Felix Culpa! – The Happy Error – Academic Freedom and the Pessin Affair at the Augean Stables-Stuck in moderation limbo again

A torrent of scholarship cleanses the Augean Stables [Phi Studios, © 2012]

A torrent of scholarship cleanses the Augean Stables                                         [Phi Studios, © 2012]

I have a couple of comments, apparently stuck in moderation limbo, up at the Augean Stables concerning Prof. Richard Landes’ article My Talk at Connecticut College About the Pessin Affair, and  which I have aggregated below.  This article was a continuation of the discussion of the Pessin Affair which began at the Augean Stables back on July 29, 2015: Salem on Thames, what Connecticut College’s Andrew Pessin teaches us.  A briefer version of the article was published at American Interest on July 30, 2015.

In brief, the Pessin Affair involved the fallout from events at Connecticut College during the Spring of 2015 concerning Philosophy Professor Andrew Pessin.  I give a brief expert of Prof. Landes’ article below for the context.

Over the course of the Spring semester 2015, at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, Philosophy Professor Andrew Pessin got driven from campus based on a malevolent reading of a Facebook post in which he depicted “the situation” in Gaza as one in which the Israelis had confined a “rabid pit bull” to a cage, while animal rights advocates insisted they let the poor dog out. Although Pessin didn’t specify in the text, he and a commenter did specify this image referred to the terrorist. But in a dishonest attack spearheaded by a Muslim student who in High School had begun a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and a Muslim professor, newly appointed head of the new “Global Islamic Studies Program,” a small group of activists, given the run of the school paper by its editors, accused Pessin of comparing all Palestinians to rabid dogs and calling for them to be “put down.” Pessin, they claimed,

directly condoned the extermination of a people. A member of our community has called for the systematic abuse, killing, and hate of another people.

(The editor who arranged for the publication of all three letters, including duping a recent graduate to join the crusade, did not ask Pessin for a response in the same issue.)

Shock and horror spread through the community, triggering among many traumatic memories of such verbal, racial, dehumanizing abuse, arousing previously silenced “marginal voices.” A great cry went up against the racists and the hate-speakers of all kinds (not just Pessin). Racist graffiti, probably written by an outsider, roused another cry of hurt and indignation, and feeling unsafe. The President caved to student demands that everything stop, and the entire campus turn themselves to a mandatory discussion of racism and hatred, where those accusing Pessin had the conch, and labeled anyone who disagreed with them “racists.”

In the original article particular Prof. Landes discusses the affair in terms of its effect upon academia as a protected realm of free speech in particular and civil polity in general, and put forward a cognitive warfare analysis of the situation as a whole.

The second article constitutes the text of a speech he made November 12, 2015 at Connecticut College further elaborating on the affair in terms of its effects upon academic freedom.

For an archive of the relevant documents of the affair there is a new menu tab heading at the Augean Stable.

If you are unfamiliar with the Pessin Affair I invite you to check out the various articles and documents because the situation brings up important issues about the maintaining of academic freedom in a civil society in the present day.

My Comments

What drew my attention in this affair is that no one at Connecticut College seemed to understand what a metaphor is, how it functions, or how it is used, which unfortunately is nothing new on an American college campus.  I remember, years ago, Uncle Joe [Campbell] recounting an incident which itself must have taken place in the late ’60’s or early ’70’s where he brought the young host at a college radio station to tears on the air over his inability to define a metaphor during an interview.

Campbell: “Give me an example of a metaphor.”

Interviewer: “The boy runs like a deer.”

Campbell: “No! that’s a simile! The boy is a deer, that’s a metaphor.  I taught this for forty years!”

So, Hamas/Palestinians ‘are like’ pit bulls; Hamas/Palestinians ‘are’ pit bulls – same thing.

Either figure of speech is perfectly ok to use and can be used in many ways depending on the intentions and motivations of the person using it.

A metaphor is inherently “dehumanizing” that’s what a metaphor is, that is its function, to replace the human being with something else that is an exemplar of a quality that the author is trying to bring into sharper rhetorical focus.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that, a well tuned metaphor is a beautiful thing.

A metaphor *could* also be used as simple invective but only the person using it really knows, for everyone else it’s a problem of interpretation. In a civil society we have to allow people to defend their own intentions – especially in academia – and take their word for it – it *may* just be an ‘invective against swans’.  We may rightly ask someone for clarification, or even ask for an apology for a particularly ill-tuned metaphor – but even that is at the author’s discretion.

In a civil society you simply have to put up with a certain amount of other people’s invectives because sooner or later we all wind up in that boat.  So, as members of a civil society when we run across an invective metaphor, or what may *seem* to be invective to us, we have to ask a couple of questions before we rush off to crucify the author:

a. was this a one-time lapse?
b. is the author just a loose cannon?
c. is he just a jerk?
d. was this a symptom of a basic lack of judgment or empathy?
e. is the author teaching or preaching this view?
f. is this metaphor a foundational statement in his credo?
has the author created or joined institutions that promote or disseminate this credo?
g. has the author made the mistake of confusing metaphor with nature?
h. is the author mentally ill?
i. has the author made policy of or taken concrete action in the real world to implement his metaphor?

These are important questions to ask, because the last thing we want in a civil society is what we already seem have: a place where people are taking the first condition as reason to break someone’s millstone or ruin his life to suit a political agenda while they turn a blind eye to the last condition elsewhere.

Now why is that?

What we seemed to have going on, to put a turn on Prof. Landes’ phrase, is an indulgence of childishness. We have people who behave as if their private interpretation of public speech and how it affects them emotionally is the coordinating condition of free speech itself, in effect making the audience’s sensibilities [and thus not offending them] the responsibility of the person speaking.  People, adult people anyway, should be responsible for their own feelings.

What do you call this intellectual and moral inversion of responsibility?  childish – or just plain nuts.

All of this is supposed to bring me around to some kind of point about academia and its pretensions to a special class of freedom and independence in thought and word, and that there seems to a similar defect in reasoning about responsibility there as well.

Academic freedom, academia has long assumed this right for itself intramura, that is within its own walls and has always kept for itself the sole responsibility of policing itself in this regards.  This is good, right, and proper and I cannot emphasize that enough because it is one of the bastions of free speech and though in our society generally.

What seems important to me is that, as far as I have been able to discover, academia simply made this right up for themselves whole cloth, perhaps at that time when academia was defining itself as an institution independent the church and maybe not without good reason, but this ‘right’ doesn’t seem to have been granted or derived from outside authority: from public, government, or God.  Though maybe there are some medievalists in the house who can correct me on this notion.  Oh, felix culpa!

More recently academia extended that privilege extramura, that is outside its walls, and assumes the inviolable right to critique the rest of society without any feedback loop for society to answer back to academia or corrects its errors.  The problem that I see with the current arrangement is the lack of ‘civil reciprocity’ in the situation, that is any check or balance on the excesses of academia itself. Academia instead insists upon its right to police itself independently – this sort of arrangement never works as well as one might hope.

In the modern west civil society is striving to establish, or evolving towards, a system of civil reciprocity where at each level of society no institution, or set of institutions, operates completely independently of the others.  Social threefolding, is one theory of this evolutionary principle where the three major spheres of society: cultural, economic, and governmental each act informally as a check and balance upon each-others’ powers for the benefit of  society as a whole.  At a lower order a formal example would be the US federal government, and the independence of the Judicial branch, but that is a constitutionally limited independence, there is a complex set of interactions between the judicial, the legislative, and the executive branches.  Even the freedom of the press is more carefully defined constitutionally and legally than academic freedom. [corrections on this point are welcome]

Probably because it is so old, and otherwise constitutionally undefined academia seems rather unique in this regard.  This seems to lead to the situation today where individual departments, even entire fields, can become infected with a cadré of self selected radicals who undermine any real academic independence and who may attempt to directly undermine the freedoms of society as a whole.


P.S.  Does anyone have a source for this?  “Polite, means not saying certain things lest there be violence; civil means saying what one needs to say, and there won’t be violence.”  This is one I would like to add to my file.


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