familiar tactic of what one of Curmie’s favorite professors used to call the “foam-flecked brigade” of any ideology. This time, it’s the easily-incited right. Next time, it will be the equally malleable left.

Like virtually everyone else who has opined on this matter, Curmie is ignorant of a lot of the details of the situation. What I do know is that revoking tenure without absolute certainty of the legitimacy of doing so is at least as great a threat to higher education as allowing a single renegade professor (assuming he even fits into that category) to remain employed would be. Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life. It is, rather, a nominal assurance of academic freedom. In terms of a situation like this one, it merely shifts the standards for dismissing a professor from, loosely speaking, “preponderance of evidence” to “beyond reasonable doubt.” 

I have reasonable doubt. I'm not sure this qualifies as the ethical defense of not firing Prof. Williams Jack rhetorically seeks, but Curmie kind of thinks it does.

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