Life Among the Junior Spies

Libertarian types are going wild for a story about a bisexual philosophy student disciplined by his department chair for making dicey remarks about Islam.

From Reason:

A bisexual male student at the University of Texas–San Antonio said during an informal conversation outside class that he was uncomfortable with Islam because people still receive the death penalty for being gay in 10 Muslim-majority countries.

For expressing this thought, the student … was instructed to meet with the chair of the philosophy department … [who] told [him] in no uncertain terms that he had committed the crime of “offending” someone, and she warned him that his habit of saying what he thinks could bring down the entire program. …

Unfortunately for [the professor], [the student] secretly recorded their conversation. The transcript, first publicized by Gay Star News, is incredible.

You really have to read a chunk of the transcript to appreciate its full Orwellian awfulness, but one passage has proven especially popular:

STUDENT: I said that I was bothered that I could be killed in 10 Muslim countries. I’m bisexual. So they’d definitely do that in the 10 countries where I would be— you know.

PROFESSOR: Doesn’t that strike you as an inappropriate thing to say about someone’s fiance?

STUDENT: I wasn’t talking about the fiance. The fiance could have whatever interpretation of the religion that they want. I said something like…(thinking) that I…yeah it wasn’t about the fiance, it was about the religious practices in those countries.

PROFESSOR: How is it appropriate to bring that up in connection with someone’s fiance?

STUDENT: They brought it up. The Islam part.

PROFESSOR: And you brought up the threat to your life as posed by this fiance?

STUDENT: No. We got to the subject of Islam, not the fiance.

PROFESSOR: Do you understand how someone would find that offensive?

STUDENT: How someone would find that offensive, yeah; how they could perceive it, yeah; yeah, I mean, if I…

PROFESSOR: It’s a confusing comment to me because Muslims do not all live in countries in which bisexuals are executed. Muslims live in the United States—

STUDENT: Sure.

PROFESSOR: —Muslims live in France, Muslims live in every country in the world—it’s the fastest growing world religion.

STUDENT: Yeah, one of my good friends at the university is Muslim.

PROFESSOR: And do you tell him that you object to his religion because there are places on earth where gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are discriminated against, including your own country?

STUDENT: Well, “her.” And my verbiage was “killed” not “discriminated against.” I mean, death penalty’s pretty severe.

PROFESSOR: What does that have to do with her being engaged to a Muslim?

STUDENT: Nothing. I wasn’t talking about the engagement to the Muslim. I was talking about Islam in that particular moment.

PROFESSOR: Well, let me just say that kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department. We’re not going to tolerate graduate students trying to make other graduate students feel terrible for our emotional attachments.

STUDENT: Um…all right.

PROFESSOR: And, if you don’t understand why that is, I can explain fully, or I can refer you to the Behavior Intervention Team on our campus, which consists of a counselor, faculty member, and person from student affairs who are trained on talking to people about what’s appropriate or what isn’t.

Behavior Intervention Team? They have a mandatory counseling program, and they call it the “Behavior Intervention Team”? You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, the libertarians think the professor is the Orwellian villain in this story, a petty apparatchik on the hunt for thoughtcrime. But the professor isn’t the one who’s secretly recording closed-door conversations. What’s really Orwellian is the state of affairs that made this a national story in the first place. The comment about Islam was made during an informal chat. Someone tattled to the school administration, who called the student in for a stern talkin’-to. The student secretly recorded that encounter, which apparently is legal in Texas, because why the hell not, everything’s legal in Texas. And then the student went and tattled on the professor to the internet, because no one handles matters of justice and philosophical nuance better than a mob of anonymous outrage-addicts.

That’s how someone like me can get worked up about this kind of thing in the first place–a casual exchange on a campus quad somewhere on the far side of the country.

In conservative reporting on the case, the student comes across as something of a hero–not just a culture-war hero standing up to PC ideologues, but an intellectual hero who is, in the words of one conservative commentator:

… a great deal more interested in “truth-seeking” … than is the philosophy professor – who is manifestly far less of a true philosopher, wrestling with facts and ideas and prepared to entertain opposing views, than she is a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat, reflexively spouting inane platitudes and enforcing irrational procedures and regulations, and a good multiculturalist, unwilling to address the darker sides of the institutionally fetishized “other.”

All very lofty and inspiring–except that this conversation wasn’t happening in philosophy class. It was part of the inevitable grind of university administration, something the professor seems to understand much better than the student. Could it possibly be true–I’m reaching, here–that the philosophy professor was acting like a petty bureaucrat because that’s what she was required to do? If the professor comes across as an administrative flunky dispensing the bromides of campus PC-speak (Muslims come in all kinds of flavors!), the student gradually reveals himself to be a sophist of a different stripe, using all the passive-aggressive tactics of a conservative gadfly to badger his interlocutor into tongue-tied tergiversation. I don’t understand. Can you explain what you mean by that word, “offensive”? I’m just asking. Y’know, some of my best friends are Muslim!

As for platitudes–oh, I’ll give you some platitudes:

A university should be the time you are the most intellectually uncomfortable you’ve ever been. The most unique function of a university is to use ideas to challenge other ideas. Every other function: certification, knowledge transmission, and so on can be replicated trivially by online courses. To the extent universities have a unique, irreplicable function it is to the extent they challenge and test your ideas. The concept of restricting outside-of-class speech at a taxpayer-funded university due to something like ‘appropriateness’ is itself inappropriate to the very idea of a university.

That’s from a Facebook post the student wrote about the experience. Such a refreshing change from the usual officialese, eh?–this talk of knowledge transmission and most unique functions and things that can’t be trivially replicated. Here’s some more good-faith truth-seeking from our earnest young “true philosopher”:

[The professor], and professors like her, are unfit to guide the direction of scholarship and knowledge. There’s no telling how many ideas have never seen light at UTSA under her leadership. Whatever her role, she thinks the foundational principles of universities themselves are a joke. She should not be in charge of anyone in any knowledge-based profession, and she should be stripped of her taxpayer-funded influence at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

His whole Facebook post is like that: a series of attacks on the professor herself, glued together with hoary liberal cliches about TRUTH and KNOWLEDGE and IDEAS. You almost expect the guy to come out and say, “The only proper response to speech is more speech–which is why my professor should take a vow of silence and live the rest of her life in a sealed oil drum, where her dangerous PC views will never hurt anyone again.”

Naturally, the professor is getting harassed. From the conservative pundit quoted above:

When a gay news website contacted [her] about [the student’s] charges, she “declined to comment.” Why? Believe it or not, she offered the following excuse: “The number of threats I am receiving (due to threads the student has started on Reddit) makes this a subject I would not feel safe discussing even very generally.”

So the woman who enjoined [a student] to retreat from intellectual reflection and honest expression into cowardly silence is now taking her own craven advice – staying mum.

Believe it or not? Oh, I believe it. You better believe I believe it. Most of the comments I’ve read on this story call for the professor to lose her job. Quite a few of them go further and imply that she should never work again. And those are the civil comments.

Sure. Let’s gin up a hate mob and get someone fired. That’ll solve the problem. That’ll solve every problem. Lord knows, there’s got to be another squirrelly bureaucrat waiting in the wings, thinking about his own career, his own kids, his own car payments and peace of mind, already drafting his public statement: “Our university won’t tolerate professors who make students feel unsafe by threatening their free-speech rights …” And that will cool things down. Until the feminist backlash hits.

That phrase above, “the institutionally fetishized ‘other'”–that’s actually not bad. One of the most important things to note is that a devout Muslim student making similar statements would probably have gotten dragged in for the same harangue. “To be honest, homosexuality still makes me a bit uncomfortable, since it is contrary to certain teachings of …” Nope. Verboten. In my own travels in Liberal Land, I’ve heard plenty of people denouncing conservatives for demonizing Muslims, but I’ve rarely heard progressives speak as if Islamic thought can be a source of wisdom, or a guide to behavior, or anything meaningful. Islam is indeed reduced to a fetish, a badge of identity, a sticker to be stuck on someone’s forehead, offering certain exemptions and protections so long as no one says anything that might make trouble.

This kind of washed-out, institutional humanism is quick to denounce and discipline and dismiss, but it doesn’t really stand for much of anything. It certainly doesn’t stand for individual people, who always fall short of its de facto creed of perfect inoffensiveness.

That is, incidentally, why I’ve cut the personal names and links from this post. My own little blog isn’t likely to steer much viral hate toward anyone, but why take the chance? More importantly, who cares who these people are? It’s the nature of a story like this to flense away the humanity of the participants, reduce them to caricatures in a Punch and Judy show. That is, I think, why both the student and professor speak in faltering equivocations and mealymouthed cliches, why the whole scenario plays out like a bizarre show trial where it’s not entirely clear who’s being judged. I’ve had conversations like this myself, encounters in which people speak and behave like participants in someone else’s psychodrama, frantically passing back and forth the hot potato of controversy. In the manner of reality-show participants, we learn not to speak as ourselves, but as performers in front of an imaginary audience, trying to trip one another into saying something that will earn a zillion downvotes.

There’s a moment, late in the transcript, when the professor finally gets down to brass tacks:

PROFESSOR: It’s clear you’re not taking my word for it. I don’t care to convince you. If I can’t persuade you that it’s in your interest to behave in ways that other people don’t find offensive and objectionable, then at least I’ve done my job.

STUDENT: Well I know that it’s in my interest. I’m just trying to understand the reasoning.

PROFESSOR: You don’t have to.

STUDENT: Well, this is a truthseeking discipline!

At this, the professor laughs. Conservatives have pounced on that response with all the glee of a coach pointing out an unforced error. She … laughed? At the search for TRUTH ITSELF? What does she think philosophy is, some kind of a JOKE? Has this woman never heard of the ENLIGHTENMENT?

Feel that breeze? That’s the wind from a million wagging jowls.

Me? I thought that laugh came as something of a relief. As if the sheer accumulation of truisms and talking points, the young philosopher’s grandstanding and the bureaucrat’s obligatory banalities, had finally gotten to be too much. The human mind can only handle so much self-seriousness. Sooner or later, something cracks.

A laugh. At conservative pomposity. At liberal preening. Maybe that’s the kind of behavioral intervention we need.

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