On free speech and hate

January 27, 2017

Before anybody rushes to remind me that there’s already scholarship, legal theory, and jurisprudence on these issues–I know. I’m not making a legal argument.

Two precipitating events have me thinking about this topic.

The other day, our colleague and friend Sid Dobrin posted a photo on Facebook of somebody with a swastika armband bicycling around the University of Florida campus. He came back yesterday and drew a crowd. The swastika-wearing cyclist swears (O! Dear me! How could anyone think I have bad intentions?!?) the “protestors don’t understand my intentions” and that he doesn’t “mean to hurt anyone.”

Yesterday, at West Chester University where I teach, two “preachers” showed up on campus (this happens periodically) spewing incendiary bigotry at anyone and everyone within shouting distance. Unfortunately, a couple of students reacted strongly enough that they were arrested and are likely to be charged with assault.

So here’s the thing.

I understand what the First Amendment says, and that the jurisprudence around free speech has historically protected groups like the KKK and their right to speak. I understand as somebody who studies rhetoric and activism that sometimes groups need to create very uncomfortable spectacles and situations in order to mobilize people on behalf of issues. As somebody who was deeply involved in organizing our faculty strike last fall and has been doing activism of various kinds for 30+ years, I get it.

But I want to challenge people who defend the Nazi-bicycle-guy and the two “preachers” (who I refuse to acknowledge as Christian based on how explicitly hateful they are) to explain something to me.

The presumption free-speech laws and jurisprudence make is that such speech is necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. Explain to me how riding a bicycle around a campus with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, waving a swastika around at people, is positively contributing to democracy. Explain how we’re advancing public deliberation about, um, anything at all by standing in the middle of WCU campus telling women that they’re sinning just by being at college, or that calling people “faggots and whores” accomplishes anything useful at all. And “because if we don’t use our free speech rights, we lose them” isn’t an answer. And “because they can” isn’t an answer either. The question is: what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?

I’m listening.

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Why I Support the WCU Sanctuary Campus Letter

November 30, 2016

Ten days ago, out of concern among WCU students and faculty that the post-election wave of violence and threats against marginalized people will likely our campus, a group of faculty decided to join a nationwide movement called #SanctuaryCampus that calls on colleges/universities to become havens for community members who may be in danger under the new political regime. Among other provisions, the campaign asks campuses to declare their unwillingness to participate in sweeps or raids fishing for undocumented people.

I helped to circulate the letter and organize this effort–i.e., I didn’t just sign but have recruited other signers–not because I want to “tell the university to break the law” or “demand non-compliance with federal policy” or other such nonsense, but because I want the university/system leadership to take a proactive stance on behalf of threatened populations before a new administration tries to execute policies that would harm people we’re supposed to support.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think the letter asks the university to break any laws–and it certainly doesn’t demand anything of the sort. The letter does ask the university to resist efforts at harming our students as strongly as we can–or more to the point, it asks the university’s leadership to commit to not enabling miscarriages of justices that we fear are likely given the campaign and post-election ethos. PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall (who lost my trust based on his active propagation of disinformation during our contract negotiations and strike) thinks it might.

That’s what dialogue is for, y’all. If the university/system made the case that they can’t commit to certain terms in the letter but can do ___ instead, I think most of us are listening.

I also support the campaign because it asks for other commitments from the university as well, largely redoubling our commitments to diversity and inclusion in ways that are more than hortatory. There are students and staff and faculty who feel directly endangered, and we need to make sure they feel as safe as we can make them.

Yesterday the West Chester Daily Local ran a story about the sanctuary campus effort. Dr. Nadine Bean, who did most of the drafting of the letter, was the only faculty member who spoke to the reporter and has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of predictably nasty troll attacks against her as a result.

I’ve looked at the comments, one of which I responded to (the commenter “wondered” how Dr. Bean would feel when one of those “rapists” attacked a female student: I replied that his comment demonstrates precisely why we needed to do this), but anybody who’s been publicly visible for doing any kind of social justice work has probably been here or nearby before. Getting flamed sucks. People who are willing to say the things those folks say (usually behind a wall of pseudonymity, which is probably a conversation for another day) are usually pretty good at being intimidating–which is what they’re trying to be.

If you read this blog back in 2007, 2008, you’ve seen what this kind of flaming looks like. I learned then, especially as it relates to threats about my job, that the best response for me was to invite flamers to watch my teaching and read my scholarship. If any of you trolls wants to scare me by threatening to “turn me in” to WCU and PASSHE bigwigs, they already know who I am. They know what my politics are. They know I’m a union thug. Now they know I’ve not only signed the Sanctuary Campus letter but helped to circulate it. If you want to have a conversation about how well I fulfill my professional obligations, let’s do, but you have to play by my rules:

  1. It happens here so it’s visible and archived for anyone who wants to see it.
  2. You know my real name, so I get to know your real name too. If you say the nasty things, you have to own them.
  3. I get to decide if you cross a line such that I won’t approve a comment. It’s my blog. If you want to say something I won’t publish, start your own blog. It’s free and easy.

 


Why I’m OK with this version of the Safety Pin

November 15, 2016

The debate over wearing safety pins as a sign to potential victims of racial/anti-woman/anti-LGBTQ+/religious violence that the wearer is willing to intervene on their behalf has largely undone what I saw as a powerful opportunity. Not the first time something I thought was a good idea got washed away, not the last. So it goes.

I have to admit I had some trepidation about wearing the pin in public, which was inchoate until I read this piece (“So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin”), in which the author makes a strong case that even (especially) if the symbol communicates what was its primary message (not a generalized anti-bigotry message, but a much more targeted message to potential victims that they can count on your help if they need it), wearers need to be sure they can deliver what they’re promising. That might include putting yourself in physical danger, might even entail participating in violence if that’s what it takes. I was already having a hard time reconciling my own pacifism with that possibility, realizing both that it’s a deep personal/philosophical/political commitment and an expression of privilege that I get to decide whether to fight back, but the person who sees me wearing the pin on the bus doesn’t know that’s a complicated question.

I saw enough argumentation about how fraught the symbol has become–and arguments coming from the populations who I would be supporting by wearing it–that I decided not to wear one on my person. As one Facebook friend put it, no matter what I mean to be saying, I (and others, obviously) have lost control over that meaning, particularly in public settings where there’s not going to be time to talk about it.

However, I have decided that in conjunction with the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus, I’ll use the image designed by friend and comrade Kevin Mahoney as a signal to students, staff, faculty, and other members of our campus community that I’m doing more than announcing how anti-bigotry I am.

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By posting this image as a sign at my office and having it visible in as many places as possible, I want community members to know that I’ll help them with anything they need in the event of a threat or act of violence or harassment–filing reports, finding a place to hide out, organizing public responses, talking to Public Safety or police, confronting bigots face to face, helping to raise money for anti-violence groups, helping to organize bystander training, and so on. I’ll do as much of that as I can without waiting for people to ask, but this sign tells them that they can ask without having to wonder how I’ll respond.

If there are members of the community who find it an empty gesture, so be it. I hope they’ll tell me that so we can talk about what would serve as a more meaningful contribution. In that case, it will still have accomplished something useful.