Vox’s Amanda Taub says a piece the site published earlier this week about progressive identity politics on campus is “truthy” and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Strangely, Taub’s rebuttal overlooks nearly all of the evidence which might suggest otherwise.
Earlier this week, Vox published a piece titled, “I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me.” The core of the piece was the pseudonymous professor’s claim that the dynamic of power had changed on campus and, as a result, even progressive professors felt it necessary to tone down their opinions. Taub argues the piece doesn’t show any real harm has been done:
It’s truthy: it offers a conclusion that feels as if it should be true, even though it isn’t accompanied by much in the way of actual evidence. In this case, that truthy conclusion is that the rise of identity politics is doing real harm — that this new kind of discourse, whether you call it “identity politics” or “call-out culture” or “political correctness,” is not just annoying or upsetting to the people it targets, but a danger to academic freedom and therefore an actual substantive problem to be addressed.
It’s true that the Vox article was longer on theory than on examples, but it did offer some real examples of harm:
I have intentionally adjusted my teaching materials as the political winds have shifted… Most of my colleagues who still have jobs have done the same. We’ve seen bad things happen to too many good teachers — adjuncts getting axed because their evaluations dipped below a 3.0, grad students being removed from classes after a single student complaint, and so on.
I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate.
The author gives us detail about one case in which a teacher is fired over a student’s complaints. He also suggests that he and his colleagues have seen this pattern repeated with other adjuncts as well as with grad students. It would have been a stronger piece if the professor had spent more time describing the actual harm in detail. Nevertheless, Taub is claiming the danger from students doesn’t really exist. Since the author says he and his friends have seen it, we have to ask: Is he lying?
While the pseudonymous professor doesn’t offer many personal stories, he does offer some additional public examples later in the piece. For instance, Oxford canceling an abortion debate and Hampshire College disinviting a band with too many white people in it. He also pointed out how the same identity politics plays out online, singling out one outspoken Twitter user’s comments about science. (Those tweets were removed from the piece after the author complained their inclusion without her approval was tantamount to rape!)
Perhaps the most glaring omission from Taub’s rebuttal is any mention of Laura Kipnis. Kipnis is the Northwestern professor who wrote about her experiences having two Title IX complaints filed against her after she wrote an essay (and a tweet) critical of campus sexual paranoia. More to the point, Kipnis is mentioned in the piece Taub is rebutting. Here’s part of what Kipnis wrote:
My inbox became a clearinghouse for reports about student accusations and sensitivities, and the collective terror of sparking them, especially when it comes to the dreaded subject of trigger warnings, since pretty much anything might be a “trigger” to someone, given the new climate of emotional peril on campuses.
I learned that professors around the country now routinely avoid discussing subjects in classes that might raise hackles. A well-known sociologist wrote that he no longer lectures on abortion. Someone who’d written a book about incest in her own family described being confronted in class by a student furious with her for discussing the book. A tenured professor on my campus wrote about lying awake at night worrying that some stray remark of hers might lead to student complaints, social-media campaigns, eventual job loss, and her being unable to support her child.
Perhaps it’s possible all of these academics who contacted Kipnis are afraid of nothing. Taub could certainly try to make that case (i.e. that Kipnis is also lying). But if Taub’s real issue is a lack of evidence (multiple stories or multiple voices making the same point), shouldn’t she at least have mention Kipnis’s inbox clearinghouse? Put another way, why omit the very evidence you claim is lacking?
For that matter, if evidence that identity politics were spoiling campus culture was of interest, why didn’t Taub consider examples from Kirsten Powers’s recently published book: The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.
It’s not that there is no evidence to support the original author’s claim that “call-out culture” is terrifying professors into silence, it’s that Taub doesn’t seem very interested in looking where that evidence can be found.