Crashing the Academic Conversation

July 09, 2017

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

Last month the website Campus Reform published a hit piece accusing Johnny E. Williams — a professor of sociology at my institution, Trinity College, in Connecticut — of inciting violence against white people. The narrative took social media by storm, as the article was rapidly picked up by outlets such as TheBlaze, The Daily Caller, and The Washington Times. The following day, the Hartford campus was closed after receiving multiple threats of violence, and Professor Williams and his family went into hiding after receiving death threats.

After evacuating my office on Wednesday, I began searching the internet for clues to make sense of the cryptic texts I had received from campus safety. It was then that I stumbled across the "controversy" that had started online the previous day.

Professor Williams was criticized for sharing on social media a link to an anonymous essay that used the recent shootings at a congressional baseball practice as an opportunity to think about the ethical obligations oppressed minorities have to save the lives of bigots who would otherwise do them harm. Williams later wrote a post responding to the shooting of a black woman by police officers in Seattle, saying it was time to put an end to the "mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system," closing with a hashtag, "LetThem[Expletive]Die," which was the title of the anonymous essay.

I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction was something like: "Holy cow! How could Johnny say something that stupid!" which, of course, was Campus Reform’s intended response. After all, the organization’s stated objective is to foment online outrage with the purpose of getting left-leaning professors fired. Campus Reform calls these firings "victories."

This attack on Johnny Williams, as well as similar ones against other academics, are successful because our society often gives undue credence to statements made by organizations that perpetuate the narrative of higher education as a den of "politically correct" faculty engaged in brainwashing America’s vulnerable youth. Williams would dismantle such narratives, arguing that they are often artifacts of white privilege designed to delegitimize the voices of minority professors (and their allies) who articulate powerful and unapologetic critiques of racialized oppression. And, it turns out, Professor Williams is right.

For example, much of the response to Professor Williams’s online comments — including Campus Reform’s initial piece, subsequent media coverage, Trinity College’s own statements, and my own knee-jerk response — indicate a willingness to ignore the fact that his statements are fundamentally arguments, situated within scholarship. Little of the coverage, for example, took seriously the fact that Professor Williams is a scholar of race in America who has written and taught extensively on how society organizes people into racialized categories, in which those deemed "white" have certain privileges denied to those defined as "black," and on how one is not "white" or "black" by genetic make-up but rather made so by a system of oppression created over centuries.

Reasonable people may disagree with Williams’s argument about the structures of racism. Some might argue that it ignores agency, or transforms oppression into a monolithic thing. Some might argue whether Williams’s rhetoric is politically strategic or in bad taste. These are, nonetheless, still arguments. Campus Reform, however, dismisses the possibility that Williams’s controversial posts are contributions to an academic conversation — a conversation that holds value even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, challenges our preconceptions, or questions things we hold dear.

Campus Reform’s intent, however, was never to engage the merits of Williams’s argument, but rather to shut down academic inquiry and public discussion altogether because its editors do not like the kind of things he says. While Williams teaches that race is not an individual attribute, Campus Reform reduces his statements to those of an individual. The goal was to villainize Williams, not engage his ideas — either in his social-media posts or his scholarly writing.

In trying to make sense of Professor Williams’s statements, a colleague and I came up with a useful metaphor. Imagine that a seminar class has been meeting all semester long, everyone doing the reading and having a sustained conversation on a specialized topic. Then one day the door to the seminar room is left slightly ajar, and a student the professor failed the previous semester walks by and overhears a few snippets of conversation. For those in the classroom, these snippets are all coherent, parts of a broader discussion, have an audience, and a literature. The students and professor worked hard to understand these ideas and engage them in a sophisticated and honest way.

However, the student in the hallway is not interested in understanding the continuing conversation; he is solely interested in retaliating against the professor. He rushes off to post something on Facebook, linking together the snippets to highlight the most salacious bits. He never intends to understand the context within which these sentences are uttered or the challenging ideas behind them. He is only interested in doing the most harm. This is exactly what happened to Professor Williams.

A hashtag was treated as simple advocacy, rather than citation. A complicated metaphor was reduced to intention.
In this theoretical example, a reasonable response to the Facebook post would be for the administration (and faculty, students, media, general public, etc.) to go to the professor and ask: "Is this an accurate account of what happened in your seminar?" However, in the example of Professor Williams, the starting framework was, from the beginning, that the story told by Campus Reform was at least as credible as Williams’s own account, if not more so.

A hashtag was treated as simple advocacy, rather than citation. A complicated metaphor was reduced to intention. Race becomes an individual attribute, and therefore a desire to destroy "white" power structures is made equivalent to a statement advocating violence against individuals. In effect, we believe the disgruntled kid who catches a few snippets in the hallway rather than the scholar who has spent his career thinking, writing, and teaching about the topic at hand.

It would be disastrous if the lesson learned from the attack on Professor Williams is that faculty and students must be cautious about how we frame everything we say, to avoid someone (intentionally) skewing our words to do us harm. If we constantly live with fear that the door might be slightly ajar, we are doomed to a downward spiral of self-censorship. It means that those trolling the hallways get to define the conversation that takes place in the classroom. We cannot let outlets like Campus Reform decide for us how we "peer review" our colleagues. We cannot let them decide what counts as a reasonable interpretation — especially given that their agenda is to make professors like Johnny Williams seem unreasonable.

But we must ask a more damning question, as well. What does it mean that faculty, students, alumni, administrators, and society at large — including myself — were so quick to assume the worst about our black colleague, yet willing to accept on its face the basic premise put forward by an organization like Camus Reform? This "controversy" has forced me to think a lot about white supremacy over the past few weeks. Thanks to Williams, I have learned that white supremacy is a racist structure that caused me to question my black colleague while accepting the vitriol of strangers who scoff at the vision of the world I hold most dear. It is this structure of racialized supremacy that Williams has suggested we "let die." I’m more inclined than ever to agree with him.

Isaac A. Kamola is an assistant professor of political science at Trinity College, in Connecticut.