Two conservative law professors at Georgetown have adopted the rhetoric of the regressive left in their objection to post-mortem critiques of the late Justice Antonin Scalia from liberal colleagues, claiming conservative law students are “traumatized” by such critiques.
The incident occurred after a liberal professor at Georgetown, Gary Peller, wrote an article dissenting from the college’s official statement on Scalia, which praised the late Justice as a “giant in the history of the law.”
Peller, by contrast, argued that Scalia introduced “extremist and blatantly racist ideas” and “undermined democracy” by “helping overcome the majority vote for Al Gore” in the 2000 presidential election.
Instead of rebutting Peller’s eminently rebuttable arguments, two conservative professors chose to respond by suggesting Peller should not have made the argument at all. In their view, his critique would “traumatize” admirers of Justice Scalia on campus.
In an email of protest, Professors Randy Barnett and Nick Rosenkranz said:
Although this email was upsetting to us, we could only imagine what it was like for these students. Some of them are 22-year-old 1Ls, less than six months into their legal education. But we did not have to wait long to find out. Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students. Of particular concern to them were the students who are in Professor Peller’s class who must now attend class knowing of his contempt for Justice Scalia and his admirers, including them. How are they now to participate freely in class? What reasoning would be deemed acceptable on their exams? …
Sadly, as just two professors on a faculty of 125, we are in no position to offer much reassurance to our students, beyond reporting that we have heard on the faculty email list, and privately, from a few of our Georgetown colleagues who objected to these messages. All we can do, really, is convey our solidarity with our wonderful students. We share your pain. We share your anger. We stand with you. You are not alone. Be strong as Justice Scalia was strong. Remember, he heard far worse about himself than we have, and yet never wavered in both his convictions and his joy for life.
But make no mistake: Civil discourse at Georgetown has suffered a grievous blow. It is a time for mourning indeed.
While Peller’s post-mortem critique of Scalia may have been uncivil, it’s worrying that campus conservatives are beginning to adopt the rhetoric and tactics of the campus left. The idea that words and arguments can “traumatize” students has been a key theme of the regressive left on college campuses, who frequently use the alleged threat of trauma to bar conservative speakers from campus and shut down politically unwelcome discussion. This phenomenon was comprehensively documented in Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff’s Atlantic essay, The Coddling of the American Mind.
If leaders of the Georgetown Federalist Society and college Republicans are, as the professors claim, “traumatized” by Peller’s criticism of Scalia, they — and the professors themselves — should grow up. No matter how boorish, poor-taste, and offensive the rhetoric of their opponents, conservative students shouldn’t play the campus left’s game of victimhood. It would spell doom for intellectual and political debate at universities if conservatives as well as left-wingers become delicate flowers who wilt at the slightest offence to their values.