Harvard University is under fire this week after canceling a talk by philosopher Devin Buckley on British Romanticism. That is usually not a protest-inspiring subject. The Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge do not usually trigger riotous reactions. However, Harvard decided to cancel this talk not because of Dr. Buckley’s world-renowned expertise but because of her political views and associations. She is a member of the Women’s Liberation Front, a feminist organization that has opposed transgender policies as inimical to women’s rights. That was enough for Harvard, which shattered any pretense of free speech and viewpoint diversity on its campus. Wordsworth once wrote that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” In this case, powerful feelings proved the end to good poetry.
Media reports quote Buckley as saying that she was cancelled after the objections from English department coordinator Erin Saladin. Even though her speech had nothing to do with gender or feminism issues, Saladin reportedly objected to her board membership on the organization.
The National Review published an email from Saladin that raised a “difficult note” after looking up Buckley and discovering her association with what Saladin called “a trans-exclusionary radical feminist organization.” She added “I also found at least one piece of her writing online that explicitly denies the possibility of trans identity. I can’t ask for funding to invite a speaker who takes the public stance that trans people are dangerous or deceptive.” She called out other faculty by name who might not want to sign off on funding when “it could look pretty bad for them and the department.”
Dr. Buckley noted that Saladin never even bothered to quote from her writings to show the hateful content.
There has been a global campaign against feminists who challenge transgender policies as undermining or even reversing the gains of the feminist movement. They are called trans-exclusionary radical feminists or Terfs by critics. Some have even been prosecuted in other countries like Australia for hate speech due to their political beliefs.
Terfs are being attacked in the media in articles that tend to include anyone who opposes transgender laws. The labeling creates a chilling effect for those who might want to speak out against aspects of these laws or policies. For some feminists, gender self-identification creates dangerous situations for women and negates core elements of feminist values. For others, this opposition is a denial of their identification and characterizes them as dangerous or potentially criminal.
In the end, none of that matters. How Buckley views gender or how others view her views on gender should not be a barrier to her speaking on British Romanticism. (Indeed, Harvard should welcome opposing views on gender identity.) Nevertheless, she has experienced the increasingly common “shunning” and cancellation of academics who hold dissenting views on campuses.
Dr. Buckley objected that “Harvard has let me know that I cannot be a scholar of British Romanticism because I do not believe there are male women. For my part, I’d rather be damned with the Romantics and Plato than go to woke heaven with Erin and the Harvard faculty.”
What is disturbing is not just the objections of staff like Saladin but the silence of faculty at Harvard in the face of such intolerance and orthodoxy. These faculty members and administrators have destroyed the guarantees of free thought and expression on our campuses. The lesson has not been lost on students. The Knight Foundation released a study showing that sixty-five (65) percent agreed that people on campus today are prevented from speaking freely. The poll is additional evidence of the failure of administrators and faculty to maintain campuses as forums for free thought and intellectual engagement.
What is most notable about these controversies is how only conservative, libertarian or minority viewpoints seem to result in cancellation or termination. When liberal faculty make racist or violent statements, they are rarely sanctioned.
As a free speech advocate, I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” 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. Indeed, University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.
Even when faculty engage in such hateful acts on campus, however, there is a notable difference in how universities respond depending on the viewpoint. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display. Another previously case involved Fresno State University Public Health Professor Dr. Gregory Thatcher who recruited students to destroy pro-life messages written on the sidewalks and wrongly told the pro-life students that they had no free speech rights in the matter. He was not sanctioned.
However, Dr. Buckley cannot be allowed to speak on British Romanticism at Harvard.
John Keats once wrote, “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Harvard decided it was best not to come at all.