To the Editor:
I was disappointed to read “When Academic Bullies Claim the Mantle of Free Speech” (The Chronicle Review, March 18) by Dr. Jennifer Ruth, professor of film studies and vice president of grievances and academic freedom at Portland State University. The bullies, she claims, are my PSU colleague Dr. Bruce Gilley and myself. Ruth writes, “There should be no sense in which academic freedom entails the freedom to provoke, encourage, and engage in campaigns of harassment against colleagues.” The sentiment the statement conveys is obvious, but it is preposterous in context because nothing of the sort is happening. Ruth, and others in the PSU faculty senate, administration, and the AAUP (which publishes the Journal of Academic Freedom, which Ruth used to edit), have characterized criticism of their scholarship, and criticism of Critical Race Theory in particular, as harassment. Moreover, they have erroneously equated ideological critique with limitations on their academic freedom.
By claiming that criticism of published ideas and pedagogical models is harassment, and by creating institutional mechanisms that erect barriers to wholly appropriate critique, entire lines of scholarship become exempt from scrutiny. The academic process depends on having the freedom not only to state ideas but also to criticize other ideas. Limiting criticism in academia is tantamount to telling potters they can make all the clay pots they want so long as they never use clay. This is particularly disturbing because the claims in question — almost always about race, gender, and sexual orientation — are presented as knowledge and then used to influence public policy.
It is worth noting that criticism is framed as harassment only by academicians working in certain domains of thought that are in Critical Theory’s orbit. Civil engineers are not claiming that criticism of truss bridge design is harassment. Physicists are not claiming they’re being persecuted when their contributions to quantum theory are criticized. Philosophers are not claiming victimization when their arguments about free will are scrutinized. Claiming criticism is harassment occurs when a discipline’s North Star is not Truth, but ideology.
The internal rationale for calling criticism “harassment” is as simple as it is absurd: because these Critical Theories are believed to proceed from one’s “social position” as an occupant of some “identity category,” the person and her ideas are treated as though they overlap. They do not. Thinking they do is a dangerous mistake for anyone to make, not least institutions that are nominally devoted to Truth. The backbone of rational thought is separating people from ideas to protect the dignity of the former while being free to criticize the latter.
Ruth’s article criticizes my use of Twitter, but criticism of academic ideas should not be locked wholly behind the paywalls of scholarly journals because ideas coming out of the academy affect everybody. Beyond the academic merits of open inquiry and free discourse, the public has a right to know what’s happening in universities — especially in public universities like Portland State. One reason I use Twitter is to inform the public of what is going on in university classrooms and in what counts these days as academic scholarship. Academics who disagree with my ideas also frequently criticize them on Twitter. This is of value for nonacademic onlookers who can compare our arguments. Extramural criticism is one of the few avenues left now that academic journals have become echo chambers that reinforce and promote specific ideological lenses.
I started using Twitter, writing articles, and delivering public lectures that criticize policies, dogma, and claims coming out of certain departments because attempts to engage colleagues in academic conversation proved — and have continued to prove — fruitless. When I’ve asked colleagues for evidence that their ideas about microaggressions, trigger warnings, and the need for spaces that are safe from ideas are sound, I’ve been told that asking for evidence is a microaggression. Or I’ve been ignored or dismissed out of hand because I am a white male. I invited my colleagues from the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department to join me onstage at the public event with former Google engineer James Damore, Areo editor-in-chief Helen Pluckrose, and biologist Dr. Heather Heying, and then again at an on-campus public event days later. They declined or ignored the invitations. At a faculty seminar about diversity, I politely asked one of the organizers to help me understand diversity and inclusion, and at one of the many disciplinary hearings to which I have been subjected for questioning the moral orthodoxy, it was treated as a problem that I’d even asked to speak with him about diversity. I’ve also repeatedly asked the president of PSU, Dr. Stephen Percy, to give me five minutes of his time but have been informed that he is too busy.
There’s a dual irony in Ruth’s accusations. First, if there’s an institutionalized rule that criticism of academic work is harassment, how would Critical Theory, which is entirely predicated on criticizing existing systems, have emerged? It would not have. The ability to criticize has enabled the existence of disciplines in which my colleagues work, and from which they have framed criticism as harassment. Second, Ruth is doing to Gilley and me exactly what she claims we are doing to our colleagues — criticizing us. The only difference is, she takes aim at us, while we take aim at ideas.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Portland State University