Thursday, December 08, 2016

What To Do When The Fascists Come To Town

Last week the university I work for hosted a talk by a fascist cut-rate Kathy Griffin in which he personally attacked a member of my department for several minutes. I won't link to the video or even use the guy's name because a) he deserves neither the recognition nor the web traffic, b) he's probably the only openly-gay fascist currently on a college speaking tour, so you can figure it out yourself, and c) in many ways, the particulars of this individual are not the point. After all, this clown is a dime a dozen; he's one of those political performers you can tell doesn't even believe a large amount of what he says, he just knows that his entire appeal (and income) is based on being the person who says Ka-Raaaazy!!1!!1!11! shit and that if he doesn't keep it outlandish enough, he'll be discarded for someone who will say even more incendiary things (as will happen soon enough, anyway).

To be fair to the university, he wasn't part of a speakers series or endorsed by the university in any way other than being allowed to use campus space due to being invited by the Campus Republicans, a registered student group. His speaking fee, as far as anyone has been able to figure out so far, was most likely paid by a private, non-university-affiliated individual. That all being said, many in the campus community point out that delivering a talk on campus definitely gives the appearance of being sanctioned by the university, accurate or not. So, not too surprisingly, many are upset the talk was allowed to happen on campus.

In this case, the objections stem from much more than the usual opposition to someone coming to campus to deliver the empirical definition of hate speech -- this time, he singled out and abused a popular instructor in the department of sociology and anthropology (in which I also work). This instructor (whose name I'll also refrain from using, but in this instance because he's currently sifting through dozens of pieces of hate mail as a result of the talk), happens to be gay, so the speaker projected a picture of him with the caption "fat faggot" underneath it for several minutes of his talk. He also described the instructor with that and similar terms quite a few times while, irony apparently being a concept this speaker is unable to grasp, decrying how liberals bully people who don't agree with them.

Shortly after the speech, the university president released the typically milquetoast response administrators always release, noting that while the speaker has freedom of speech and the university doesn't hold any particular political views, the speaker clearly went beyond the pale with such personal attacks and vulgar language. He quite pointedly did not use any terms such as "hate speech" or "hate crime" or any other such language that would have required taking anything resembling a stance, but again, that's not surprising, as that's what high-ranking administrators do.

But needless to say, it's been quite the subject of discussion in our department as we try to figure out how we can more productively respond to what was a hate crime being committed against one of our own. And I think it's quite a testament to the times we live in that a group of people who quite literally study society for a living have been having a difficult time figuring out what to do.

Though to be fair, it's a pretty tricky question -- after all, the schtick of this guy and those like him is that conservatives are under attack from crusading liberal professors who won't allow them to express their viewpoints (again, the irony of saying this while literally standing in a university classroom delivering your thoughts completely without censorship or any challenge being completely lost on them). As such, pointing out the many times he made empirically false statements, or the many gaps in his logic, or challenging his right to come onto campus and commit a hate crime against a university employee plays right into that argument. But obviously we don't want to just ignore this, so much to the credit of my colleagues, we're having an on-going discussion of how to respond.

One possibility that keeps coming up is some sort of debate or dialogue with the Campus Republicans who sponsored the speech and more likely than not fed the speaker the information that led to him attacking my colleague*. But the problem I have with that is that there's nothing there to dialogue or debate about; as I argued in our faculty meeting yesterday, our colleague's fundamental humanity is not up for debate. There's no discussion to be had about the way in which he was slandered and insulted, or the wave of hate mail he's received as a result of being publicly threatened by this speaker and his followers.

Aptly enough, immediately after that meeting I read this great piece by the always reliable Damon Young. Although his argument is not completely analogous to this situation, I feel the same logic holds -- there's merit to finding compromise and common ground with people of different opinions, but there's no merit in legitimizing hate crimes by being polite to those who commit them. Pretending this kind of vile attack is a simple disagreement over which we should be able to overcome through finding mutual shared interests serves to do nothing other than accept that this kind of hate speech is a legitimate argument technique even if not the correct analysis of the facts.

All this is a long way of saying that this is why I feel that strongly condemning the speech and the group that sponsored it and refusing to entertain further discussion of any merit the speaker may have even theoretically had is not at all a refutation of open debate or a challenge to the First Amendment or any of these other incredibly specious claims to civility by those committing hate crimes themselves. Simply put, physical appearance and sexuality are not things that alter any person's right to being treated a human being. To not justify these arguments with any response beyond complete and unconditional condemnation is the same as a biologist responding to creationism or an astronomer responding to geocentrism -- not only is there no "moral" or "political" debate to be had about these topics, there is no empirical debate to be had about them. We should not pretend there is.

*The short version is that someone told the speaker that my colleague a) fails students who don't agree with him politically, and b) was giving students credit to go to a different even that night so they wound't be able to attend his speech. Both of those claims are, of course, completely false.

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