I have previously mentioned an incident described in the memoirs of Tom Watson Jr, longtime CEO of IBM.
There was a moment when I truly thought IBM was going to lose its shot at defense work because of the kind of window blinds I had in my office.
These were vertical blinds, which were not common at the time. An engineer who was in Watson’s office for a meeting made a sketch of the blinds, and inadvertently left it in his shirt pocket when he took the shirt to the dry cleaner. The laundry man thought the paper looked suspicious, and sent it to Senator McCarthy. Pretty soon, a group of investigators came and said to the engineer, “We’ve identified this as a plan for a radar antenna, and want to hear about it. We want to be perfectly fair. But we know it is a radar antenna and the shirt it was found in belongs to you.”
The engineer explained about the vertical blinds, and the investigation team then asked to see Watson. The chief executive officer of IBM showed them the blinds and demonstrated the way they worked.
They looked them over very carefully and then left. I thought I had contained it, but I wasn’t sure, and I was scared. We were working on SAGE (the computerized air defense system–ed) and it would have been a hell of a way to lose our security clearance.
Shortly after the incident with the vertical blinds, Watson was invited to a lunch at Lehman Brothers, along with about 20 other high-ranking businesspeople. During the lunch, he mentioned his concerns about McCarthyism:
Of the twenty-odd people present, I was the only one who took that position. That didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that the following week I got letters from several people who had been there, and they all had a similar message: “I didn’t want to commit myself in public, but I certainly agreed with everything you said.”
I was reminded of this story once again by the current academic ragestorm involving the work of Professor Rebecca Tuvel. And, just as with Watson’s experience during the McCarthy era, what is particularly disturbing is that there are apparently a lot of people who don’t like what has been happening…but are afraid to say so.
And who is Professor Tuvel and what is the ragestorm about, you may ask? Tuvel is an assistant professor of philosophy at Memphis College; you can see her teaching and research interests at the link. Recently she published an article entitled “In Defense of Transracialism” in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. A writer at Inside Higher Ed summarizes:
The article explores whether there might be parallels between being transgender and being transracial, focusing specifically on the well-known case of Rachel Dolezal, who is white but presented herself as black for many years.
Tuvel’s argument is that the very same reasons that might justify an individual’s decision to change sexes could also be used to justify an individual’s decision to change races — so if one is committed to the acceptability of the former (as Tuvel herself is), then one would be committed to the acceptability of the latter.
And then the ragestorm broke:
Shortly after the paper was published in the spring 2017 edition of Hypatia, an open letter with signatures but no author appeared on the internet soliciting further signatures. The letter called for Tuvel’s paper to be retracted by the journal, stating that “its continued availability causes further harm.”
This open letter is now closed to further signatures and has been sent to the editor of Hypatia. While the open letter was still circulating, a statement appeared on the Hypatia website repudiating the article and making multiple references to the harms caused by the article’s publication. The statement has no signatures but is credited to “A majority of the Hypatia board of associate editors.”
“The harms caused by the article’s publication” sounds like an argument that would have been made by the Inquisition in support of burning someone at the stake for unauthorized theological writing, or the arguments that were frequently made by Nazi and Soviet courts when calling for the execution of those who had disseminated forbidden political and social views.
A recent New York Magazine article, This is what a modern-day witch hunt looks like, argues that many of the assertions by Tuvel’s ‘critics’ (way too mild a word in this context) are based on a mischaracterization of what she actually wrote. And this piece asserts that the over-the-top reaction has caused serious damage to Tuvel’s career…”How can Prof. Tuvel, for example, now use this repudiated but allegedly peer-reviewed article as part of her tenure process? Indeed, how can her department or college support her for tenure when she has been so vilified as a scholar and professional by people who work in her fields?”…and suggests that these attacks may rise to the level of defamation in the legal sense.
My main concern here is not whether Tuvel’s work is good or bad (read it for yourself here, if you’re so inclined, not sure how much longer it will stay up before the bit-burners get it)…indeed, I question the value of the whole subdiscipline encompassing this work and that of many of its critics), but the vitriolic tone of the attacks which in my view clearly inhibit intellectual exploration and and the ability to freely and (individually or collectively) play with ideas…which things are supposed to be primary reasons for the existence of academia…in favor of the dead hand of conformity. And what is particularly disturbing…and closely echoes Tom Watson’s experiences during the McCarthy era…is this:
The split between what people wrote to both Rebecca Tuvel and to me in private, and what they felt compelled to say in public is one indication that the explosion of personal insults and vicious attacks on social media is symptomatic of something much bigger than the actual issues discussed in Tuvel’s article. In private messages, some people commiserated, expressed support, and apologized for what was happening and for not going public with their support. As one academic wrote to me in a private message, “sorry I’m not saying this publicly (I have no interest in battling the mean girls on Facebook) but fwiw it’s totally obvious to me that you haven’t been committing acts of violence against marginalized scholars.
Others went further and supported Tuvel in private while actually attacking her in public. In private messages, these people apologized for what she must be going through, while in public they fanned the flames of hatred and bile on social media.
This behavior also echoes what Sarah Hoyt encountered when on an email list for writers she:
…dared question the insanity of a well-respected pro who said that George Bush (personally) had raised the price of stamps to ruin her (personally) in her efforts to sell used books through Amazon. There are levels of insanity I can’t tolerate and couldn’t even while in the political closet. So I pointed out the sheer insanity of this, the inefficiencies of the post office and probable causes for it.
The list went silent. I figured tons of people were cussing me behind my back (this was when GB’s name was after all like invoking the devil.)
So, I shrugged, figured I’d be kicked out of the list and went for a walk. When I came back my email was full of “Oh, thank you, for saying…” ALL OF IT IN PRIVATE MESSAGES. The senders ranged from raw beginners to established pros, but no one would challenge this lady’s illusions to her face. Only me.
That experience of Sarah’s wasn’t in academia per se, of course, but there has long been a close connection between the world of academia and the worlds of writing and publishing, and toxic behavior patterns in one surely tend to spread to the other. And much of American academia today seems to be acting as a repressive force. Students exposed to this environment will often learn to shut up and conform, dissenting professors will be driven out, and the whole thing will become (has largely already become, it seems) self-perpetuating.
Academia is increasingly like middle school, and academics increasingly like middle-schoolers. Question for taxpayers: Why subsidize middle-school behavior? Especially when it’s a middle school in East Germany. . . .
It’s somewhat encouraging that within academia there does seem to be some push-back emerging against the witch-hunters, and indeed, Hypatia’s editor in chief and the president of its board of directors, have stated that the people calling themselves “majority of the board of associate editors” were speaking for themselves and not for editor-in-chief, the editorial advisers or the editorial board. (See the Wikipedia article on the affair.) It would be nice to believe that this matter marks a high-water mark in the recent history of American academic insanity and repression, but I’m doubtful that is really the case.