Response to McAdams’s Attack on Abbate


The following is a guest post* from a philosopher who has been in communication with Marquette University philosophy graduate student Cheryl Abbate about the events that occurred in her class and that have been at the center of much controversy recently. The post aims to correct several mistaken and misleading elements in associate professor of political science John McAdams’s account of these events, which he did not witness, but which he has repeated several times, and which has formed the basis of several news reports. The author prefers to remain anonymous so as to avoid retaliation by McAdams.


A Critical Response to John McAdams’s Attacks on Cheryl Abbate

In recent news, a tenured professor at Marquette University, one John McAdams, has inspired a political attack against Cheryl Abbate, a philosophy graduate student at Marquette University. While a number of academics have expressed a concern about how this tenured professor breached his duty to mentor graduate students in private if he believes they have acted inappropriately, I would like to point out that Professor McAdams should also be criticized for misrepresenting the events that happened in Ms. Abbate’s classroom, starting with his initial post on November 9th.  Equally troubling is the fact that Professor McAdams continues to maintain that he “accurately” reported the events surrounding Ms. Abbate’s confrontation with the complaining student. Below, I have enumerated a number of libelous statements found within Professor McAdams’s numerous blog posts about Ms. Abbate. In addition, I have pointed to the fact that he not only refuses to take responsibility for the numerous defaming news articles about Ms. Abbate that have generated national attention, but he also perpetuates these defaming statements himself.

1. Let us begin with Professor McAdams’s initial post on November 9th, 2014 where he states that, during the class in question, “she [Cheryl Abbate] listed some issues on the board, and came to “gay rights.” She then airily said that “everybody agrees on this, and there is no need to discuss it.” To be clear, Professor McAdams was not in the classroom to know what was actually said (and it has been confirmed by Inside Higher Ed that the student did not tape record the class itself). Nevertheless, professor McAdams felt it was acceptable to attribute direct quotes to Ms. Abbate. In fact, Ms. Abbate clarified to Inside Higher Ed that she never stated that “everybody agrees on this” because the purpose of the class was not to determine who agrees with gay marriage, but to encourage students to consider how one specific philosophical principle (Rawls’s equal liberty principle) might be applied to contemporary social policies. In her interview with Inside Higher Ed, Ms. Abbate reported that, during her lecture, she stated “it seemed right to me” that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’ principle of equal liberty. In response, Professor McAdams stated that “this is not precisely what the student reported to us, but it’s easy to see how the student would have perceived the instructor blowing off an issue that he wanted to discuss.” Yet, clearly, there is a significant difference between the statement “It seems right to me that a ban on gay marriage would violate Rawls’s equal liberty principle” and the statement “everyone agrees with gay marriage.” If the complaining student’s perception was that Ms. Abbate was “blowing off” a discussion about gay marriage, then clearly he is confused about the purpose of Ms. Abbate’s ethical theory course, which does not encourage students to put forth personal opinions that lack philosophical grounding. Rather, an ethical theory course is aimed at encouraging students to explore the feasibility of specific ethical principles and how they might apply these principles to concrete social and moral issues.

2. Professor McAdams, on more than one occasion, has claimed that Ms. Abbate said “any objections to gay marriage would be homophobic.” Clearly, this is a false statement as evident by the fact that she is never quoted, by any news source (including Professor McAdams’s own blog post) saying just this. What she is quoted with is the statement that “homophobic comments will not be tolerated.” Again, this is considerably different from stating that “any objections to gay marriage would be homophobic” (my emphasis).

To see why this matters, let us quickly review what happened in Ms. Abbate’s class. The complaining student approached her after class to complain that she did not open up a discussion about gay marriage when discussing Rawls’s equal liberty principle. He provided an arguably poor counter-argument to gay marriage which was based on Mark Regnerus’s flawed research. When Ms. Abbate explained to the student why his so-called “objection” was misguided given the philosophical principle under discussion, the student responded with the following statement: “Regardless of why I’m against gay marriage, it’s still wrong for the teacher to completely discredit one person’s opinion when they may have different opinions.” As an anonymous commenter on Daily Nous pointed out, “Surely at least some purported reasons one could be against gay marriage (‘those people’ are icky; ‘those people’ should be burned at the stake; ‘those people’ don’t deserve to be treated decently) qualify as bigoted. And should not be seriously entertained for that reason. And of course it’s someone’s job as a professor to ‘completely discredit’ some opinions.”

The anonymous author of this quote is all too right. See Exhibits A, B, & C, which all draw attention to so-called “objections” to gay marriage that Ms. Abbate has recently been presented with which are clearly homophobic.

(A)
Abbate Defense pic1

(B)

Abbate Defense pic2

 

(C)

Abbate Defense pic3

Any ethics instructor most likely will confirm that, every once in a while, these sort of bigoted comments rear their head in philosophy class, even at universities like Marquette. Ms. Abbate herself is aware, perhaps from past experience, that offensive comments very well might have been opined by students in her class had she opened up her class to a discussion on gay marriage. Furthermore, the fact that the complaining student completely dismissed Ms. Abbate’s explanation as to why his “objections” to gay marriage were not philosophically founded (especially given the context of the class) and then consequently demanded to voice whatever objection to gay marriage came to his mind most likely triggered a warning sign to Ms. Abbate that this student very well might be determined to make offensive and homophobic comments during class. What we should expect from any instructor to say in response to a student who insists that he has a “right” to object to gay marriage, without any philosophical reasoning to support his position, is exactly what Ms. Abbate did say: certain comments, such as the ones expressed in the above e-mails, are homophobic, inappropriate, and will not be tolerated during an ethics class.

3. In his initial blog post, Professor McAdams implies that Ms. Abbate is dismissive of Catholic doctrine. According to him, “like the rest of academia, Marquette is less and less a real university. And when gay marriage cannot be discussed, certainly not a Catholic university.” However, the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage is completely irrelevant to a discussion on the implications of John Rawls’s equal liberty principle. As one philosophy professor stated on his personal social media page, “The class was discussing John Rawls’s first fundamental principle of justice–the equal liberty principle. And the question before the class was whether Rawls’s principle implied that gays should have the same basic liberty to marry as straight individuals. [For the record, the Catholic Church has no doctrine on Rawls interpretation.] Rawls’s principle maintains that all individuals have the same basic liberties. If his principle is correct, then gays are entitled to the same basic liberties as straights. One might reject Rawls’s principle. But, again, that was not the question before the class. The question before the class was “What are the implications of Rawls’s first principle of justice?”–a question which Ms. Abbate answered accurately in class.”

Evidently, Professor McAdams misrepresented what happened in Ms. Abbate’s class by failing to acknowledge the following relevant fact: the focus of this particular class was on what Rawls’s theory of justice implies— not what the Catholic Church has to say about gay marriage. Professor McAdams’s failure to accurately describe the context of the class is incredibly deceptive and, predictably, has led to Ms. Abbate being characterized as “Anti-Catholic” and dismissive of the Catholic Church’s teachings.

4. Professor McAdams informed Inside Higher Ed that his initial blog post about Ms. Abbate was nothing “personal.” Yet, Professor McAdams has continually criticized Ms. Abbate’s personal blog, which does not have anything to do with the event at hand. In fact, he has gone so far as to insinuate that Ms. Abbate is sexist toward males, as evident by the following comment he makes on his blog “Less benign is her [Cheryl Abbate’s] essay titled “Yes All Men…Contribute to the Prevalence of Rape.” Yes, it’s a common theme among feminists and Exhibit One of the reality that hard-core feminism is, at root, about sexist antipathy toward males.”

5. Professor McAdams recently published a private e-mail he received from an individual who suggested that he take serious the impact his blog has had on Ms. Abbate. As this individual pointed out, Ms. Abbate’s Rate My Professor Page has been attacked as a result of Professor McAdams’s blog post. In response, Professor McAdams claimed that “You should note that her ratings on student ratings websites have nothing to do with our reporting, and her treatment on national news outlets has consisted of reporting and fair commentary.” Below is exhibit D, a nasty comment left on Ms. Abbate’s Rate My Professor page which clearly was written by someone who read either Professor McAdams’s blog or one of the other news articles which is based off of McAdams’s initial blog post (this comment has since been removed by Rate My Professor, along with a number of other comments authored by individuals who, in fact, were not in Ms. Abbate’s class).

(D)

Abbate Defense pic4

 

6. Not only did Professor McAdams provide dishonest and incomplete information about the events surrounding Ms Abbate’s ethics class, but he has defended the blatantly false claims about Ms. Abbate on other news outlets, such as Fox News. According to Professor McAdams, “her [Cheryl Abbate’s] treatment on national news outlets has consisted of reporting and fair commentary.” Yet, a quick review of some of the defaming article titles from these so-called “fair” news reports tells another story. For instance, Fox News has titled its report on the event “Teacher to student: If you don’t support gay marriage, drop my class” and IOTW Report has titled their article “Settled Science- Nobody Disagrees With Gay Marriage.” Clearly, the headlines of these articles are blatantly misleading since there is no evidence whatsoever that Ms. Abbate uttered either of these comments. The fact that Professor McAdams claims that the commentary about Ms. Abbate thus far has been “fair” is to wrongly suggest that Ms. Abbate told the student to “drop her class if he doesn’t agree with gay marriage” and that “everyone agrees with gay marriage.”

I would like to close by drawing attention to an obvious fact that has yet to be acknowledged in any of the reports regarding the confrontation between Ms. Abbate and her student: Ms. Abbate cannot properly defend herself because of FERPA policies. For all we know, the complaining student set Ms. Abbate up to be the target of a scandal because he wasn’t performing well in her class or because he has an issue with female authority figures (and from the transcripts of the audio, it is easy to see how he intentionally baited her into saying something that would be perceived as “controversial”). Furthermore, perhaps Ms. Abbate had reason to believe the student in question would make inappropriate comments in class if given the chance, due to previous experiences or conversations she might have had with him. These are all very real (and likely) possibilities that might further put into perspective what actually happened. Yet, given the limitation of what Ms. Abbate can and cannot say, we will never have a complete explanation. Professor McAdams must know this, which is why it is incredibly unprofessional and unfair for him to publish a truly one-sided account of what happened in Ms. Abbate’s class.

As of December 1st, 2014, Marquette University has yet to issue a public statement in defense of Ms. Abbate. Please continue to contact the president, provost, and the dean of the Arts and Sciences and encourage them to do the right thing.

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Silver
Silver
6 years ago

The schadenfeunde in me appreciates the homophobes’ e-mails and names being all out here, but even I had to resist temptation of sending them a malware of some sort. Maybe blank them out, because even the worst racist has the right to privacy?Report

Nick
Nick
6 years ago

This is just deplorable. I would contribute to a legal fund for defamation action against the news outlets in question and against Prof. McAdams, if such lawsuits were feasible.

On the issue of “privacy”, people who wish to remain private should do so. Everyone is free to have their own thoughts and opinions kept private, and an easy way to ensure that this is the case is to not verbally harass strangers, which is a very non-private thing to do.Report

Chris Wilson
Chris Wilson
6 years ago

There is room to disagree on what might be implied in Rawls’ principle:

“Rawls’s principle maintains that all individuals have the same basic liberties. If his principle is correct, then gays are entitled to the same basic liberties as straights. One might reject Rawls’s principle.”

One can support Homosexual unions, with all the relishes that Heterosexuals have, and not support Homosexual marriage, that is if one takes seriously any ontological commitments such as realism. I am referring more to a scientific ontology, than a religious one. The way we treat people and the commitment to an Ethics of Terminology are disparate issues.

What I find suspect is the implication that there has been represented a “correct” perspective that Marquette has not responded to, i.e. “Please continue to contact the president, provost, and the dean of the Arts and Sciences and encourage them to do the right thing.”Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

Chris, the point of the article was not to argue that Rawls’s principle entails a ban on gay marriage. The point of the article was to draw attention to the false, public statements made by a tenured professor about a graduate student. And clearly those sort of objections would not come up in an intro ethics class. Let’s not derail the conversation!Report

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

I don’t think that the author is encouraging readers to email the deans at MU and convince them of a specific interpretation of Rawls. This post essentially argues that McAdams’ public political attack on Abbate was vicious, unfair, and thereby reprehensible. I believe that that characterization of McAdams’ behavior can be judged as correct or not – I think that it is.Report

MAtt McAdam
MAtt McAdam
6 years ago

Given the significance of the “social bases of self respect” in Rawls’s theory of justice, I don’t think there is a reasonable interpretation of his view in which homosexual couples are not allowed the same status as heterosexual couples.Report

Previously prof at a Catholic institution
Previously prof at a Catholic institution
6 years ago

This is a deplorable and deeply saddening situation for Ms. Abbate and I am very sorry for what she has had and will continue to go through. I am shocked that Marquette U has yet to offer an official statement.
However, as someone who previously worked at a Catholic university, I am not entirely surprised by either the situation in general or the lack of reaction on the part of the administration. During my time at said university, I was aware that teaching “ethics” was not something I could do without getting into trouble with various people within the department and the administration — there were clear guidelines of what can and cannot be discussed — and so I refused to teach that course. Furthermore, and this touches on the last paragraph in the post, the university put so much emphasis on “teaching evaluations” that it was very difficult for junior faculty to teach anything that was confronting or challenging to students, as the evaluations might be affected. Terrible, but that is the reality.
I also experienced first-hand bullying from a young male student when I was a grad student; thankfully this was the era before cell phones and recording.
At my previous institution, I often found that there was a good number of students who felt entitled to bully women or gay professors, and the administration looked away.Report

Diogenes
Diogenes
6 years ago

This sort of thing is hardly new for McAdams. While one can be troubled by PC orthodoxy in the university *without* being either someone who spells Lenin “Lennon” or a right-wing professor with curmudgeony politics – McAdams has been acting in highly questionable ways for years. Publicly attacking a TA on a blog is par for the course for someone who shows up at JFK research conferences under an assumed name (“Paul Nolan”) and who slanders those who disagree with him in online forums.Report

Kary
Kary
6 years ago

On Abbate’s webpage, she says:

Q2: Did I tell a student that any objection to gay marriage was homophobic?
A: No. …

But here is a bit of the exchange she had with the student, according to the transcript cited by the Marquette Dean (available here: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4jS38HQ3f8dSDhNX1FQRnlpcTQ/edit?pli=1)

~~~~~~~~~~
Abbate: “in this class homophobic comments, racist comments, and sexist comments will not be tolerated. If you don’t like that you are more than free to drop this class.”

Student: “Are you saying that if I don’t agree with gays not [sic] being allowed to get married, that I am homophobic?”

Abbate: “I’m saying that it would come off as a homophobic comment in this class.”
~~~~~~~~~~

That sure seems to read like she’s saying the student cannot express his opinion against same-sex marriage in her ethics class (it would “come off” as homophobic, she says, and homophobic comments are not tolerated, she says).

Is that transcript not reliable? Or did she really say those things (contrary to her claims on her website, and claims here on Daily Nous)?Report

?
?
6 years ago

Um, what exactly is your question, Kary? Are you really confused about the difference between the following two statements:
(1) any objection to gay marriage is homophobic, and (2) to argue against gay marriage will come off as a homophobic comment in this class, i.e., a class on John Rawls’s Equal Liberty Principle.
If you can’t see the difference between these two claims, that’s on you. But don’t insinuate that others are lying just because you’re having comprehension issues.Report

Diogenes
Diogenes
Reply to  ?
6 years ago

In response to ‘?’ above:

While I’m very much anti-McAdams when it comes to the whole fiasco, it’s a little disingenuous to insist on a clear and simple distinction in the way that you have. People like Kary and maybe a whole category of cultural conservatives would say that the whole problem is that they are *not* being kept distinct, that the distinction between the two is not being preserved. Abbate’s all-too-prompt rejoinder that it would ‘come off’ as a homophobic can be interpreted in different ways. But for so-called conservatives, who are keenly aware that opinions on gay marriage, for example, in American universities do not distribute themselves according to chance – instead skewing very much in its favor – Abbate’s reply is a kind of short-circuit between the two, tantamount to saying: “I’m not going to take responsibility for calling opposition to gay marriage homophobic, but I am going to say that it is *effectively* homophobic by appealing to hypothetical members of the class who may or may not take offense.” The obvious issue here is with the “effectively”, and with basing what’s up for discussion on who might or might not take offense. This, on some level, always involves decisions privileging one group over another.

Of course, for the record, I’ll say that it’s obvious that the kid involved who set out to record the conversation surreptitiously was clearly a self-styled provocateur in the ‘culture wars’, who then went on to seek out another self-styled provocateur in that same idiotic conflict (McAdams).Report

Diogenes
Diogenes
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
6 years ago

I’m not sure why that’s in reply to my comment. As I indicated, I’m of the view that McAdams acted unprofessionally, has a history of acting unprofessionally, and that the whole affair is basically the product of one misguided kid looking to stir up controversy – who then handed it off to a professor looking to do the same.

Along these lines, I wouldn’t say Abbate was at fault exactly – for reasons you mention, as well as a few others. What I don’t think passes the smell test is the position of many of her defenders that her reaction and handling of the student was absolutely non-political. Everything in the university today is political. I think she reacted from her own personal point of view, giving the kid a taste – nothing more – of the other point of view. The one that, incidentally, dominates at American universities.

Of course, some will object to this because for what amount to strategic reasons, preferring the defense formulated after the fact to what likely happened in the moment. That’s fine. But what all this really comes down to is politics: right-wing cultural conservatives want to turn the fact that there’s a left-leaning academia (surprise) into a giant controversy at any opportunity. And on the other wise, most of the energy at Marquette for getting rid of McAdams is because he’s a right-winger with a history of trying to rub his politics in everybody’s faces.Report