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For Davidai, such imagery constituted an actual threat. “Students’ lives are on the line,” he posted on X. Over the course of 41 posts, he elaborated: “I fear, because there are student organizations on my own campus who see my beautiful children as legitimate targets. I fear, because the president of my university — my very own employer — refuses to speak up against such senseless violence and hatred.” The Columbia administration’s putative indifference to Jewish lives, Davidai said, was putting his family in danger. “I’m just a dad who is scared and who is willing to put EVERYTHING on the line to protect his children.”
The notion that Davidai’s children, who live in New York City, were in mortal danger because of the ugly or foolish rhetoric of some student protesters might seem merely idiosyncratic, the overreaction of someone traumatized by the news of October 7. But for the last several months, Davidai has kept at it. He posts nearly every day, often multiple times a day, and he has only one topic: what he calls the “institutionalized antisemitism” at Columbia and other elite universities. That threat, he feels, is reinforced by the unchecked hate speech that deforms the internet — which, he says, “has become the Munich beerhalls of the 1930s.”
This way of arguing — breathless, declaratory, at once aggressive and aggrieved — is by no means unique to Davidai, nor is it restricted to supporters of Israel. Over the last several years, a curious species of overheated activist prose has proved attractive to scholars across the university. Call it the hyperbolic style in American academe.
The hyperbolic style is marked by a cluster of generic traits. First, it emphasizes its speaker’s, or else some other potential victim’s, vulnerability to harm, up to and including murder. Second, it relies on distant historical analogies meant to heighten its urgency. Third, it is hortatory, alarmed, exigent: Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. Fourth (and this is its most “academic” feature) it makes large but ambiguous claims about the structural or systemic aspect of one or another threat. The hyperbolic style is at once a verbal style and a style of thought. As a verbal style, it is rhetorical: Its exaggerations are meant to persuade. But it can become, all too quickly, an addled way of thinking — catastrophist, paranoid, delirious.
Once you start looking for it, you find it everywhere. The social platform X, of course, serves up the readiest examples, not infrequently seasoned with personal abuse. But the more consequential medium for the hyperbolic style is the open letter and its affiliated genres, like the Facebook post, calling for the cancellation of a speaker or conference or the withdrawal of an academic paper. In 2017, for instance, Rebecca Tuvel, then an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College, found herself at the center of a storm of outrage after publishing an essay in Hypatia, a journal of feminist philosophy. The essay, titled “In Defense of Transracialism,” analogized transracial and transgender identification. That comparison is controversial, but the response it met was less one of intellectual or logical disputation than of wounded rage. Pushback erupted on Facebook, where philosophers accused Tuvel and one of her defenders, Kelly Oliver, of a range of sins, including “violence.”
An open letter signed by several hundred professors demanded the article’s retraction — a measure usually reserved for instances of grave research misconduct. Its “continued availability causes further harm,” the authors wrote; they accused Hypatia of “a failure in the review process ... that painfully reflects a lack of engagement beyond white and cisgender privileges.” Avoiding the perpetration of harm, though, turned out to be more difficult than even the letter’s authors suspected. A few days after it began circulating, the letter was updated: “We acknowledge that this statement should have named anti-Blackness directly. The statement is not an exhaustive summary of the many harms caused by this article.” The authors apologized for “the dangerous erasure of anti-Blackness and the erasure of the Black labor on which the rhetoric of our own letter is built.” Eventually, Hypatia’s editorial board apologized for “the harms that have ensued from the publication of this article,” harms which, they continued, “could and should have been prevented by a more effective review process.”
Such claims depend on an elastic, and expansive, sense of how ideas can hurt. In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, the philosopher José Luis Bermúdez argued that Tuvel’s critics, including the Hypatia editorial board, had no coherent concept of “harm,” despite their insistence that Tuvel’s article had caused it. For Bermúdez, the invocation of “harm” permitted Tuvel’s opponents to avoid having to reason: “Innuendo takes the place of argument. Name-calling replaces evidence.” And he warned against the reputational damage these tactics would have for academe. “At a time of widespread public distrust of universities,” he wrote, "... we all suffer an injury when the worst stereotypes about academics seem to be confirmed.”
I explore this question by tracing two veins of thought on freedom of expression: the liberal tradition of Burke, Jefferson, Honoré Mirabeau, the First Amendment, Frederick Douglass, Justices Holmes and Brandeis, Emma Goldman and Mario Savio; and, the radical tradition of Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Paine, Robespierre, Lenin, Critical Race Theory, and the “woke” Diversity Radicals of our own time.
One can imagine intellectual-historical objections to this way of dividing up the history of free speech; the evaluation of conceptual genealogies of the sort Warner offers is part of the business of academic life. But that is not the primary form the objections took. Instead, Warner’s capsule summary of a talk he had not yet given was taken as a political affront. On Twitter, one scholar called it “reactionary and racist.” Another said it partook of “violence.” The presidential address was canceled by ASECS’s board, which explained to members that “in the plenary slot that was to be occupied by this address, we will now schedule a round-table for all members devoted to a discussion of issues of race in eighteenth-century studies.” Warner was permitted to present his ideas on a normal conference panel instead.
Later that year, Warner wrote a column for the organization’s “News Circular” on the topic of “ASECS & Toleration.” The column began with a question: “Can ASECS manage its disagreements in a civil manner?” After citing Kant and Jefferson as important sponsors of toleration, he answers his question in the negative. “I’m not sure that our age is interested in tolerating the ideas of others,” he wrote; “we seem more interested in zero-tolerance for one bad thing or another. We also seem to have lost our patience with disagreement.”
When scholars accuse other scholars they disagree with of “violence,” they are not so much making moves in an argumentative game as calling a halt to the game altogether.
With the approval of ASECS’s Women’s Caucus, an open letter was sent to the ASECS editorial board objecting to “a deeply intolerant response to necessary calls inside and outside of ASECS for the organization to become more anti-racist, more inclusive, and to take further tangible actions on tackling white supremacy within its membership and within the fields of eighteenth-century studies that it represents.” (For what it’s worth, nothing in Warner’s column mentioned calls for inclusivity one way or another.) Even worse: Warner’s column was said to be marred by “deeply troubling assertions that participate in racist and genocidal discourses of the eighteenth century while asserting these as part of a ‘civil’ Enlightenment culture.” The letter concluded with the hope “that this violence against true inclusivity and true tolerance is not repeated by the organization in the future.”
Another way of putting it: Scholars have assimilated the concept that Mari Matsuda and other critical legal theorists have called “words that wound” — traditionally restricted to hate speech, racial slurs, and so on — to a much larger range of discourse, like Rebecca Tuvel’s philosophical thought experiments about transracial identification or William B. Warner’s suggested genealogy of contemporary diversity thinking. Violence’s compass has expanded enormously.
Accusations that academic arguments can be a form of violence mirror some of the last decade’s developments in student culture, in which curricular reform is urged in part on the basis of the potentially traumatizing nature of texts and images. The now largely discredited vogue for trigger warnings reflected that program at its most purportedly scientific — psychologists like Lisa Feldman Barrett argued on a neuroscientific basis that “speech ... can be a form of violence,” a theory which, she said, could lend scientific plausibility to the practice of trigger warnings.
Student critiques of the canon sometimes appeal to the category of “violence” in ways that combine identitarian and trauma-based theories. Take a 2015 statement by a Yale undergrad: “In my four years as an English major, I primarily was lectured by old, white men about rape, about violence, about death, about colonialism, about genocide.” The idea seems to be both that the material was disturbing and that the messenger was, for reasons of age and race, unsuited to deliver it. (An odd slippage occurs here, not uncommon in curricular complaints, whereby the distinction between “teaching about” and “inflicting” grows murky.) At other times, works are objected to based on the notion that they themselves have been tools of violence, especially against the marginalized.
Expanded applications of “violence” to discourse always flirt with accusations of incitement to violence, which is against the law. Speakers on college campuses are of course not permitted to incite violence, but the furious objections to campus appearances by such hatemongers as Richard Spencer stem from the not-implausible sense that some messages are tantamount to incitement even if not proscribed by law.
But the accusation that some speech is adjacent to incitement has not been restricted to talks by fringe figures like Spencer, nor has it remained only a campus phenomenon. In 2020, as protests and riots triggered by the police murder of George Floyd were breaking out across the country, the hyperbolic style’s equation of speech with violence — including the accusation of something like incitement — escaped its academic environs and infected other sense-making institutions, especially journalism. The most high-profile incident, still hotly discussed among media professionals, was at The New York Times, and involved not a marginal neo-Nazi but a Republican U.S. senator, Arkansas’s Tom Cotton. Under James Bennet’s editorship, the Times’s opinion section published an essay by Cotton arguing that the time had come to invoke the Insurrection Act, permitting federal troops to suppress rioters. Staffers objected strenuously. The NewsGuild of New York described Cotton’s essay as proximate to incitement: “His message undermines the journalistic work of our members, puts our Black staff members in danger, promotes hate, and is likely to encourage further violence. ... It also jeopardizes our journalists’ ability to work in the field safely and effectively.”
If Tom Cotton, and by extension James Bennet, were guilty of “pour[ing] gasoline on the fire,” as the NewsGuild said, was their speech really just speech? Legally, of course, Cotton’s proposal was far from an act of incitement. But by insisting that Cotton’s op-ed appreciably increased the danger experienced by the Times’s own reporters, Bennet’s opponents worked to collapse the distinction between speech and conduct. Bennet was made to resign. As he sees it, he was a victim of the staffers’ exaggerated sense of speech’s capacity to harm. “Their idea of violence,” as he put it in The Economist last year, “includes vocabulary.”
As in earlier controversies over allegedly violent speech, members of minority groups are felt to be particularly at risk. For Greenblatt and Davidai, as for Republican politicians like Virginia Foxx and Elise Stefanik, elite campuses are infested with antisemitism. “Harvard, America’s leading university, has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment,” is how a lawsuit by a group called Students Against Antisemitism puts it. The Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy disagrees. As he wrote recently in the London Review of Books, “the claim that antisemitism is a major and menacing force on campus” is “exaggerated and misleading.” He observes that Claudine Gay’s “predecessor as president, Larry Bacow, was Jewish; that her interim successor, Alan M. Garber, is Jewish; that the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, Penny Sue Pritzker, is Jewish; and that Jews are present and flourishing in every significant sector at Harvard.”
That’s undeniably the case. So what explains hyperbolic accusations like Students Against Antisemitism’s? Partisan political gamesmanship is surely one element. But in the years since 2014 or so, and with escalating intensity between the murder of George Floyd and the traumas of October 7, American campuses have hosted a great deal of intemperate rhetoric about harm, identity, and vulnerability. Kennedy is unafraid to say so:
[R]evisiting the George Floyd moment offers an opportunity to recognize that some university-based activists at the time made mistaken claims about anti-black racism on campus. They insisted that racism was so prevalent that black students felt, and were right to feel, unwelcome and unsafe. Much of this, however, amounted to imaginative mau-mauing with the aim of securing political objectives such as the establishment or expansion of diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies. The exaggerations traded on the fact that persistent racism exists in many sectors of American society, even as the incidence of anti-black prejudice at universities in general, and Harvard in particular, has declined dramatically over the past 70 years.
There is no reason to restrict such analyses to Black students, or Jewish students, or, indeed, to students at all. Faculty members are at least as susceptible to the attractions of the hyperbolic style — to the discovery of violence in words, of weapons in vocabulary, of “harm” in what might be merely disagreement. Such a raising of the stakes might make academic disputation so fraught that, in a very real sense, the work cannot go on, as when, for instance, the American Anthropology Association canceled, at the last minute, a planned panel on “Why biological sex remains a necessary analytic category in anthropology.” (The association determined that the panel was “framed in ways that do harm.”) At Indiana University, similarly, the Palestinian artist Samia Halaby had a long-planned career retrospective canceled precipitously, apparently because her social-media comments opposing Israel’s actions in Gaza made some museum staffers uncomfortable. When scholars of higher education write the history of this strange period, they will surely wonder that, with so much real violence raging elsewhere, the denizens of some of the safest spaces in the world fretted so much over merely verbal arrows.