According to the American Association of University Professors (as reported by CNN), “In the last year, more than 100 incidents of targeted harassment against professors have been reported on college campuses.” These reactions have reached the level of actual death threats, so that some professors have been banned from campuses, so as not to expose the rest of the community to potential violence. This is not the kind of situation that would be rendered more secure by everyone carrying guns, since that would erase the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” a distinction that would NOT become clearer once someone started shooting, since no one would know who started shooting first, or if it was a “bad guy” or “good guy” that started it. This is why, happy as I would be for permanent employment, I would never accept employment at a college or university that permitted any form of civilian “carry” on campus: a wild-eyed pack of posturing, untrained rubes with deadly weapons at the ready makes no one safer; it takes a special kind of stupid to imagine otherwise.
But here we find ourselves in a situation where professors are receiving enormous volumes of vicious, if not always credible, threats upon their very lives for the kinds of things they have said in public. How did all these poor little, anonymous (because the cowards are always anonymous), tragically butthurt babies come to decide that the legitimate response to the public expression of a reasoned conclusion (I avoid the vacuous notion of “opinion”) is a threat of violence or even death? Certainly the election of the “crypto”-fascist Trump has energized many white supremacist and neo-nazi groups and sympathizers, and silencing by way of the threat (or act) of violence has long been a favored technique of such people. Which brings us to the title of this post, which is the fallacy of the argumentum ad baculum, the “argument from the stick”: using threats of violence and other forms of intimidation to compel others to accept your position.
As is always the case, there are a few points to clarify prior to going forward. The first of these is that not all, or even most, forms of protest reduce to, or in any way employ, the argumentum ad baculum. Peaceful protests can often be noisy, even raucous and disruptive, without ever making an appeal, either implicitly or explicitly, to force. Many persons – almost without exception to be found on the political right – always try to erase this fact with a Gish gallop of equivocation and slippery slope fallacies, in order to fabricate the appearance of equivalence between peaceful protesters and heavily armed neo-nazi enthusiasts; no such equivalence is to be found between those who hearken back to the words and deeds of Gandhi and King, and those who hearken back to Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The second point is that anything can be taken too far, including freedom of speech. But when free speech goes to far, it is bad manners, not a death threat. (And yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater is not freedom of speech, any more than is criminal conspiracy, or urging another person to commit a crime.) And lest there be any confusion, just because it is bad manners, it does NOT mean it is an abuse of freedom of speech. Most forms of justifiable protest will inevitably be viewed by someone (generally someone with a stake in the institutionalized power structures that are being protested) as “bad manners.” But something like Kathy Griffith’s misfired comedy sketch with a plastic prop dolled up to look like Trump’s decapitated head is widely recognized as going too far (though I still remain ambivalent about whether the proper response was unemployment, rather than the apology she offered.)
Which brings us to the subject of academics and death threats. Regardless of whether they have an earned Ph.D. in hand or not, persons who teach at a post-secondary level are addressed with the honorific “professor.” This is because – ideally! – a professor is more than just an “instructor;” they should do more than just present a lesson plan. In point of fact, a professor is there precisely to profess (and if you were paying careful attention, you will have noticed that the job description is part of the job title.) Having gone to the extreme length of achieving a research degree (which is what the Ph.D. is), one of the gifts that the professor can return to the community of students is the presentation of a mind actively engaged in thought. At the very highest level, we see something like the kind of lectures that were recorded of Whitehead during his time at Harvard (see HERE for more details).
Very few of us can even aspire to, much less approach, such a level of unmeasurable genius as Whitehead, but the example of an ideal to aim at still serves those of us slogging away in the trenches of the mundane. Everyone of us who earned the title of Doctor (Ph.D.) aspired to the position of professor. (And, as an aside, not every doctor who professes does so within academia.) Not everyone of us who professes, professes well or admirably: Newt Gingrich, that stoat-of-a-man, has a Ph.D. in history. But even a stoat-of-a-man like Gingrich has earned a patina of respectability for having done the work, and con’d a committee into granting that degree.
Having gone through all this effort, then, professing is what a professor is supposed to do. Under ideal circumstances, students will actual be present as a professor is actively working through ideas and issues pertinent to the those topics which the professor studies. And this brings us to the crux of the problem: sometimes a professor will profess something that the student or other third parties don’t want to hear, don’t want to have professed by anyone, anywhere. And that’s when the threats start coming in.
To be sure, it is more likely to be the case that specific threats are targeted at comments that are posted on social media, rather than stated in the classroom or published in journals (although these do happen.) These social media kerfluffles are not especially surprising, since they are the bread and butter of social media interactions. But professors, by virtue of being professors, are public persons, and hence draw more attention than your random twitter storm or blog post. But professors are legitimately viewed as “public persons,” exercising (rather less legitimately) substantive influence over the minds and opinions of young people. (In point of fact, multiple studies have shown that the real influences on young people are their peers, their fellow students; professors have little if any effect on them.)
Which brings us to the neo-fascist antipathy towards the professoriate exhibited by the violent threats cited in the above article. First off, I do not use the term “neo-fascist” in a casual or rhetorically exaggerated manner; Trump, and those he brings in his trail, are fascists, pure and simple. (Recall that a movement does not have to exercise absolute, hegemonic power in order to be fascist; such power only comes about in the later stages of fascism.) As such the effectiveness of a challenge to the process of achieving (and, only later, holding) that hegemony will not be tolerated for any reason. In this regard, one might do well to study the history of the academy in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany – or America during the McCarthy era. While the latter had not achieved the measure of fascism (to say nothing of hegemonic power) found in the previous two, it is nevertheless a warning that Trump can push us that far, and farther, with very little effort.
Persons who make thinking and professing their business tend not, as a group, to be an overly courageous group, especially when it is a question of physical, as opposed to moral, courage (and the moral courage part does not stand out all that much or often.) This makes them an easy group to target and bully. Such threats only work against those withoug real power, and is only exercised by those too cowardly to make themselves public with their threats. One hardly needs mention that these are all favored techniques of Trump supporters. What is, sadly, unsurprising in all of this, is the craven manner in which so many university administrations bow to the threats, and punish those who are being threatened, rather than supporting them in their professing. When this happens, academia itself becomes the stick.