Sunday, November 27, 2016

Enemies Lists? Really?

Let’s say that you disagree ideologically with a relatively public figure.  Do you

  1. Mostly ignore them
  2. Argue against their perspective
  3. Organize around your perspective
  4. Put them on a public hit list, complete with photographs
  5. Anything but d, OMG, anything but d

If you said “d,” I’m worried about you.

But as a sign of the times in which we live, apparently the Enemies List is back.  This time, it can spread with the speed of the internet.  It even comes with an easy form to fill out, if you want to call your professor a witch or a socialist or whatever.

A few thoughts.

First, any “list” that singles out professors for apostasy has a staggeringly high burden of proof.  This list doesn’t come close.  It names several for no greater crime than taking liberal positions on political issues.  That’s not a crime.  It doesn’t include a call to action, instead occupying that ambiguous space that bullies prefer: intimidating without actually threatening.  It never even attempts to show actual harm to students, apparently on the belief that simply being left of center is a form of doing harm.  It isn’t.

Second, the organization makes no mention of any attempt to investigate, verify, or even question any reports it receives.  Even if you agree with its politics, its credibility on its own terms is null.  Accusation doesn’t constitute proof.  

It’s disingenuous.  It’s obviously intended to rally true believers against common enemies, though it never actually says so.  It never bothers to spell out its own views, or to explain why it objects to the views allegedly held by the people on the list.  As such, its substantive contribution is zero.

It also gives a certain credibility to the people arguing that the country is taking an authoritarian turn.  This is straight out of the authoritarian playbook.  Any serious student of either politics or history should be able to tell you where these things lead.  The only reason to criminalize dissent is that you can’t refute it.

I had honestly thought we had outgrown this sort of thing as a culture.  Apparently not.  Maybe we’re far enough removed historically from the McCarthy era that a twenty-two year old today has little concept of it.  

So, okay.  Here goes with the obligatory, I-thought-we-were-done-with-this-already response.  

Higher education is about vigorous debate.  It requires hearing points of view that you may find wrongheaded or even offensive.  There is no right to never be offended.  While I’m not personally a fan of every single person on the list, I’m far more concerned about the effects of a hit list than I am of some tenured lefty somewhere going overboard.  The latter is a cost of freedom.  The former is a direct threat to it.

In my teaching days, I routinely played “Devil’s Advocate” for different points of view.  In teaching a class on political ideologies, it’s helpful to introduce each one by explaining its appeal at the time.  At various moments, I could have been quoted in support of monarchism, anarchism, fascism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and a host of other things.  It was role play.  But when quotes are ripped out of context and thrown to an ideologically motivated sub-public looking for an enemy, they could do real harm.  It would be the equivalent of calling for the arrest of an actor because his character killed somebody.

And students tried on different ideas to see how they fit.  They need the room to do that.  If they’re never exposed to anything other than what some conservative action group deems appropriate, they’ll never develop that skill.  Some of them will move from where they started; others will maintain their position, but with greater depth of understanding.  That can’t happen when the range of debate runs only from vanilla to french vanilla.  

If the list were intended to open up space for useful debate, it would have bothered to spell out its own views.  It didn’t.  It’s obviously intended to intimidate, rather than to enlighten.  So I’ll have to make a statement I never thought I’d have to make:

If you’re on the list, and you’re applying here, put it on your c.v.  I’ll consider it a badge of honor.  No professor could ever do the harm that an enemies list could.  First things first.