Beware the bite of antisocial media

The internet impedes human interactions, warps civilised discourse and aggravates misunderstandings, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto 

March 1, 2018
Calum Heath illustration (1 March 2018)
Source: Calum Heath

The World Wide Web is a flytrap. Blogging is a Jabberwock and social media bite and claw like the Bandersnatch. Scholarship and science ought to make academics reflective, judicious, prudent and careful of the words that we use, but some of us seem unable to resist entanglement in the internet.

Readers may remember Steven Salaita, who lost his promised job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014 after scattering “uncivil” anti-Zionist tweets, or George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University, Philadelphia, excluded from the classroom last October after “joking” about “white genocide”, or Johnny Eric Williams of Trinity College, Hartford, who retweeted advice to let ideological adversaries “fucking die”. Free speech is a right too precious to abuse. Every intemperate twitch of the keyboard gives thought police a chance to terminate a career, wreck a life and inhibit liberty.

A current case, which started in 2014, is at last about to reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Not all facts are clear in Professor John McAdams’ action against Marquette University, but the parties agree on the outline of the story. It started in 2014 when a graduate student, Cheryl Abbate, taught an undergraduate ethics class. She invited students to name examples of rules which, although intended to limit harm, violate the principle that individual liberty is inviolable unless it infringes the liberty of others. She brushed off one suggested example – banning gay marriage – allegedly saying that everyone already agreed about it. If she did say that, what she meant is unclear: perhaps no more than that gay marriage was obviously irrelevant to the question in hand.

After class, however, a pupil approached her privately to express regret that she had shut down discussion of the topic. He recorded the conversation, which suggests that he may have been seeking confrontation, but the imperfection of the recording makes the details obscure. There is no evidence that the complainer said or thought anything prejudiced or opprobrious, but Abbate warned him that any remarks “racist or homophobic” that might offend classmates would “not be tolerated”. Up to this point, the exchange resembled the kind of misunderstanding that ideological nastiness can easily inflame.

The complaining student reported the incident but got no satisfaction from the authorities. A dean dismissed him as an “insulin [sic] little twerp”. Eventually, he went to his official adviser, McAdams, to arrange to drop the class.

McAdams is a life-enhancing, self-confessed contrarian who loves an argument, rebukes the Establishment, and savages political correctness. Warning Abbate that he intended to challenge her in a blog, he invited her to give her side of the story. She did not respond, except by denouncing him to her superiors for bullying or victimising her. The blog appeared with all the usual bluster of the genre, accusing her of suppressing views contrary to her own with “a tactic typical among liberals now. Opinions with which they disagree are...deemed ‘offensive’ and need to be shut up.”

University administrators claimed to see McAdams’ intervention as unwarranted public criticism of a student, and blamed him for the hate mails that ensued. His view is that he exercised freedom of speech in calling an erring teacher to account. Ancillary issues are whether the top brass followed due process in suspending him without pay and imposing unexplained conditions – retraction, apology and a self-denying ordinance for the future – on his exercise of his profession.

No one in the case seems to have behaved wisely. Abbate and her pupil treated each other unsympathetically. He rather creepily recorded private conversations. University authorities handled him without due respect. McAdams and Abbate appealed to their own constituencies instead of pausing to try to understand each other. Marquette’s leaders put the worst possible construction on McAdams’ blog; silencing him seems to have been a higher priority than resolving the misunderstanding amicably. Everyone suffered. So did the causes of reason, freedom and learning.

To conform with reason, we have to acknowledge that opposition to gay marriage does not necessarily arise from any improper prejudice. One may, for instance, be “against” all marriage and oppose it between homosexuals a fortiori. Or one may advocate equal rights while objecting to “gay marriage” on lexical grounds. Teachers should help students make such valid distinctions, not obscure them by prating about racism and homophobia.

Freedom and education suffer when a dissenting voice such as that of McAdams is driven from campus. If the judges in Wisconsin uphold his exclusion, teachers whom the university chooses to classify as students will become immune to public challenge. I see no conclusive grounds for McAdams’ strictures on Abbate, nor do I approve of the medium through which he broadcast them, but I will defend to the death his right to voice them. By any reasonable standard, the right of free speech protects honest misgivings if offered without intent to incite hatred or violence. 

The story of Marquette and McAdams is of human follies and failings, horribly exacerbated by infotec. The internet impedes human interactions, warps civilised discourse, aggravates misunderstandings, traduces complexity and separates those who should talk to each other. It tempts victims into ill-measured utterance. It excites outrage. It entices hate mailers. Beware the Jabberwock, my son. Contend for liberty in undistorting arenas. Elude the tripwires of the web. Step clear of those sticky, slimy Serbonian blogs. 

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in the US. 

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Reader's comments (1)

Excellent, balanced article which presents principles that people of all political affiliations could get behind.

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