“The power to be found in victimization, like any power,” wrote Shelby Steele in The Content of Our Character, “is intoxicating and can lend itself to the creation of a new class of super-victims who can feel the pea of victimization under twenty mattresses.” Evidently, the new campus victims in the culture of aggrievement since George Floyd’s death have been irritated by the ‘hard pea’ of racism and want everyone else on campus to know and feel their pain, as well, since coddled, narcissistic college students have weaponized their professed victimology and have turned it on administrators and the professoriate as a way of extorting concessions, influence, and power on their respective campuses.
On the first day of classes at Skidmore College, for instance, a rally was held, sponsored by the student organization Pass the Mic, at which the protestors called for the end of racism at the school and conveniently presented the administration with 19 specific demands aimed at facilitating “. . . transformative healing work for Black and Indigenous people of color, and trying to cultivate a sense of community that isn’t here on campus,” as one of the organizers put it.
In order to create this brave new anti-racist world at Skidmore, the 19 demands included the predictable ones, such as “a zero-tolerance policy toward racism among faculty, staff, students and administrators” and “mandatory and reoccurring anti-racist training for all professors and students,” but also more radical and delusional requests such as: “full access to all Campus Safety officers’ background records;” a “ban [of] all police presence from campus including as responses to disputes and for large-scale public events;” and, frighteningly, a policy that “all bias reports filed against professors/faculty [be made] public and accessible while concealing the identity of the person who filed.” But perhaps most troubling on this list was the one very specific demand that called for “The immediate firing of Mark Vinci, David Peterson, and Andrea Peterson,” three Skidmore faculty members. And what were the offenses that would justify these professors’ termination?
Professor Vinci of the Music Department had apparently “recently been outed for racist remarks and blatantly blaming COVID contamination from an Asian International student,” and other incidents that suggested to students that he “is [a] racist and sexist person. He attacks students who seek for his help . . . .”
The Petersons, studio art professors, however, had committed something more unforgivable, and morally unacceptable, since they “were seen protesting with Blue Lives Matter protestors, while Skidmore alumni and students were being teargassed and attacked on the other side of the street,” and this mere presence at the pro-police rally was clear evidence to these fragile students that the Petersons were “openly advocating and preaching exclusionary, racist, and fascist ideology.” [Emphasis added.]
Typical of the bromides offered by university presidents and other administrators when they are presented with a laundry list of demands from activist, vocal students seeking to exploit their perceived victimism, Skidmore’s new president, Marc Conner, crafted a feckless response, claiming that “[he had] been learning about many areas of pain, suffering, anger, resentment and simmering frustration,” and, in response to the demands, would implement “tangible measures [that] have been informed by those feelings and those concerns.”
That is the expected, and hollow, statement typical of the solemn pronouncements given by university officials in response to this irrational racial antagonism. What would have been more welcome, and more necessary to swat down the students’ outrageous demand regarding the firing of three Skidmore faculty, is a firm, rational, and thoughtful response that might go like this:
With regard to the firing of the three professors you called out as deserving to have their roles at Skidmore terminated, I must firmly and unapologetically deny that request, as well as any further demands by you that they explain themselves, reveal their motives for being at the pro-police rally on July 30th, or apologize for whatever reactions you may have had by seeing them there and any conclusions about them that you may have drawn from that.
First of all, at Skidmore—as at every other university where inquiry, scholarly debate, and dialogue are enshrined as some of our principal tenets—faculty enjoy academic freedom. That freedom means that professors, and you students, as well, are encouraged to explore varying viewpoints, ideologies, opinions, and ways of looking at the world, and that if each of us in the university community does that, it is more likely that we will ultimately arrive at the truth.
To call for the firing of these professors because, in your opinion, they have views that vary from yours suggests that you believe your viewpoint is the only accepted, and acceptable, way of looking at the current issue of law enforcement and racial justice and that those who do not share those views are immoral, regressive, or, as in the case here, racist.
A university community strives assiduously to avoid heterodoxy in thought, even for those views which some of us may find repugnant, regressive, or out of step with current ideology, and so professors and students are not only permitted to articulate views inconsistent with our own but they are encouraged to investigate alternate views. And those who have differing opinions, even if they are in a fragile minority, should not need fear reprisals for their thought, other than debate and counter-argument. Skidmore’s own “Policies on Hate Speech and Bias” specifically affirm that “Speech or expression that is consistent with the principles of academic freedom does not constitute a bias incident,” so someone’s presence at a rally in support of law enforcement clearly falls under that protection.
You also assume, and use as justification for calling for the professors’ termination, that anyone who attended the “Back The Blue” demonstration is signaling that they are racist, anti-black, and opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement—all of which you claim makes you feel “unsafe,” afraid, even more marginalized on the Skidmore campus. But supporting law enforcement and seeking racial justice and equity are not mutually exclusive ambitions, and the alleged police brutality of one police officer in Minneapolis out of some 600,000 in the U.S. should not, and certainly cannot, condemn all the dutiful police officers who protect our citizenry and put their lives at risk to do so.
You certainly are not suggesting that it is reasonable, fair, and productive to condemn all police based on the actions of a few bad ones, are you? Many Black Lives Matter activists themselves have been involved in criminal and questionable behavior—including incitement against police officers, anti-white violence, anti-Semitism, looting, arson, and even murders—and I am sure that you would not want the entire BLM movement, and its supporters (including you), to be condemned because of the actions of a few of its members, just as all police officers should not be criticized and condemned for the errant behavior of a tiny number of their ranks.
In fact, someone observing your presence at the Saratoga Springs Black Lives Matter counter-protest—which, as you know, did ultimately culminate in violence and arrests that day—may well have drawn a negative conclusion about you and your ideology, since you were supporting a movement, as noted, with questionable mission and tactics, and, since you participated in this violent demonstration, could have called for your expulsion from Skidmore based on that.
Would that request be any less unreasonable than your request to have these Skidmore professors terminated? Could one conclude from your support of an anti-police movement with an ongoing campaign to vilify, condemn, and libel law enforcement officers as being unrepentant, brutal racists perpetrating white supremacy that you, yourself, are exhibiting intolerance, reverse racism, bias, and counter-factual thinking that is subject to debate and an opposing viewpoint?
That type of firm, reasoned statement is nearly non-existent on campuses today. The reality is that these narcissistic, grievance-fueled brats attend universities that are among the safest places on earth, campuses where actual racism, bigotry, and hatred are so rare that a whole culture of victimism had to be created, complete with microaggressions, trigger warnings, implicit bias, invisible racism, and perceived disrespect which students, well-versed in language of grievance, compete for points on a sensitivity index and use these to extract concessions, rights, and benefits from cowering administrators.
But if we have come to the point where a student can decide that, based on a faculty members support of law enforcement, of all things, that this professor cannot even remain in the community based on the purported harm his presence will do to people of color or other so-called marginalized groups, then the problem is clearly not the presence of a pro-police faculty member.
On the contrary, the problem is that these tendentious, coddled students feel that they can determine who on campus has the right to have certain viewpoints and who does not. And, more seriously, not only do they believe that their ideological foes deserve to be denounced—in this case, for being racists and supporting the alleged white supremacy pervading law enforcement—but these alleged racists should not even be allowed to remain on campus and it is reasonable that they be purged from the Skidmore community.
This is “cancel culture” at its inevitable and grotesque endpoint, and that students have weaponized purported racism to suppress alternate views and eliminate any debate bodes poorly for the future of the academy. If someone feels threatened, “unsafe,” or emotionally put upon because someone else in his or her community gives tacit support to law enforcement, the problem is clearly not with the police-supporting professor but with the triggered student; and perhaps someone who cannot tolerate even uncontroversial opposing views does not belong on a university campus in the first place.
The prescient and still-relevant 1975 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale discussed the danger of allowing some intellectually intolerant individuals on campus to degrade or demonize the expression of others with whom they disagree. “They assert a right to prevent free expression,” the report noted. “They rest upon the assumption that speech can be suppressed by anyone who deems it false or offensive,” echoing Marcuse’s notion of ‘repressive tolerance.’ “They deny what Justice Holmes termed ‘freedom for the thought that we hate.’ They make the majority, or any willful minority, the arbiters of truth for all.”
And what is the ultimate threat for such suppression of free speech, of this unfortunate symptom of cancel culture, according the report? “If expression may be prevented, censored or punished, because of its content or because of the motives attributed to those who promote it, then it is no longer free. It will be subordinated to other values that we believe to be of lower priority in a university.”
And when censorious students seek to silence opposing thought by banishing ideological foes from a campus, free speech is threatened and degraded for all.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.