A book by a Barnard College English instructor named Ben Philippe has caused a firestorm due to his depiction of a fantasy of gassing white people. The book passage has led some to demand review from the college for possible discipline or termination. As will come as no surprise to many on this blog, I believe such writing should be protected as a matter of free speech and academic freedom. The incident does however raise another case highlighting the uncertain or conflicting treatment given such writings by universities. It is doubtful that even a fictional account discussing the gassing of minorities would have resulted in anything other than a rapid suspension and ultimate termination in many universities. That conflicting standard should also be a concern for free speech and academic freedom.Philippe writes in his book “Sure, I’ll be your Black Friend” about “detonating” white people as nearby air vents spew out noxious gas: “When this race war hits its crescendo, I’ll gather you all into a beautifully decorated room under the pretense of unity,. I’ll give a speech to civility and all the good times we share; I’ll smile as we raise glasses to your good, white health, while the detonator blinks under the table, knowing the exits are locked and the air vents filled with gas. ”So Philippe is describing the genocidal murder against white people. According to a couple conservative sites, he was interviewed about his book on the CBC show “q” by guest host Talia Schlanger who noted that, as a Jewish person whose “grandparents survived the Holocaust,” she was disturbed by the passage. However, after Philippe said that “it was disturbing to write, too” and that he is not a violent person, Schlanger actually apologized to Philippe: “I wanted to say to you that I’m so sorry that your experience of the world made you feel that way.”There are those will have suggested that declaring a desire or fantasy to explode and gas white people cannot be tolerated in an academic who must be able to teach students of all races. Moreover, such comments can be cited as creating a sense of a safe environment at Barnard. However, there is no indication that Philippe has engaged in such racist and violent speech in classes or on campuses. Such passages are expressing deep-seated anger from his own experience and perspectives in our society. I find them disturbing and offensive but authors in fictional accounts have often used such shocking passages to challenge readers.My concern is the biased or conflicting handling of such cases. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. These comments were not protested as creating an “unsafe environment” and were largely ignored by universities. However, professors and students are routinely investigated, suspended, and sanctioned for countervailing views. There were also controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There was also such an incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
As we have previously discussed (with an Oregon professor and a Rutgers professor), there remains an uncertain line in what language is protected for teachers in their private lives. A conservative North Carolina professor faced calls for termination over controversial tweets and was pushed to retire. Dr. Mike Adams, a professor of sociology and criminology, had long been a lightning rod of controversy. In 2014, we discussed his prevailing in a lawsuit that alleged discrimination due to his conservative views. He was then targeted again after an inflammatory tweet calling North Carolina a “slave state.” That led to his being pressured to resign with a settlement. He then committed suicide
The efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views on various issues including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn. Sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers like Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself). Such campaigns have targeted teachers and students who contest the evidence of systemic racism in the use of lethal force by police or offer other opposing views in current debates over the pandemic, reparations, electoral fraud, or other issues.
The issue raised by Philippe is not whether he should be sanctioned but how these other professors have faced investigations, compelled retraining, or other measures for writings that simply disagree on public policy issues or express opposing political viewpoints — far short of discussing the gassing of white people.
University administrators often yield to protests and seek investigations and suspensions as a matter of course for targeted academics. However, when controversies arise on the left, they tend to quickly (and correctly) cite free speech and academic values. The sharp contrast in how controversial speech is handled in these cases raises serious concerns over free speech and academic freedom.