“Most readers will find what happened to this professor horrifying and wrong…”
What a Cancellation Looks Like
by Nathan Jun
Imagine, if you will, a philosopher who has served on the faculty of a regional public university in the South for twelve years. During this time he has established himself as a popular and highly-regarded instructor who has consistently received among the best teaching evaluations in his college. He has also proven a productive scholar with an international reputation for excellence among his peers. Although his particular brand of left-wing politics has occasionally raised eyebrows among students and colleagues—a fact that comes as no surprise given the entrenched conservatism of both the campus and the surrounding region—he is generally respected by colleagues and superiors who view him as a dutiful and hard-working academic citizen. The university has never attempted to curtail his political expression let alone discipline him for it. On the contrary, it has unfailingly recognized and rewarded his work, most importantly by granting him tenure and promoting him to the rank of full professor.
Although our hypothetical professor has had a limited social media presence for most of his career, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 impels him—as it does so many others—to express his grief, horror, and outrage on Facebook. In so doing, he immediately invites the rage of the local right wing, including many individuals who openly identify as white nationalists and neo-Confederates. Labelling him a “terrorist” and a “member of antifa” [sic], the individuals in question begin inundating him with death threats via phone, text, private message, and email, many of which contained anti-Semitic slurs. They also disseminate his private information, as well as that of various family members, and flood his employer with hysterical demands for his termination. In response, the university accuses him of violating its “academic freedom and responsibility” policy and threatens him with discipline should he fail to “exercise appropriate restraint” going forward. When he brings this response to public attention it is unequivocally condemned in a statement from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) as well as two open letters signed by hundreds of students and academic colleagues from around the world.
These gestures are ignored by the university even as the harassment and threats continue to escalate even. Between June and August the professor receives hundreds of additional death threats and his home is vandalized on four separate occasions, once with anti-Semitic graffiti.The situation begins to spiral out of control in late September following a speech he gives at a campus rally protesting the exoneration of Breonna Taylor’s killers. Becoming aware of his remarks on a televised live-stream, the same individuals who had been harassing him since June immediately redouble their efforts to threaten and intimidate. The following evening he is informed that a comment he had written in response to a friend’s private Facebook post has been screenshotted and disseminated online. Though the comment is inflamatory, it is intended as nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of a famous philosopher and is clearly interpreted as such by the professor’s friend, with whom he frequently exchanges over-the-top banter and inside jokes of this sort. Nevertheless local media reports on the ensuing controversy go viral and quickly draw the attention of The Blaze, College Fix, Campus Reform, and various other cogs in the right-wing outrage machine. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours the professor is subjected to a second round of anti-Semitic vandalism and receives more death threats than he had in the previous two months combined.
Although the university initially defends the professor’s right to free speech, the president quickly turns around and condemns the professor in a strongly-worded public statement which assures the ravenous mob that the university is “consulting with the Office of the Attorney General to determine whether a line [has been] crossed beyond that of speech protected by the First Amendment.” Whatever the intended effect, the president’s response ends up making the situation far worse. The university continues to be inundated with calls for the professor’s removal (and, increasingly, for the president’s) even as he himself remains subject to near-constant harassment for the remainder of the semester. In addition to receiving several hundred additional death threats and being repeatedly and publicly defamed online, he cannot even show his face in public without being heckled and harassed by strangers, one of whom throws a garbage can at him. Unrecognized individuals drive by his residence day and night, snapping pictures with their phones or shouting obscenities; some park outside for hours at a time. Local businesses deny him service on at least a dozen occasions. Campus and local police are uncooperative. Faculty colleagues shun him and even former allies among the student body treat him like a pariah.
The president and other university administrators who had approved the professor’s promotion to full professor only a few months earlier are well-aware that his comment was deliberately taken out of context and purposefully disseminated by the very same anti-Semitic extremists who had been harassing, threatening, and doxxing him since June. Though they find this comment distasteful, they know that it wasn’t threatening or expressing hatred toward anyone, just as they know that the professor is not a violent, hateful, or dangerous person and that he has never used the classroom as a platform for political agitation. Despite knowing all these things, the university makes no effort to defend his personal or professional reputation, to protect his safety, or even to express concern for his well-being privately. It does not see fit to publicly condemn the heinous violence and harassment to which he has been subject, let alone the white supremacist and fascist ideologies that fueled them. Instead it elects to publicly denounce him.
The trauma that results from this sustained campaign of terror, to say nothing of the university’s betrayal in the face of it, takes a tremendous toll on the professor’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being that ultimately culminates in an episode of suicidal ideation and comprehensive nervous breakdown in December. Following this episode, he applies for and receives medical leave during which time he undertakes intensive psychiatric treatment for debilitating panic attacks, night terrors, and other PTSD-related symptoms. In response to the university’s refusal to fire him—a legally unavailable course—everyone from the aforementioned Nazis to garden-variety conservative donors and politicians place enormous pressure on the university to oust him by others means. The opportunity to do so presents itself a few months later when he requests a remote teaching accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the fall semester. After refusing to engage in the interactive process for most of the spring, the university ultimately denies this request alongside several alternative proposals. It does so precisely because it knows he will be unable to fulfill his contractual obligations in lieu of accommodation and so will have no choice but to resign or be terminated. In this way it appeases the bigots and anti-Semites that had been terrorizing him for more than a year.
This forced resignation—which is essentially a constructive discharge—destroys the professor’s mental health, wrecks his personal and professional reputation, drives him into unemployment, and plunges him into financial insolvency. It also virtually ensures that he will never find work in higher education again. In comparison with the resignations of Peter Boghossian and Kathleen Stock it is given no attention by mainstream media outlets, and an open letter protesting the university’s actions barely attracts five hundred signatures.
I take it for granted that most readers will find what happened to this professor horrifying and wrong. I further assume that many (if not most) would condemn the university’s actions in respect of his case. The question I want to raise is why these actions are worthy of condemnation? It is an important question for me personally, since, as it turns out, I am the professor.
Although my situation may appear to be a paradigmatic instance of what has been called “cancel culture”—a deeply problematic term, and one that I generally dislike—it strikes me as unique in several respects. To name one: while it is an open question whether efforts to cancel are more commonly directed by the left against the right, or vice versa, most right-wing campaigns are spearheaded by “mainstream” conservative organizations like Turning Point USA and Campus Reform, all of which are chiefly interested in targeting “leftists.” It is comparatively unusual for such campaigns to be led by avowed fascists who deliberately focus on professors’ racial, ethnic, and religious identities, as in my case. Whatever our thoughts on how universities should respond to cancel culture in general—whether from a moral or narrowly legal standpoint—shouldn’t the calculus should be different when literal Nazis are involved? If so, how?
While public universities are legally obligated to protect the free speech of tenured faculty members in most instances, they do not have any obligation to defend their employees’ reputations or to vouchsafe their safety and well-being outside of the workplace. Nor do they have a legal obligation to publicly condemn speech that others find disagreeable, even when the speech in question is uttered by a faculty member. Indeed, they are not obligated to condemn any speech—including anti-Semitic or white supremacist speech—even when the underlying ideas of said speech fuel campaigns of racist terror directed against their own employees.
If Midwestern State University’s actions are indeed worthy of criticism in this case, it is not (or nor just) because it violated the law. It is because universities in general have certain moral or ethical obligations (or duties) to their employees, and to the wider public, that become salient in certain extreme circumstances—for example, when literal Nazis are involved. At minimum this would seem to include an obligation to publicly condemn anti-Semitism and racism, to say nothing of violent racist and anti-Semitic attacks against faculty members. I fail to see why the existence of such an obligation should be a matter of controversy but, assuming it does exist, there is no question that Midwestern State University failed to honor it. It should be a cause for concern when even one university does this, as it gives others cover to follow suit.
Even if I were not at the center of this particular episode I would still find the near-total indifference toward it deeply troubling. While I am enough of a civil libertarian to concede that, in the vast majority of cases, no professor should be terminated or forced to resign for expressing controversial opinions, few such cases are quite as extreme as mine—not just because of the severity of what happened to me nor the short- and long-term personal consequences issuing therefrom, but because of the racist motivations of the perpetrators. I wasn’t forced to resign because I wrote something “offensive”; I was driven out by a sustained campaign of terror that was orchestrated by fascists and abetted by a craven university administration. If that is not an instance of “cancellation” worthy of sustained attention and discussion, I do not know what is.