I am by no means a huge fan or anything, but over the years I’ve read a number of essays and articles by Camille Paglia, and imagined that, while we’d disagree on most things, and it might get loud, she’s the sort of person I could argue with over a cup of coffee. I might be kidding myself, but she always seemed fairly reasonable within her world of assumptions. If I ever got the chance, I’d take it.
I mention this only because, when I was surfing around looking for information on Gender Theory, I happened across this article in the Atlantic. While perhaps best known as an equal-opportunity gadfly, a feminist who challenges many popular feminist assumptions, a lesbian who doesn’t blame everything bad on men, and, most relevant here, a woman who identifies as a man (sort of) who thinks much of gender theory is weak-minded political nonsense, Paglia is a tenured professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She makes heads explode by saying stuff like this:
The idea that ‘self-esteem’ should be the purpose of education: this is social-welfare propaganda. Development of our intellect and of our abilities has to be the focus … You build identity. Maybe identity comes through conflict. For example, my struggles with gender, my struggles with sexual orientation, my anguish over so many decades produced my work … Sometimes conflict is creative …
If there’s no pressure on you, there’s no pressure to create.
So we have got to stop this idea that we must make life “easy” for people in school … No. Maybe the world is harsh and cruel, and maybe the world of intellect is challenging and confrontational and uncomfortable. Maybe we have to deal with people who hate us, directly, face-to-face. That’s important. You develop your sense of identity by dealing with the things which would obliterate your identity. It does not help you to develop your identity by putting a cushion between yourself and the hateful reality that’s out there.
So of course the kind, most enlightened and morally superior students at her school tried to destroy her: to get her fired and censored. If the school couldn’t legally fire her, they wanted the school to offer alternatives to any class she taught, to ban her from speaking on campus, and to refuse to sell her books.
The usual, in other words. But a very surprising thing happened. The administration, some of the faculty and even the school’s president defended Paglia, and refused to bow to pressure, did not censor her books, and refused to cancel an upcoming lecture she was scheduled to deliver.
As the lecture approached, some people gathered outside to protest. Extra guards vetted those who wanted to attend to keep disruptive people with protest posters out. “My students seemed to feel as though they were crossing something of a picket line just to be attending the event without the intent of shouting Camille down,” one teacher said. Another mentions “…the frustrations of some of the students in attendance, a number of them trans and queer identifying, who under unthinkable pressures from their peer group to conform to the political agenda du jour, showed up that night not to protest but to listen.”
The lecture got stopped after a little while by someone pulling a fire alarm, causing the evacuation not only of the lecture, but nearby classrooms. The people inside were forced out into a largely hostile protest crowd where they could be sworn at by a couple of the most sensitive, open-minded and caring people the world has ever known. So, mission accomplished: while stopping the lecture turned out not to be possible, an atmosphere of social intimidation made it clear what the price of disobeying your betters would be.
Note that this level of overt intimidation is rarely needed. Instead, the school has already filtered out kids who might disagree, unless such kids have been cowed into perpetual silence by years of school training (hint: if they’ve applied for college, they have). Paglia, as an old person with tenure and a history of feather-ruffling, and, most importantly, a woman checking nearly all the boxes – woman, lesbian, feminist, transgender, atheist – could risk speaking up. You think a random kid from the suburbs is going to do anything but comply? ALL the authority figures are going to smile if not outright gush upon any kid who bravely confesses his sexual confusion to the cheering crowds. Expressing the slightest doubt in public will get you crucified; administration support for free speech is irrelevant to the social pressure.
The author of the article asked the kid behind the petition to destroy Paglia for comments. Here’s what zhjee (or whatever) said:
Paglia’s comments have echoed the hateful language that pushes so many transgender people to contemplate suicide, and encourage transphobic people to react to transgender people violently. We have been experiencing an interesting phenomenon where Paglia’s supporters have been signing our petition in order to leave dissenting comments (this is especially odd considering they have a counter petition that they are welcome to sign). Some of these comments are extremely concerning and blatantly transphobic.
Just one example: “You are either born male, female, or deformed (physically or mentally). Trans people are mentally diseased and often violent. If they are not able to accept the reality of their disease and cope with it they must be removed from society by any means necessary. Some might argue that the high suicide rate among those suffering from this severe mental disease is nature correcting itself. Camille Paglia is a transgender person who was able to accept and overcome her mental disease. Be like Camille.”
Like it or not, Paglia’s philosophies empower people like this, who would have transgender people “removed from society by any means necessary” (this is a violent threat). This has a lasting, negative impact on the transgender community at UArts––whether it be through the psychological damage that comes with being told that you are deformed and diseased and deserve to die, or whether it be through people like Paglia’s supporters acting on their violent beliefs. To have her spouting these beliefs in the classroom and elsewhere makes life more difficult––and dangerous––for transgender students.
I personally know at least one person who, due to Paglia’s comments, has experienced suicidal thoughts and has considered leaving the University. The comments that many of us have been receiving online have caused public safety at our school to be told to up their security game, in case our (very queer) student body is targeted by angry supporters of hers. This is what we mean when we say that her views are not merely controversial, but dangerous.
To his deathless credit, the author shoots this down thus:
That argument—a speaker is responsible for harms that are theoretical, indirect, and so diffuse as to encompass actions of strangers who put themselves on the same side of a controversy —is untenable. Suppressing speech because it might indirectly cause danger depending on how people other than the speaker may react is an authoritarian move. And this approach to speech, applied consistently, would of course impede the actions of the anti-Paglia protesters as well.
After all, Paglia identifies as transgender, making her a member of the group at heightened risk of suicide. She was subjected to angry chants from perhaps 200 students, including two cisgender students who shouted curse words at her, not to mention an ongoing effort to take away her livelihood and force her from her longtime community. Social-media protests and the Change.org petition led to vitriol and threats, as in any major culture-war controversy. So treated, many people would suffer more psychological distress than if they saw a YouTube clip, however odious, that didn’t target them personally.
One particularly odious tactic is blaming Paglia for comments made anonymously that claim to be based on what she’s said, but which go much farther than Paglia’s words. In this case, the example given also reads suspiciously like a false flag operation to me, as it has long seemed the demand for the right kind of abuse outstrips the supply. Boils down to a rule: If anyone who speaks positively about somebody I don’t like says something mean, all blame can be assigned to the person I don’t like. (A corollary: and I get to interpret all words in the worst possible light.)
So, on the one hand, this is a story about the administration and faculty members, for the the most part, doing the right thing. Wow! Huzzah! But, on the other, a story about just exactly how it will make no difference unless kids, in the classroom and the common room, are free to disagree. They are not. The only way ‘academic freedom’ in the non-Orwellian sense will ever trickle down to the students is if *faculty* are able to disagree, in public, out loud, and support kids who agree with them. But as discussed in the last post, the culmination of decades of work by critical theorists and their useful idiots has made sure no dissenting voices will ever be heard.