The Lunatics Are Running The Asylum
A growing sense of fear pervades modern academia, enabling individuals and groups, who, when they don't get their way, are hell bent on destroying everything in their path.
Last week it was reported that students at Harvard Law School, along with graduate students from other disciplines, had launched a petition demanding that Harvard “de-list’ a course entitled “The Anthropology of Law: Classical, contemporary, comparative, and critical perspectives”. The course was to be taught by John Comaroff, a renowned 77 year-old anthropologist. This is the most recent addition to a convoluted saga that began 2 years ago.
Comaroff was accused in 2020 of sexual misconduct, subsequently investigated, twice, by the University, and then exonerated of the major allegations. The University did decide that that a verbal infraction violated policies of professional conduct and harassment. Comaroff is from South Africa, and studies African society and, his infraction involved circumstances surrounding the manner in which he claimed to warn a student against traveling to Cameroon with her same-sex partner—because, as he described it, gay people in the country are often targeted for "corrective rape,", a practice that has been documented. For this violation, Harvard placed Comaroff on leave in January for the Spring 2022 semester and barred him from teaching required courses for at least a year.
After Harvard’s investigation, a distinguished group of 38 Harvard faculty wrote a public letter both defending Comaroff as a colleague and scholar and complaining about the Harvard process and the sanctions that were imposed on him. Within a few days, the three student complainants sued the University in federal court, claiming a flawed investigation. Remarkably, the letter by Comaroff’s colleagues became part of the lawsuit, presented as confirmation that Comaroff was effectively retaliating against his accusers. One of the students’ lawyers said, “If we’re able to go to trial, this will show something really important, which is the reach and the network”
Within a day of the lawsuit, of which their letter had become a part, 34 of the 38 faculty retracted their defense of Comaroff and restricting their arguments to concerns about university procedures. They made it clear that they were reacting to the response to their letter, by saying, “We failed to appreciate the impact that this would have on our students”. And to make it clear that they were part of the problem, they added the now prescribed mantra, “We are committed to all students experiencing Harvard as a safe and equitable institution for teaching and learning.”
All of this was not enough for the Harvard Graduate Student Union (in which two of the students in question are officers). They have demanded not only that Comaroff’s tenure be revoked but also that his course be de-listed so that no students can attend it.
As they state it:
“These allegations detail a serious risk of continued harm to students, student workers, faculty, and staff if the course were to continue. By nature of the instructor, access to this course material could also be selectively restricted for students previously subjected to sexual harassment or violence.”
It is not clear exactly how students who choose to sit in on lectures for an optional course at the Harvard Law School are in danger. Especially when, given the publicity associated with Comaroff both within the University and outside of it, every single comment he might make in class will be carefully scrutinized.
And by what logic should Harvard Law School students always be shielded from material that might trigger them? Surely, we should expect more from students at this elite institution, especially since, as lawyers or judges they will later have to deal with a host of potentially unseemly cases.
Freedom of speech means freedom to listen. As long as Comaroff continues to remain on the teaching faculty, and as long as he offers this optional course, students who don’t think the course should be offered don’t have to take it. But they do not have the right, nor should they be given the right, to take away the opportunity for other students to learn.
The Graduate Student Union petition concludes by stating that “If these demands are not met by the commencement of the Fall 2022 semester, HGSU-UAW and its Harvard community allies commit to collective action to ensure the safety of all students and workers.” In short, a strike rather than allow anyone to learn about the anthropology of law.
My bet is that Harvard will cave in. Instead of telling the students to grow up, Harvard will take the course of least resistance and perhaps start a new investigation or extend and expand Comaroff’s suspension, so that the course can be removed from the fall listings. But I would love to be surprised.
I want to stress that I don’t know Comaroff or have any direct knowledge of what he did or didn’t do. I also think the three graduate students in question have every right to pursue legal satisfaction if they feel they have been wronged. They may be able to prove their assertions in court, and they should be free to do what they feel is necessary. But so should the University, and Comaroff, who, after all was investigated twice already and disciplined. As far as the University is concerned, this means not capitulating because of bad press. It means vigorously defending their actions and processes in court if necessary. Otherwise, I expect that this experience will send a further warning signal at Harvard and other universities to think twice about the consequences of not resisting social media pressure or giving up the right to determine what can be taught and by whom.
There are already a host of examples of such universities and institutions caving in to childish pressures exerted, not by students, but by young researchers caught up in this new era of victimhood and inferred oppression. Increasingly, various fields of science are being held hostage, infringing on research activities and terrorizing individuals.
One of the most publicized examples involved superstar genetics researcher David Sabatini, about whom I have previously written on this site. Sabatini had been terminated from his position at MIT after complaints lodged by a former colleague with whom he had had a relationship. No student of Sabatini ever complained about him. The NYU Medical School decided to hire him, and the Dean of the Medical School specifically stated that they had investigated his case and had determined he had been unfairly treated. No matter, shortly after the proposed announcement, junior researchers marched in the streets, again complaining that hiring Sabitini would somehow endanger the safety of young trainees, a claim made without any basis in fact. Nevertheless, not surprisingly, and fully aware of the impact on their own careers and the reputation of their school should they buck the mob, the medical school rescinded the offer.
I recently received a somewhat distressed message from an academic colleague from Europe who was shocked by the reaction of several new young researchers in the US to the appearance of a member of their research collaboration on a group email list. The individual in question had unrelated allegations raised against them five years earlier, which they had addressed and they had since continued to be a part of the research collaboration. During this time, they contributed usefully to numerous publications and workshops, with no complaints at all about their behavior.
Nevertheless, several of the young scientists demanded that individual be removed from the email list, and removed from any collaboration, arguing they felt unsafe by simply being on the same email list!
What surprised my colleague was not just this demand but the subsequent response to the measured reply of collaboration leaders that the scientist in question had been a part of the collaboration for some time without incident and at the very least that they felt it was necessary to have a discussion and vote before taking any action. Vicious personal attacks were made on collaboration leaders, threatening to label the collaboration as ‘sick’, and subsequently several young scientists withdrew their participation.
My colleague predicted that the collaboration leaders would likely have to remove the individual in the face of this pressure. After all, unless they acted against their better judgement, their own reputations could be tarnished. In short, they were afraid they could be next on the hit list.
What had started out as a large collegial interaction aimed at solving a common scientific problem had degenerated into a brawl, generated by a few young colleagues who felt that all of their colleagues must share their concept of social justice or hit the street, with the loudest children likely to get their way.
While these somewhat emotionally charged stories involve individuals, another recent example arose that underlies how similar fears are negatively impacting on whole fields of scientific study.
The magazine Scientific American, which used to be the most prestigious popular science magazine in print but has now become a vehicle for social justice activism, recently published an article entitled “Cultural Bias Distorts the Search for Alien Life": “Decolonizing” the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) could boost its chances of success, says science historian Rebecca Charbonneau”
In the article this young historian, whose research work appeared last year in a special SETI-themed issue of the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, was extensively interviewed in order to make the argument that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence might be “undermined by biases they only dimly perceive—biases that could, for instance, be related to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups that occurred during the development of modern astronomy and many other scientific fields”.
It is natural to wonder how looking for patterns of radio or optical pulses, or searching for signs of technological civilization impacting on the atmospheres of distant planets could reflect racial biases. Charbonneau’s response, in the Scientific American article, is clear. Focusing on the technology at the very heart of a search is a mistake. Instead of listening for signs of alien intelligence, we should first be listening to indigenous people here on Earth, or as she puts it, to taking into account “marginalized and historically excluded perspectives”.
It is tempting to simply dismiss this confusing logic as just fodder for a now-woke magazine. Unfortunately, however, the rot goes much deeper.
Dr. Charbonneau sent out a photo advertising her appearance in a large SETI meeting recently in Pennsylvania in which she reiterated her claims that racism might basically underlay much of the current SETI mission. She was not alone. Another observer at the meeting reported that many of the “scientific talks” were about forbidding language of “colonization”, “indigenous”, non-binary sexuality, and transphobia.
Indeed, it is telling that Dr Charbonneau is a Jansky Fellow at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory. These prestigious fellowships are meant to assist the most promising researchers in radio astronomy. But one of them has gone to a historian who has argued that focusing only on doing better science and improving detection technology is itself misplaced.
Numerous SETI scientists report that in the face of these claims it is harder and harder to actually carry out SETI research and that they are afraid for their own futures.
How did the group respond to this nonsense about SETI being racist? It was decided to forbid using the word “intelligence” (as in “the search for intelligent life”), as it is a white construct.
It is perfectly understandable that individual faculty, or even scientific leaders, feel too intimidated or fearful to speak out at the risk of their own position. We should have less sympathy for those who feel the need to virtue signal to show they are out in front of the mob in order to protect themselves. Things will continue to get worse until academic leaders become willing to say to those who may be acting like spoiled children and who feel empowered by their newfound ability to cancel or intimidate those they don’t like or to obstruct research that doesn’t conform to their own political inclinations that it is just possible that they own the problem, not the rest of the community. Moreover, if those who are acting like children choose to respond by publicly labeling institutions or leaders as racist, or sexist, they need to be publicly accountable as well.
Academia finds itself in a modern version of Lord of the Flies, with metaphorical echoes of children running around threatening to “kill the pig”, and without adults willing to take their weapons and tell them to grow up.
As for what was once known as SETI, it is a shame that investigators are no longer searching for signs of alien intelligence. It would be nice to find some, with so little seemingly left on Earth.