By Nathan Eckstrand
A common misconception about the First Amendment is that if you are criticized for your beliefs, then your first amendment rights are being violated. It is this misconception that underlies the new Professor Watchlist, sponsored by conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA.
The site is ostensibly set up to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda,” whether that consists in pointing out that the gun lobby is largely white to equating the suffering of animals with that of humans. In reality, it operates as a serious threat to academic freedom.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I am acquainted with several people on the list. Yet rather than disqualifying me from commenting, that fact offers me insight into the dangerous absurdity of this project. I have had many discussions with Robert Jensen and George Yancy and have read several of their books. Anyone who has spent more than a moment with them or who has read more than the introductory paragraphs of their works should easily recognize that their philosophies do not fit the simplistic box that the Professor Watch List wishes to put them into.
Take this example. The Professor Watch List contends it a form of indoctrination for Yancy to call on whites in America to “examine the racist poison inside of you.” That quote comes from the article “Dear White America,” whose overriding message is that we should love one another, and that this love requires we take time to understand different perspectives and how our actions affect others. One would think this message would be supported by Professor Watchlist, given that its sponsor argues in one of its publications that “By hearing the opinions of those that do not agree with us, we learn to question our own beliefs and expand our views on the world around us. This is an important part of maturing as both a citizen and as a private individual, as we navigate the difficult task of deciding what we believe is right and wrong.” The idea that whites should be challenged about their privilege and that becoming caring individuals requires us to consider the impact of our actions is in perfect harmony with Turning Point USA’s stated message as voiced in that particular report.
A fundamental misunderstanding motivating the Professor Watchlist is that students are forced to believe what teachers say. In fact, good educators teach many ideas that they do not personally adhere to. They ask that students understand many concepts and beliefs and that they develop their own ideas and philosophies. This is the point highlighted by Jensen, Yancy, and others. Anthea Butler, a Religious Studies professor at University of Pennsylvania who is on the list, writes in her op-ed for The Guardian that “The irony of all of this is that while I am on the Professor Watchlist, I am probably one of the few professors in America who encourages the students who take my Religious Right in America course to attend conferences like CPAC and Values Voters Summit. No one censors my class when I ask students to watch clips of Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly or William F. Buckley.”
It may be tempting to dismiss the Professor Watchlist as another iteration in a long line of harassments that intellectuals throughout history have faced. After all, Nixon’s list of political opponents included numerous intellectuals who had celebrated careers. Although the educators on the Professor Watchlist may not be in danger of losing their jobs (though we should be concerned about other forms of harassment they could face), there is still the concern that it will still voices that need to be heard. As the Professor Watchlist Redux (a satirical site devoted to honoring those who advocated for open inquiry) notes, intellectuals have been an important part of building a world that embodies “values that Americans and others throughout the world have held.” Indeed, some of the ideals that Professor Watch List admires so much only exist because intellectuals like Socrates, Gallileo, Dewey and others raised objections to their society’s accepted beliefs. To call out professors for voicing their opinions publicly—without evidence that they are in any way stifling the ability of others to speak—is a perilous undertaking.
While a blog devoted to concerns of the philosophical community likely will not have many readers who disagree with the above sentiments, the question of how to respond is still open. Professor Watchlist Redux uses parody. Jensen’s article educates readers about his pedagogy, and how it is different from what the Professor Watch List says. Yancy describes his anger at the site as an “enabling” feeling that encourages him to keep speaking out. And Butler talks about the importance of an environment of trust on campuses.
In addition to these valuable suggestions, I want to make one more. As I mentioned in my “What Are You Reading?” column right before the election, the rhetoric of democracy is being used more and more for partisan ends, rather than being used to enhance democracy. The Professor Watchlist is a good example of this because it mobilizes the language of free speech to promote a conservative agenda. We need to invest ourselves in conversation about what free speech means. It does not mean that you are free from having to listen to others. It does not mean that you are immune from criticism. And it does not mean that people who say something different are endangering your rights.
I am reminded of a passage from Howard Zinn’s book Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian. He says “If it were left to the institutions of government, the Bill of Rights would be left for dead. But someone breathed life into the Bill of Rights. Ordinary people did it, by doing extraordinary things.”
The Professor Watch List is dangerous because it stifles open discussion of ideas, because it does not honestly present the opinions of its target professors, and because it does not distinguish educators’ personal opinions from what they teach. If left to the Professor Watch List, academic freedom would be a thing of the past. It is up to the ordinary people of academia and other ordinary people who care about academic freedom to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Nathan Eckstrand is one of the Associate Editors of the Blog of the APA.
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