I’m going to present a story today that’s a bit out of character for most reporting on cancel culture. In 2021 we’ve all become used to reports of right-leaning academics being harangued, punished, and even sacked by their employers after being targeted by Internet mobs, so my personal story isn’t much of a surprise. And if we’re fair, there’s also a history of conservative cancel culture as well, with academic supporters of abortion rights, LGBT equality, and other liberal positions facing sanctions from their universities doing damage control after getting bad press – so that side of the story won’t shock you either. But what we’re most certainly not used to seeing is a university facing multiple cancel culture efforts from both sides of the aisle in quick succession and actually taking a principled stand in favor of the free speech rights of all of their employees. But that’s what happened at my university, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) – and I am writing this to encourage UAB’s administration to capitalize on their difficulties, and in so doing make a lot of money while setting an example for the revitalization of academic culture in the United States.
My part of the story began in earnest in August 2019. As my long-time readers know, I’m an odd duck – a right-leaning biology professor – but like many of my fellow Americans, I watched in a combined mood of disgust and incredulity as mainstream Democrats competed with each other over that summer to see who could “own” Donald Trump and his supporters the hardest. He was operating concentration camps on the borders. He was a secret Russian spy. He was in the pocket of shady corporate interests. And the coup de gras – Trump, like all of his supporters, was a white nationalist. By summer 2019, the media’s intentional conflation of the populist, civic-nationalist movement that elected Trump with American History X-style neo-Nazis had reached a fever pitch. Attending several academic conferences over the summer, I had heard a number of academics – mostly from the youngest cohorts – openly referring to Trump and his supporters as “white nationalists” or “white supremacists” or even “Nazis”. The situation on Twitter was even worse – prominent tenured biologists were displaying full-blown symptoms of “Trump Derangement Syndrome”, where every problem in the news became an excuse to smear Trump’s movement as some kind of Hitlerian jihad against democracy.
Being a Trump supporter myself, I couldn’t help but take this inchoate abuse from my colleagues – many of whom were supposedly also my friends – personally. I had been an early endorser of the use of Twitter for academic purposes, but at some point around 2014 I decided that I had a responsibility to be a public advocate for the rural-born, religion-supporting libertarian/Republican minority in my profession. I wrote about my heterodox positions both on this blog and on Twitter, and had stimulated a few pretty interesting discussions over the years that I like to believe left both my interlocutors and me more informed and more tolerant than we were beforehand. Concerned about the rising tide of intolerance in academic biology in August 2019, I took to Twitter to decry what I saw as a “white nationalist panic”, where the prevalence of white nationalism was disingenuously inflated and the threat posed by the movements that actually existed grossly exaggerated. I wrote a blog expanding on my positions, speculating what the motives could be of those stoking the panic – from my perspective, it certainly looked like the goal was to dehumanize the political opponents of the Democrats as a first step toward justifying violence and repression against them.
I feel strongly that the course of US history since August 2019 supports the position I took, but at the time it was – unpopular. A Twitter mob sparked by a few serial harassers led to my blog post going viral, and by the next day an unknown number of activists were contacting the UAB administration demanding I be fired. Over the ensuing months these “progressive” activists managed to derail one of my funded projects and tried to derail the rest. The campus “journalists” dug up 20-year old Livejournal essays (from my phase as a black metal guitarist, years before I got into research) and used out-of-context quotes to support their narrative that I was a “literal Nazi”. One of my chief mentors essentially disowned me, calling me “autistic” and one of the two worst people he had ever known. And one of my younger collaborators decided (in a Skype call where, no shit, she was literally shaking) that she could no longer associate with me, refusing to do the work we had been funded to do and basically absconding with half a million dollars of US taxpayer money out of political spite. But despite all of that, UAB refused to take any action against me at all. My teaching, scholarship, research, and committee service at UAB were completely unaffected.
To say that I was surprised by the university administrators’ response would be a gross understatement. But I was even more surprised given that, just a few months earlier, a graduate student from my department had been doxed as a member of an actual white nationalist organization, Identity Europa. In the end the sum total of his “crimes” was saying insensitive, politically incorrect things on a forum that wasn’t as anonymous as he thought it was – and in the wake of enormous public outcry, the administration publicly supported his freedom of speech rights as well. We’re used to these sorts of stories ending with the cancellation of the thought criminal, but this kid survived thanks to UAB’s refusal to violate its academic principles to placate the mob. He defends his PhD dissertation this year, and has his whole life ahead of him, hopefully including more moderate politics as he ages – but how do you think his attitudes and beliefs would have been affected if the mob had succeeded in defenestrating him?
Fast-forward to 2020 and the troubles start up again on campus, but this time coming from the other side of the political aisle. Sarah Parcak, a well-known archaeologist from UAB’s anthropology department, decided it would be a good idea to use Twitter to give BLM rioters detailed instructions on how to efficiently destroy obelisk monuments. Parcak posted these tweets on May 31, 2020, while a mob of “protesters” were actively trying to pull down the controversial Confederate obelisk monument in Birmingham’s Linn Park – an effort that, had it been successful, would probably have killed or severely injured several people. The “protest” later turned into a full-blown riot, similar to what many other cities experienced that week. UAB had nothing to say about those tweets, as I recall, despite the fact that they came pretty close to crossing the “yelling fire in a crowded theater” red line. But when Parcak was back in the news last week, tweeting that she hoped Rush Limbaugh “suffered until his last breath”, UAB’s president Ray Watts unloaded on her:
Parcak’s tweet about Limbaugh, in combination with her past few months of incendiary comments about conservatives, drew the attention of the Alabama GOP, whose chairwoman Terry Lathan called for her to be fired. A conservative cancel-culture mob at least as big as the leftist one that came for me mobilized against Parcak. But UAB again held its ground, defending her right to free speech just as it had defended me in 2019. Here’s a quote from the statement they released on Tuesday:
“We recognize our employees’ rights to free speech… As an institution of higher education that encourages civil discourse, we understand differing opinions regarding our position in defense of our shared values: integrity, respect, diversity and inclusiveness, collaboration, excellence and achievement, stewardship, and accountability…Our shared values are consistent and do not change with political viewpoints in any direction.
Last week — as we did in 2019 when UAB publicly acknowledged that three members of the campus community were identified as either having been associated with a white supremacist organization and/or having made racist statements in personal online posts — we recognized the community’s concerns, spoke out in defense of our shared values and committed to looking into the matter.
UAB follows policies, procedures, and state and federal laws, and recognizes individuals’ constitutionally protected rights to free speech. This responsibility applies even when speech is counter to the vision, mission and values we champion.”
I could quibble about the University’s response, of course. The administration basically called me a racist and an extremist – given that I have yet to find a person who identifies as “on the right” who found anything amiss about my 2019 comments, I’m skeptical that either of those statements is even close to true. And the University certainly didn’t do anything to counter the assumption amongst some casual observers that the Identity Europa kid and I are the same person or that we are somehow engaged in a Nazi conspiracy to brainwash students. I also take offense to the suggestion that what I did is comparable to what Parcak did. I was taking substantial personal and professional risks trying to get my colleagues to moderate their positions, hoping that their affection for me as a person and their respect for me as a scientist would lead them towards a position of tolerance for the conservative half of the American population to which I belong. In contrast, Parcak was one of the bad actors enthusiastically pouring gas on the fire. But these complaints are perhaps overly picky; given the nightmares that other cancelled professors have described, UAB’s response has been nearly impeccable.
The one real complaint I have is that UAB isn’t capitalizing on this succession of controversies. UAB didn’t ask for any of this to happen, but it did happen nonetheless, and the university has already weathered cancel culture mobs from both sides at this point. Probably the administration is just hoping it will all go away, but in my view, that’s a waste of a perfectly good crisis. The worst is over, and the truth is that UAB has taken a principled stand three times now under heavy public scrutiny, and that puts it in an extremely small category of universities that have demonstrated through their actions a commitment to free speech. They might as well go ahead and take the next step – become “the Free Speech University” and market the controversy. “Look how vile Parcak’s tweets are! But we support her unconditionally because she does good science.” “Look at how we protected this grad student! Nothing you will ever say will be worse than what he said, and he did okay.” “We have a Republican biology professor! Who else can say that?” We would be a nearly unique commodity, and the tens of millions of parents (like me) who are seriously considering not sending their children to the toxic woke hell of a 2020s university would immediately look to UAB as a solution to their problem. And, as impotent tears flowed from the loud, intolerant fringes of society, tuition dollars would flow into our endowment like manna from Enlightenment heaven.
UAB could firmly place itself into this lucrative Free Speech niche by taking one simple action, which is merely a re-framing of actions they have already taken. They should change their focus from protecting the free speech rights of students and faculty to attacking the legitimacy of the mobs demanding our heads. The issue isn’t that people shouldn’t push back against Parcak and me – they should! No, the issue is that some people want us fired, ostracized, and basically kicked out of human society for holding different values. All civilized people – and especially academics – should reject that response unconditionally. UAB should double-down on its dedication to its shared values of civility, integrity, and collaboration, and declare that it will never allow itself to be bullied by any pressure group, no matter how large or how righteous, into firing any of its employees, from the Provost to the overworked adjuncts to the cafeteria dishwasher, for speaking their mind in public. UAB shouldn’t get bogged down in addressing whether or not what Parcak or I said is ‘over the line’ – they should turn the tables and go on the offensive against the forces of intolerance that want to force us to shut up.
I have no idea if my bosses will read this or take my suggestion to heart, but I hope they do. The alternative would seem to be that this back-and-forth riposte of dueling cancel culture mobs will continue, contributing to an ever-deteriorating university experience for everyone involved. Maybe they will continue no matter what we do, but I have to imagine that if nobody ever fed the mobs, they would eventually disband. Maybe we can’t change the entirety of US campus culture by ourselves, but I’m telling you, we can try, and I bet we can make a lot of money in the process.