I don’t think there was a single year in my academic experience where I was not significantly disciplined for some reason. Sometimes it was for playing elaborate pranks on people, sometimes it was for mocking the administration, and once it was for snap-kicking a fellow shop-class student in the chin after said fellow student tried to hit me with a home-made “bo staff”. (No, smart-asses of the Internet, I didn’t assume the “crane position” first. I wish I had, though!) Time after time, I was told that I would amount to nothing in this world unless I stopped being combative, argumentative, offensive, you name it. Maybe all those nuns, vice principals, and Residence Life administrators were right — but let the record show that they faded into obscurity while I rose to become the second most popular writer on my own website. (The first, of course, is Thomas Klockau.)
After fifteen and a half years of school (skipped two grades, took a leisurely 4.5 years to get my bachelor’s) I learned to sense in advance when I was about to be suspended or expelled, which is why my stomach churned in sympathetic anxiety when I read the above document. It tells a student that he will be subject to an uninterrupted harangue from his peers. In what world is that a reasonable way to treat a university student? And where would someone learn that kind of disciplinary tactic?
Meet Alison Downie. Normally I’m against judging a book by its covers, but can’t you pretty much tell everything you need to know about Alison by looking at her? This is a woman who sucks the joy out of everything and everyone around her. If I walked into class for the first day and saw this neo-Puritanical creature grimacing at me, I’d strongly consider dropping the course and spending some extra time on the BMX bike that semester. Do we have a bio? Yes we do.
Her academic interests include ecofeminist theologies, disability theologies, religious understandings of self and memoir, religious themes in literature and film, and interfaith dialogues…. Downie’s previous publications include “A Spirituality of Openness: Christian Ecofeminist Perspectives and Inter-religious Dialogue,” which appeared in Feminist Theology 2014… She is affiliated faculty for the Women’s and Gender Studies and the Sustainability Studies programs
I also believe I saw her in that Prohibition-era movie, The Unfuckables. (I can say that because I’m ugly, the same way that people of color can use racial epithets.) Professor Downie came up with the punishment plan you see above when one of her students made the fatal mistake of objecting to being forced to watch a TED talk about transgender identity. He then doubled down by “point(ing) out the official view of biologists who claim there are only two biological genders.” This was not acceptable, so Alison Downie prepared the punishment plan. When the student declined to participate in the punishment plan, he was barred from attending the class.
Two things bother me about this. The easier one to articulate is the absolute idiocy of “confessing” to sins against the group then being forced to submit to a group harangue from all your “triggered” fellow students plus the professor. Not all of you will recognize this method, particularly if you came of age in the past twenty years, but this is known as a “struggle session” and it is an essential part of Communist/Maoist/Viet Cong/Khmer Rouge ideology and practice. Whatever the American Way is, the struggle session is a product of the planet it’s farthest from, as Luke Skywalker might say.
This country is now distant enough from the horrors of Communism that we no longer instinctively recoil from Communist methods and principles. We treat it like some kind of de-fanged old zoo animal. We wear its symbols on T-shirts. Most disturbingly, we allow Marxist thinking a privileged place at the table of American discourse. It was an ideology that cost over one hundred million lives and started conflicts across the globe for seven decades — but so what? Let’s use their methods to discipline a student who has the nerve to claim that there are only two genders.
(Are there only two genders? How should I know? Long before “trans rights” were in vogue, I knew men who dressed and behaved as women in school and elsewhere. I treated them about the same way I would treat anyone else. I was the first editor in the automotive-journalism field to hire and promote a transgender writer; actually, I’m still the only editor to have done that. I did it because I thought that person could write something worth reading.)
The “gender question” shouldn’t be settled by feelings, and it should not be settled by vague consensus. It should be settled by adherence to scientific truth, whatever that is, and it should be settled via vigorous, unfettered discussion. This discussion is not diode-shaped; it doesn’t come to an end once your preferred group has managed to get its way. If you objected to the silencing of “trans activists” in the past, you should object to the silencing of “two genders” advocates in the present day. No great and worthwhile truth is ever discovered via the forcible silencing of opposition.
The purpose of the university is to instantiate, to encourage, and to promote that sort of discussion. That’s the difference between a Harvard or Yale and a DeVry or Arogosy or “University of Phoenix”. It is the difference between a college and a trade school. If you take that away from a university, then it becomes nothing more than a diploma mill with a side business of forceful indoctrination.
The civil rights movement of the Sixties was incubated in the free and open discussions permitted in the universities of the time. Gay and lesbian rights came from those discussions. Virtually every liberal accomplishment that we now view as part of the immutable landscape, like Roe v. Wade, started in some late-night college dorm-room argument. For hundreds of years now, the university has been the place where the un-say-able can be freely said.
The men who designed, built, and furnished those universities were advocates of free and open expression. They believed that the truth would arise naturally from the heat of intellectual disputation. They rarely censored even the most offensive, libelious, blasphemous, or seditious idea. Their approach to intellectual freedom raised “progressive” thought from a mere daydream diversion on the part of the idle rich to the ruling philosophy of the Western World — even though virtually all of them disagreed with it.
And now that the progressives run the Western universities… well, I think this image from Calvin and Dune, where quotes from Frank Herbert books are mashed-up with comics, says it best.
This method of operation is anti-intellectual, it is anti-human — but most of all, it destroys the moral authority of “free speech”, even in the university context. How many of you read The Handmaid’s Tale and shuddered at the idea of a world where people could be “disappeared” for breathing a word of criticism against the theocratic state? Where did you think Margaret Atwood got the idea for that? Not from the original Puritans — they may have burned witches but they didn’t put free-thinkers out in the woods to starve. I suspect that the book was Atwood’s projected fantasy about the kind of control she and her fellow-travelers would exercise once they took the reins of society. And that’s about where we are now. You can lose your job for objecting to the current orthodoxy. You can become a nonperson, lose your house, lose custody of your children.
The conservative management of this country adhered to the free-speech principle until it walked them out back and shot them in the back of the head. When the tide turns in American politics, not in a Trump-protest-vote way but in the genuine dynamic sway that occurs across generations and which brought us the Victorians a hundred and forty years ago, from whence will the new leaders take their inspiration? From the genial permissiveness of their Fifties-era predecessors, or from the mono-party groupthink enforcement of 2017? What if the next great sweep of power is not from progressive thought back to Christian theology, but to an Islamic state? When there is proof right there on the page that Alison Downie favored the most brutal and humiliating tactics known in the cause of enforcing her own cherished ideas, what possible objection could she offer to stay the swift and final justice of the mullah?