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Student safety as an excuse for censorship


Here are a couple of very disturbing cases, in which absurdly hyperbolic definitions of the concept of student safety are being deployed for nefarious reasons.

First, at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York:

Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, N.Y., have temporarily removed a tenured professor from the classroom because of an article she wrote last week celebrating Palestinian resistance against Israel.

Jodi Dean, a professor of politics, will not teach for the rest of the semester while the private institution completes an investigation, the president announced Saturday in an email to the campus community.

Dean had published a blog post titled “Palestine speaks for everyone” on the website of Verso, a left-leaning book publisher. “As a result of Professor Dean’s comments,” Mark D. Gearan, the president, wrote, “there now may be students on our campus who feel threatened in or outside of the classroom.”

Dean’s blog post is an intellectually childish and morally disgusting celebration of the Hamas terrorist attacks in October, but obviously she’s being punished for expressing her political views on the phony pretense that publishing a pro-Hamas essay is by itself something that can make students at her college feel legitimately “threatened,” in a way that justifies this straight-up attack on academic freedom.

In his letter, Gearan condemned Dean’s comments and underscored that while the colleges support civil discourse, “we can never and will never condone or praise violence, particularly when that violence is directed at individuals based on their religion, race, or national origin.”

Speaking of intellectual childishness, the mere invocation of the word “violence” apparently has the power to turn people into complete idiots all by itself. What does President Gearan think Operation Overlord was, a political philosophy seminar?

Extreme right wing reactionary Robert George gets this issue exactly right:

Robert P. George, a professor of politics at Princeton University, said that while he found the views Dean expressed in her article appalling, the colleges’ response seemed to conflict with their own endorsement of the American Association of University Professors’ principles on academic freedom, which are included in the faculty handbook.

“None of the unprotected categories of speech are relevant here,” George said. “Jodi Dean did not threaten anybody. She did not harass anybody. She did not engage in defamation or accuse somebody of a crime falsely.”

Then we have the case of UC-Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinksy and his wife Catherine Fisk (also on the Berkeley law faculty) being berated at a purely social dinner for third year law students in their own home, by students who showed up with a microphone to harangue them about the crimes of the Zionist entity:

In a video posted to TikTok after the confrontation, Afaneh expatiated on what she characterized as Fisk’s assault. “She put her arms around me, grasped at my hijab, grabbed at my breasts inappropriately … and threatened to call the cops on a gathering of Black and brown students.” In Afaneh’s view, Fisk “assaulted me because to her, a hijabi wearing, keffiyah repping Palestinian Muslim student that felt comfortable to speak in Arabic was enough of a threat to her that I was justified to be assaulted.”

While Fisk shouldn’t have touched Afaneh, her claim that the 62-year-old woman “assaulted” her by trying to wrest the microphone away from her is, legally speaking, not well-founded. Also, her explanation for Fisk’s outrage is as idiotic as Dean’s essay and President Gearan’s response to it.

The incident at Chemerinsky’s and Fisk’s house needs to be understood within the broader context of what’s going on at Berkekely:

A week before all this, there was the poster. Posted to Instagram and tacked to law-school bulletin boards by the Berkeley chapter of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a cartoon depicts Chemerinsky with a ghastly grin, his arms extended at a table and foreshortened fists gripping a bloody fork in one hand and a bloody knife in the other. “NO DINNER WITH ZIONIST CHEM WHILE GAZA STARVES,” the text reads. It’s a nastily assured piece of work, its caricature distorted but immediately recognizable.

But is it antisemitic? More specifically, is it an invocation of the blood libel? Chemerinsky thinks so. “They weren’t objecting to anything I had done,” he told me. “There isn’t any reason other than that I was Jewish.” Many Jewish students, Chemerinsky said, felt the same way.

You can look at the cartoon itself, but it’s a disgusting anti-Semitic caricature, in the best tradition of Julius Streicher et, al.

Chemerinksy at least is actually being an adult about all this, which under contemporary conditions at American colleges and universities is an increasingly noteworthy fact:

Despite his sense that campus expression about the war in the Middle East, including expression directed against him personally, has sometimes slipped into antisemitism, Chemerinsky rejected characterizations of Berkeley as a hotbed of hate speech. “I feel completely safe at Berkeley,” he said. “I don’t feel that Berkeley is pervasively antisemitic or anything like that. I don’t generalize from a small group of students to something about the campus.”

But the entire concept that students have a right to feel “safe” on campus, with “safe” being defined as “not subjected to ideas or people they find disturbing” isn’t, unfortunately, just some right-wing caricature of the current discourse:

Nevertheless, he went on, “I never expected that in my adult lifetime I would hear the antisemitic things that I have heard over the last six months since October 7.” He mentioned, for instance, a town hall he hosted on October 11, 2023, four days after Hamas attacked Israel. A student told him she felt unsafe; he asked her what he could do to make her feel safe. “Her exact words, and I quote, were ‘Get rid of the Zionists here.’ I will tell you that I and a number of Jewish students told me later that they heard that as ‘Get rid of the Jews here.’”

This is all intimately related, naturally, to the corporatization of the university, which includes a customer is always right mentality that is inimical to anybody ever learning anything. But there’s already enough here to sink those of us in academia into a listening to a Neil Young dark period album at 2 AM while drunk depression.

. . . A few dozen commenters have pointed to this story about the cancellation of a student’s participation in USC’s upcoming graduation ceremony, because of putative “security” concerns. I hadn’t seen that story before writing this post.

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