Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abuse From the Politically Correct Crowd Over Instructor Who Said Gay Students Would Be Offended at Discussion of Gay Marriage

Some leftist and politically correct blogs have taken up the cause of Cheryl Abbate, the Marquette Philosophy instructor who told one of her students that gay marriage could not be discussed in class since any opposition to gay marriage might offend gay students.

Some of the abuse has been in personal e-mails to us.  For example:
Ben Mulitski [benthono@gmail.com]

You are what’s wrong with this world-- spreading hatred for the sake of spreading hatred. Free speech is unimportant when the viewpoints expressed are blatantly wrong.

http://dailynous.com/2014/11/18/philosophy-grad-student-target-of-political-smear-campaign/
This is the secret id of politically correct people revealing itself: “Free speech is unimportant when the viewpoints expressed are blatantly wrong.” Yes, politically correct people think they have a right to shut up speech that they think is “blatantly wrong.”

Then we have an another e-mail, sent to us:
Buck, Brandon [brandon.buck@tc.columbia.edu]

As usual, just a privileged old White MALE tryin’ to talk about who should feel offended and who shouldn’t. And, as usual, another privileged old white male tryin’ to do all he can to ensure that a female philosopher feels marginalized and denigrated.

You are a small human being.

Sincerely,

Brandon
Yes, another view into the id of the politically correct. Anti-white racism and anti-male sexism. And of course ageism.

Buck then upped the ante by e-mailing the entire political science faculty.
Buck, Brandon [brandon.buck@tc.columbia.edu]

Greetings all,

As an MU alum, I’m thoroughly disappointed because, at this point, your silence is deafening. And your silence renders you equally culpable. This isn’t just another case of McAdams being McAdams. This isn’t a case of intellectual liberty to express unpopular ideas.

Whatever went down in that ethics course, the fact remains that the TA is a Marquette student. As a student, she’s entrusted to the care of MU faculty (that’s you!). McAdams’s actions violated the fiduciary responsibility he has toward ALL students at Marquette. The same fiduciary responsibility you all share. By publicly attacking a student in this way, he has potentially caused her emotional and psychological trauma. He has violated a student’s privacy, and has deliberately and intentionally caused her harm with neither care nor appropriate foresight. For these reasons, McAdams is not fit to serve as a faculty member at ANY university.

To be clear, the university is not only a marketplace of ideas. It’s a place where young people can become grow to become good people.

Maybe as a novice educator with no training provided by the university, the TA felt she wasn’t yet adequately prepared to handle a conversation about gay marriage in a responsible way. Perhaps she intended to consult the advice of her advisor; or maybe she wanted to invite conversation on the topic during another class session in a more structured way. In either case, her unwillingness to engage the conversation at that particular time during that particular class could equally signal prudence and a sense of responsibility for all her students (two virtues McAdams is obviously lacking).

In any event the incident provided a valuable learning opportunity for all students involved. And instead of helping an aspiring academic grow and become a better person and a better pedagogue, McAdams chose to publicly humiliate, disparage and attack her. McAdams is flatly pathetic and there’s no place for that in your esteemed department, at Marquette--or any university.

Along with his immediate termination, he should also be subject to civil liability. And the fact remains that, as long as you all stand silently by, you’re equally morally culpable.

Sincerely,

Brandon
_________________________________________________
Brandon Buck
Doctoral Fellow, Philosophy and Education
GA/TA, Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis
Teachers College, Columbia University
(m) [redacted]

Other Arguments

Some responses were less deranged, but still misguided.

Some attackers accused us of taking Abbate’s comments out of context. We have no time to prepare an entire transcript of the exchange between Abbate and the student, but we did supply the entire audio to a reporter for Inside Higher Ed, and she confirmed both the thrust and the details of what we reported.

The reporter, Colleen Flaherty, got a response from Abbate, and Abbate admitted that she said “it seemed right to me” that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’ principle of equal liberty, which was the text being discussed. This is not precisely what the student reported to us, but it’s easy to see how the student would have perceived the instructor blowing off an issue that he wanted to discuss.

Flaherty confirmed that we e-mailed Abbate, and asked for her version of what happened. Abbate did not respond.

A supporter of Abbate’s, one Justin Weinberg, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina, opined that “the instructor needed to make a decision about how to use limited class time, especially given the topic of the lesson and the subject of the course (which is ethical theory, not applied ethics).”

The problem is that’s not what Abbate said to the student. She explicitly said she did not want to discuss the issue because if arguments against gay marriage were voiced, they might offend any gay students in the class.

We teach a course in Public Policy. We don’t discuss gay marriage for the simple reason that we focus on issues that can be decided on the costs and benefits and their distribution. Gay marriage doesn’t fit that context very well.  But an instructional choice is not the same thing as wanting to protect students from arguments they might dislike.

Only Certain Groups Get Protection

Nobody would say that a biology professor should refrain from discussing evolution because some conservative Christians might object, or that atheist arguments can’t be aired because Christians and other theists might be offended.

Only certain victim groups get protection from hearing things they are presumed to get upset about.  And it doesn’t matter whether they really get upset.  To presume that gays would get upset over hearing arguments against gay marriage, or blacks would get upset hearing arguments against affirmative action is to demean both groups.  It’s true that among both groups there are hustlers who are perpetually offended.  But they should not be allowed to censor the discussion.

In reality, it’s arguments that liberal and leftist professors don’t like that are deemed “offensive.”

Another Argument of Campus Authoritarians

Weinberg made another argument, far more insidious, supporting Abbate’s refusal to discuss gay marriage. Quoting:
It also happened to be a kind of comment that Abbate noted might be offensive, and might constitute harassment according to Marquette University’s policies. So it seems she was being a good teacher as well as playing it safe regarding university policy. That was prudent, given her status as a graduate student instructor. The main take-away, though, is that it would have been perfectly permissible for Abbate to request the student not make the comment even if it weren’t offensive.
This, of course, contradicts Weinberg’s first argument, that not discussing gay marriage was merely an instructional choice. Here, he endorses the notion that allowing any opposition to gay marriage to be voiced would be “harassment” and might violate a harassment policy.

This is the first cousin to the notion that politically incorrect opinions are “offensive” and thus must be silenced.

Unfortunately, Marquette itself seemed to endorse that notion in a “training” module on “harassment” that all faculty and employees were required to take a few months ago.

But that notion would never stand up in court, and it’s unlikely Marquette would ever try to enforce that notion.  But they might not mind if it chills politically incorrect speech, since such speech creates problems for administrators.

Conclusion

So what we have is the academic version of the culture wars, with the increasingly authoritarian academic left wanting to shut up first students, and then professors who fail to toe the line.

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3 Comments:

Blogger John Protevi said...

Professor McAdams, the sentence you attribute to me was instead made by Justin Weinberg, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and author of this post at his blog, Daily Nous: http://dailynous.com/2014/11/18/philosophy-grad-student-target-of-political-smear-campaign/

That you make such an elementary mistake does not lead one to confidence in the care with which you compose your writings on this issue.

I am however the author of this Open Letter, which now has over 200 signatories: http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/2014/11/open-letter-in-support-of-cheryl-abbate.html

I direct your attention to the first comment, by Bonnie Honig, Professor of Political Science at Brown University: "Please add my name to this. Even if everything printed were true and the grad student said and did everything attributed to her ( which I do not grant) this response -- public calling out, exposure to public condemnation, political labeling,-- by a faculty member violates every expectation of graduate training and collegiality. It is a betrayal of the trust invested in faculty to mentor and guide students, not to make of them casualties in larger battles whether inside or outside their institutions."

I found this comment instructive as well: "I support this letter and am so pleased to see how widespread the response has been. Ms. Abbate deserves no less than any instructor, tenured or otherwise, deserves: due process, a resistance to trying a case in the court of public opinion, respect for her expertise, and the professionalism of her colleagues. The kind of news-baiting in which Professor McAdams has engaged is a disservice to students and faculty alike. I suspect he would not enjoy anyone vilifying him without first attempting to gather the facts in the case. In addition, the student who recorded a conversation without Ms. Abbate's consent, and who denied he was doing so, should be apprised of the law, as well as of general principles of ethics.

I am a graduate of a Jesuit institution (Fordham University) and have studied Jesuit history. This developing situation is absolutely not in keeping with rational interpretation of the _Constitutions_ or later interpretations of "Our Way of Proceeding."

Kathleen M. Comerford, Department of History
Georgia Southern University
Member, AAUP"

Finally, I do not wish you to "shut up"; I hope you continue writing more of these posts, and in addition I wish you a very pleasant conversation with the Dean, Provost, and perhaps even President of Marquette.

6:22 PM  
Blogger pastrypride said...

I'm not convinced by Flaherty's "confirmation" of your interpretation. Journalists are notoriously sloppy when it comes to these kinds of things.

There is one small bit of context that would be really helpful. You consistently characterize the student's statements to which Abbate was responding as mere opposition to gay marriage. Here's what Matthew Shadle wrote in a previous post:
"Susan Kruth at FIRE has provided a quote from the conversation which is the immediate context of Abbate’s remarks. The student says:

"Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher of a class to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.”

"The student is in effect demanding carte blanche to argue against same sex marriage for whatever reasons he chooses, even clearly bigoted or vacuous ones, without any kind of censure or discrediting from the instructor (and the comment is general enough that he appears to be demanding the right to air any opinion whatsoever without criticism). But as an academic surely you must recognize that this is ridiculous, that an instructor has every right to censure or discredit a student’s comment if it is based on truly bigoted or faulty reasoning."

http://mu-warrior.blogspot.com/2014/11/nancy-show-philosophy-chair-livid-over.html#comments

This gives the impression that Abbate took issue with the student's reasons for opposing gay marriage, and not with his opposition to gay marriage per se. If you could provide direct quotes indicating the reasons against gay marriage cited by the student, and Abbate's direct responses, that would be go a long way.

I understand that you're too busy to write out the entire transcript. But it's unreasonable to publish a blog post that could potentially harm a young scholar's career, and that has certainly directed substantially antipathy towards her, without being willing to share adequate evidence. All that should be required here is a few more sentences.

I'm open to being persuaded of your conclusion. But the systematic way in which you supply your own interpretation to make Abbate look bad (as detailed by Matthew Shadle and myself in the previous thread) and now refuse to provide relevant context on the basis of a pretty flimsy excuse destroys your credibility. (And on the topic of credibility: I also notice that you don't deny the charge that you gave Abbate less than a day to respond to your email.)

7:18 PM  
Blogger John Protevi said...

Professor McAdams, while I am glad you corrected your error of attributing to me the statements of Professor Weinberg, I am disappointed you did you approve the substantive part of my comment, which I reprint here:

I am however the author of this Open Letter, which now has over 200 signatories: http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/2014/11/open-letter-in-support-of-cheryl-abbate.html

I direct your attention to the first comment, by Bonnie Honig, Professor of Political Science at Brown University:

Please add my name to this. Even if everything printed were true and the grad student said and did everything attributed to her ( which I do not grant) this response -- public calling out, exposure to public condemnation, political labeling,-- by a faculty member violates every expectation of graduate training and collegiality. It is a betrayal of the trust invested in faculty to mentor and guide students, not to make of them casualties in larger battles whether inside or outside their institutions.

I found this comment instructive as well:

I support this letter and am so pleased to see how widespread the response has been. Ms. Abbate deserves no less than any instructor, tenured or otherwise, deserves: due process, a resistance to trying a case in the court of public opinion, respect for her expertise, and the professionalism of her colleagues. The kind of news-baiting in which Professor McAdams has engaged is a disservice to students and faculty alike. I suspect he would not enjoy anyone vilifying him without first attempting to gather the facts in the case. In addition, the student who recorded a conversation without Ms. Abbate's consent, and who denied he was doing so, should be apprised of the law, as well as of general principles of ethics. I am a graduate of a Jesuit institution (Fordham University) and have studied Jesuit history. This developing situation is absolutely not in keeping with rational interpretation of the _Constitutions_ or later interpretations of "Our Way of Proceeding."

Kathleen M. Comerford, Department of History, Georgia Southern University

----

The main thrust here should be obvious. You cherry-pick some extreme correspondence and then claims they reveal the "id of the politically correct." I counter by citing some calm and reasoned criticisms. I invite you to engage the claims of Honig and Comerford and hence to avoid the appearance of engaging straw men rather than responsible critics.

----

Finally, addressing your conclusion: I do not wish you to "shut up"; I hope you continue talking, and wish you a very pleasant conversation with the Dean, Provost, and perhaps even President of Marquette.

9:43 PM  

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