From the “Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group”: “We fully support Professor Rectenwald’s right to speak his mind and we welcome civil discourse on the issues that concern him. But as long as he airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas. The cause of Professor Rectenwald’s guilt is certainly not, in our view, his identity as a cis, white, straight male. The cause of his guilt is the content and structure of his thinking.”
I’m not a conservative, or an alt-righter. I find Donald Trump repugnant. But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve become a campus pariah to some (and a hero, perhaps, to a few) in my nontenured NYU faculty job, thanks to the humorless, Social Justice Warrior-brand of campus culture run amok and a misunderstanding about a Twitter account. Enmeshed in a conspiracy — thinly disguised as sympathy — of my colleagues’ design, I’ve lost my academic freedom and I potentially stand to lose my appointment.
Last month, NYU’s senior vice president of student affairs, Marc Wais, sent an email to the campus community to announce that an on-campus appearance by right-wing Internet provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had been canceled by the administration. I believe universities should debate bad ideas, not ban them, and I vocally opposed this development.
Around the same time, I created a Twitter account, @antipcnyuprof, complete with Nietzsche avatar and “Deplorable” screen name, as a thought experiment. It allowed me to tweet in the guise of an alt-righter while drawing out the predictable, censorious responses of so-called progressives, self-appointed thought police at NYU and elsewhere who have, in the name of maintaining a culture of civility on campus, policed their little corner of the Twittersphere. Beyond NYU, we just marked a Halloween where, with almost comic predictability, the politically correct campus thought police, like some dystopian pre-crime bureau, have prompted students to report on peers for wearing offensive Halloween attire.
We’ve reached a point where anything can be taken out of context and labeled injurious: At a University of Kansas dorm, a RA advised against incorporating an image of Harambe, the gorilla, into a jungle-themed floor decoration because it was a “triggering” “masculine image.” As Erika Christakis (harangued for her own attempts last year to bring some sanity to Yale’s debate over Halloween costumes), eloquently explains, “Certain ideas are too dangerous” to talk about on campus. In other words, we’ve reached a point where students, faculty and administrators alike are increasingly inclined to suppress the free flow of ideas — the discourse that is a university’s very reason for being.
In recent semesters, I and other NYU faculty have been encouraged to structure class discussions as safe spaces. This fall, that encouragement veered toward coercion when the university implemented a bias reporting hotline, by which students can anonymously report professors and classmates for any number of viewpoint transgressions related to race, gender and orientation, real or perceived, in the course of academic discussion. And it was suggested that the bias line phone number and email address be added to all syllabi. Which would help turn every classroom encounter into a potential infraction and figures students as Soviet-style monitors of ideological conformity. I refused.
And to do my part to push back, I’ve spoken out. I posted an article on Facebook (without comment), about a University of Michigan student who, when offered his choice of pronouns by which the university would officially identify him — including gender-neutral “ze” — cleverly chose “His Majesty” as a way of sending up the absurdity of the exercise. My post was meant only to upend the politically correct conventional wisdom, and have a laugh at the university administration. But it was met with fierce backlash from a number of transgender individuals, then (perhaps no longer) among my friends, as totally beyond the pale.