Conservative Turning Point USA put Emory professor of Philosophy George Yancy on its watchlist of “left-leaning, anti-American” professors, and his response is brave, appropriately unsettled, and able to place this incident into a larger context. It’s absolutely worth a read, and other explanations of why this list is shitty—from its bad data to the threats and hatemail it will near-certainly encourage—do a great job of showing that it’s an unfortunate combination of ridiculous and scary. To people rightly horrified by (and scoffing at) this list, I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said and said better.
But I suspect that there are a number of readers who are sympathetic to Yancy, agree with his policies, and still welcome this watchlist; after all, it’s a matter of free speech! Equal exchange of ideas! Devil advocacy and whatnot! Leftists can just make a creepy list of our own and students will be able to hear both sides! This is, admittedly, a hypothetical argument I’m talking about here, but it’s the sort of argument that is very real in Reddit and YouTube comments and anywhere else Bill Hicks is, just, bafflingly popular. It’s not like these people haven’t inspired really good responses before, but as we get ready to have this debate again, it’s obviously worth repeating: the watchlist is bad, an equivalent list calling out professors attacking marginalized students would not be equally as bad, and, for the love of god, you do not have to hear both sides.
First, the list. It’s meant to combat liberal indoctrination and the mistreatment of conservative faculty, but Sophia A. McClennen’s article for Salon, linked above, shows that neither of those things are happening. A teacher’s political leanings don’t affect students, and fewer than 2 percent of faculty in a 2008 study felt they were bullied for their beliefs. This is a non-issue, but it could create serious problems for the listed professors, whether that’s in the form of McCarthy-era blacklisting or the post-election wave of people being assholes while shouting “Trump.”
Most troublingly, it seeks to limit academia’s ability to critique existing power structures, something that’s essential in the social sciences and humanities. Dr. Brittney Cooper at Rutgers University made the list because she tweeted that Brexit was caused by white supremacy. Which…it was. It was a campaign based on nativism, and hate crimes skyrocketed in its wake. To describe it as racist isn’t the feature of some leftist conspiracy but a completely reasonable assessment backed by available evidence. To punish professors for teaching students about the world, and to do so in the name of eliminating bias, is ludicrously counterproductive at its absolute best; at its worst, it puts the lives of the marginalized in danger by legitimizing bigotry.
And when conservatives deny the existence of extremely real things, even as they encourage those things to hurt people, it becomes disingenuous to act like both sides are equally valid. That’s why I’m worried about egalitarian-minded readers calling for the same sort of list from the left and acting like that would solve everything: this would give the appearance of equilibrium, but not equilibrium itself. To call out bigoted or abusive professors would not be “just as bad” as calling out professors for acknowledging the mere existence of injustice because those are not anywhere near the same things. David Dennis Jr. wrote about Trevor Noah debating Tomi Lahren, and though that debate is obviously from a different context, what Dennis describes applies here too:
Lahren and Noah didn’t just have a debate with an equal exchange of ideas. They weren’t debating how to increase GDP or who’s the best team in the NFC. They debated topics that are literally life-threatening to people who look like Trevor Noah and me. Tomi Lahren spouted violent propaganda on national television while Noah tried to get her to value his black life. That’s not a healthy debate. That type of conversation shouldn’t be celebrated. And it damn sure isn’t Trevor Noah’s job to convince a white person why he shouldn’t die.
You don’t always need to hear both sides because, sometimes, one of the sides is bullshit, and entertaining that bullshit doesn’t enrich the discussion so much as forces it back to its most basic tenets. Natural sciences, for instance, welcome healthy debate, but they don’t invite every opinion. A chemistry class isn’t improved by devoting a unit to alchemy, and learning about geology from a flat-earther would be, well, sure, interesting, but maybe not super fruitful. The more sobering example is climate change, an issue with serious consequences that we just keeping having to explain exists at all. Getting constantly mired in proving the 101 keeps you from building on it.
The same is true in the social sciences, humanities, and art. Toni Morrison writes “the function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” This list is one of those distractions, trying to squelch social justice by denying injustice even exists. Treating it as a valuable, dissenting opinion isn’t open-minded or brave or fair. It’s to give up focus.