Saturday, April 28, 2018

According to Will Wilkinson, violent protests on campus aren't a threat to free speech, but this girl's graduation photo is.

A couple weeks ago, I got into a discussion on a thread with long-time Facebook friend and now NY Times commentator, Will Wilkinson about this "controversial" graduation photo taken by University of Tennessee-Chattanooga student Brenna Spencer:

On Twitter/Facebook, Wilkinson wrote:

We'll come back to this issue in a lot more detail in a moment, but first I want to set the stage.

Will Wilkinson is the VP of Policy Research at the Niskanen Center, a relatively new DC-based think tank that styles itself as "libertarian" but tends to advocate policies and ideas that are anything but.

They've also been blasted for publishing or re-publishing studies and reports that are of shockingly poor quality, including recently one by Jeffrey Sachs which claimed that "liberals" were more likely to be victims of firings based on political speech than "conservatives".

There were two major problems with Sachs' report that should have been immediately obvious.

1) It failed to take into account the massive disparity in the raw number of liberal vs. conservative college professors.

According to a September 2016 study by Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein which looked at the voter registration data for 7,243 history, law, economics, journalism, and psychology faculty and found that just 314 had registered as Republican, while 3,623 were registered Democrats which puts the overall ratio at about 11.5:1.

They go on to note:
"The D:R ratios for the five fields were: Economics 4.5:1, History 33.5:1, Journalism/Communications 20.0:1, Law 8.6:1, and Psychology 17.4:1. The results indicate that D:R ratios have increased since 2004, and the age profile suggests that in the future they will be even higher. We provide a breakdown by department at each university. The data support the established finding that D:R ratios are highest at the apex of disciplinary pyramids, that is, at the most prestigious departments."
So naturally, any study that purports to describe the frequency with which problems are happening to a given population should at the very least take into account massive differences in population size rather than providing raw numbers.

If the question is who is more likely to be fired for speaking their mind, then it's pretty important that we're comparing the groups of people on a per capita basis.

Sachs didn't do that, and Niskanen didn't care.

2) As another friend, history professor Phil Magness pointed out, at least 3 of the cases of liberals supposedly being fired for political speech were misrepresented -- and they were huge, well-known cases, so a more in-depth review of Sachs report would be likely to uncover more padding.

Quoting Phil:
1. The database claims that Ward Churchill was fired for "unpatriotic" speech. This is not true. Churchill was actually fired for research misconduct following the discovery that he had engaged in plagiarism and the fabrication of evidence in his published academic work.

2. The database claims that Melissa Click was fired for being "anti-conservative." Also not true. Click was fired after being indicted for physically assaulting a student on campus.

3. The database claims Kevin Allred was fired for making "anti-white" political tweets. He was actually fired for a series of tweets in which he threatened mass shootings and running Trump supporters over with his car. Threatening violence would seem to fall well outside of the protections of free speech or academic freedom.

I would argue that all three of these terminations were justified for reasons unrelated to "free speech."
I think most people would agree with Phil on this, I'd be willing to be that if we looked even more closely at the examples presented by Sachs, we'd find a larger pattern of misrepresenting cases - and that this tendency would not be random.

But Wilkinson used this study to back up a previous claim recently made by the Niskanen Center that there was no free speech "crisis" on college campuses.

In spite of the fact that progressives significantly out-number any non-progressive voices on college campuses in every discipline and in some cases as much as 20:1, and in spite of the fact that there are now dozens of cases of large mobs of progressive students and faculty members shouting down conservative speakers and several instances of professors using or supporting the use of violence such as with Melissa Click and more recently with Randa Jarrar calling for the use of literal terrorism in order to support her agenda, according to Wilkinson, it's the conservatives who are the real threat to free speech.

And of course, this all plays back into his reaction to Brenna Spencer's graduation photo.

Wilkinson accuses Spencer - as a white, Trump-supporting conservative in the South - of playing the victim when she is, in fact, the oppressor.

I found this to be a particularly ridiculous reaction for several reasons, not least of which being that I don't see anything remotely wrong with Brenna Spencer's photo to begin with, and posited that the only way you'd think of it as a free speech-chilling threat of any kind is if you believe that regardless of context, the mere sight of a gun would be terrifying to her fellow classmates.

I find this to be an especially odd claim to make in a state like Tennessee, because most of the students attending the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga probably grew up around guns and regardless of their general political leanings are likely far more familiar with firearms and rural culture than students at most universities.

Even now, I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which I should have ever even seen or known about this photo. When I graduated high school, as a drummer, I took several graduation photos with drums in various configurations... I look at Spencer's photo as basically the same thing, because I'm not an emotional child who faints at the sight of a gun.

So I asked whether or not it just might be possible that far from trying to be a provocateur, Brenna Spencer was actually, genuinely trying to positively express a value - in this case gun ownership - that she felt was under attack.

I further noted that this photograph was taken/shared after we'd already been subjected to two months of national "conversation" stemming from the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Following weeks of seeing nothing but people like David Hogg calling the NRA "terrorists", and demanding legislation that would curtail the rights of gun-owners, it's not that much of a stretch to imagine someone like Brenna Spencer feeling defensive about her right to bear arms and if you understand that, you should be able to understand why she might want to express her views publicly as she was exiting college.

In fact, this seems to me like the most obvious and clear motivation for Spencer to take and distribute the image.

She did not seem to be deliberately "triggering" progressives as Wilkinson asserted, and furthermore, if an image like this is enough to trigger other students and offend or upset them, that just seems like evidence that those students were way too thin-skinned to begin with.

Wilkinson responded to my comments with a long statement told from his experience teaching in Tennessee. Subsequently, I was challenged by another person on the thread to reply to it. Thus... What follows is Wilkinson's comment, intercut with my public response.

It's quite long, so here's the abstract:

While I think Will makes some decent points in the abstract, this specific case does not remotely demonstrate what he thinks it does, there are plenty of alternative ways to look at this specific case, he rests his core points on a lot of really shaky conceptual arguments, and in the end he resorts to arrogant moral grandstanding.

With that said... Here we go:
Will: "Many, many, many universities are state schools in conservative states and draw tons of conservative students, who come from places more conservative than the town the school is in, and way more conservative than the ethos of the school itself. But these members of the state's politically and culturally dominant class feel entitled to institutions as conservative as the ethos of the state they dominate, and totally ridiculously feel that the fact that they aren't makes them victims of prejudice."
Me: This may be true in some instances, but seems like a total misreading of the photo in question, wherein the girl is actually part of a group of people that tend to be marginalized and attacked constantly by all the dominant cultural institutions: Media, (National) Politics, Entertainment, and Academia.
Will: "Campuses are places where members of traditionally victimized and marginalized classes feel relatively safe demanding equal recognition and protection of their rights as persons and citizens, which members of the dominant class invariably finds threatening."
Me: Ok, to the first part, but... I think a citation is definitely needed for the "members of the dominant class invariably find[ing] this to be threatening", since quite a large number - possibly even the majority - of the "dominant class" is vocally supportive of providing that equal recognition and equal protection of rights.

This isn't 1961.
Will: "The more effective egalitarian demands are likely to be (at elite schools, because the graduates stand a chance of actually wielding influence) the more threatening the dominant group finds it."
Me: Again, citation needed.

The dominant group at literally all the "elite schools" ARE in favor of these egalitarian demands. And to call a lot of the demands in question "egalitarian" is, itself, a bold claim. Please explain to me how what happened to the Christakis or Weinsteins is an example of egalitarianism, or to Charles Murray, or to Christina Hoff Sommers, and on and on and on... And that's before we get to any of the actually inflammatory speakers that were disinvited like Milo, etc.

To the contrary, many of these demands seem to seek special class protections which go far beyond a situation where everyone is actually equal.

And they have majority popular and institutional support in the places where these things are mostly in play.

Translation: The people who are rejecting this stuff or who are pushing back are rarely if ever the "dominant" group, unless you think that social conditions and attitudes are identical to what they were 50-60 years ago.
Will: "Casting the people asking for equality as oppressors who victimize the class they are dominated by is a venerable trick to protect traditional power relations by inverting the direction of and responsibility for injustice."
Me: Ok.

Two points... First: 20 year old girls aren't responsible for historical oppression, and, second: How is the photo cited an example of this even if they were?
Will: "It's a way of not only denying actual injustice, but of deepening it by implying that forward moral progress requires that the the dominant class resist and roll back the subordinate classes' effective political power."
Me: Again, how is the photo cited in any way representative of this problem?

If you want to talk about the history of gun rights, it was the pro *control* side that used power to oppress minorities. Or had we all forgotten the push to regulate guns as a response to the Black Panthers?
Will: "At schools like UTC, the black kids have grandparents who suffered through Jim Crow. The idea that it can be literally physically dangerous to challenge white people is drilled into them, because it is true."
Me: I'd buy that this can be true for some people, but I've lived all over the United States and made friends with all kinds of people and see absolutely no evidence from my experiences that this is true for the majority or en masse.

Are we not living in the same world where Kanye West used his time at the Grammy's to say that then President Bush hates black people?
Will: "When a white kid in my class insisted that northern Africa "isn't real Africa" -- we were doing the Aeneid and I was emphasizing the African roots of Western civilization -- the black kids (who were VERY engaged by the idea that West tradition is partly African) literally started looking down, or acting slightly distracted, as if they weren't listening and didn't notice anything had been said."
Me: That's a sad story. Still not sure what it has to do with the photo used as an example of the phenomenon in question.
Will: "But they heard and knew exactly what that kid was saying: that *their* ancestors are outsiders to the Western tradition, and have no claim to the dignity and civilization of Alexandria and Cleopatra. Nobody said a peep. Why not?"
Me: Because it's awkward? Because they're insecure college kids in what's probably a 101 class? Because the specific kid who spoke up was convincing or more socially dominant? Because they partly agree or have been taught a similar idea, in that typically Egypt and Libya are seen as a somewhat more Middle East and not "African"? Because Will did not sufficiently create an environment in his class that invites these kinds of challenges?

I'm normally inclined to take the first-person account at face value, but it's not like there aren't other explanations beyond the one that fits exactly into Will's pre-existing ideology.
Will: "Well, this young lady's picture is a nice illustration. Her people (white Republicans) run Tennessee, the whole damn thing, except for the bigger cities, like Nashville and Memphis and Chattanooga, and even these places are run by relatively conservative white people. White people in Tennessee make the laws and they enforce them."
Me: Finally, we're getting to how the photo comes into play... But already he's tying it to stuff that this girl has zero connection to or control over.
Will: "Now, Donald Trump is a populist who relentlessly associates whiteness with Americanness and non-whiteness with marginal or non-Americanness, communicating pretty clearly that non-urban white people are entitled to protect their outsized share of power. That's the core of his message."
Me: Per Washington Post's article: Mostly black neighborhoods voted more Republican in 2016 than in 2012'
"That red line for white neighborhoods is very important and bolsters the focus on white voters after the 2016 election. But that blue line, showing more heavily black neighborhoods voting more Republican than in 2012, has been under-recognized.

There are two reasons this might have happened. The first is a change in support among black voters that favors the Republican. The second is a decrease in black turnout, meaning that the white voters in those neighborhoods who were more likely to back Trump carried more weight in the results."
In other words, while voter turn out was down, the black voters that remained weren't uniformly turned off by Trump. I don't generally ask (or care) how my friends vote, but anecdotally, I have multiple black friends who were sympathetic to (if not voted for) Trump, including a couple very close friends.

Where Will sees Trump as relentlessly associating whiteness with Americanness, it's possible that other people saw Trump as unifying an idea of "Americanness" against foreignness and the joint fears of economic competition and terrorism?

My view is that people tend to see what they want to see with Trump. But I'll accept Will's point for the sake of argument. Still not sure what it has to do with the photo.
Will: "So here's this privileged college-student member of Tennessee's dominant political faction in a Trump shirt with a gun in her waistband. What's displaying the gun *about*? It's not *wrong* to say "pride in the exercise of a constitutional right." But it's just monumentally dense to leave it there."
Me: Is it, though?

Trump and "big picture" stuff that college professors tend to see that no one else cares about aside, we've just spent the last 2 months living through a non-stop media barrage of anti-gun, anti-2nd Amendment voices at the national level.

Nearly the entire tenor of the "national conversation" around guns consists of reporters and anti-gun people routinely calling pro-gun people child murderers and blaming corruption (as opposed to a sincere opposition) and corporate lobbying for the fact that AR-15s have not been banned yet.

If this girl is graduating college now, then she's just spent her entire semester listening to people tell her she's a bad person for being a gun owner.

Perhaps that has more to do with her post than the 2016 election of Donald Trump?

Perhaps she got tired of seeing David Hogg's face every time she fired up Facebook or Twitter?

Who knows, right?
Will: "This young woman is in the heart of a decent-sized historically segregated southern city next to the lovely glassy, art museum flashing a handgun. Even outside the context of a Trump shirt, the gun is a straight-up threat to those who would challenge the inequities of the status quo power structure."
Me: This is straight-up nonsense. Childish nonsense. I'll go into detail in a different comment if necessary, but I think it's the dumbest part of this whole post.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Expanding on this point, this part of Wilkinson's long comment is the dumbest, most childish part of his whole claim because it assumes that the presence of an inanimate object as held by a 21-year-old white college student is inherently threatening regardless of context. Under this assumption, basically anytime a white person holds a gun for any reason - at the range, at a shooting competition, in a movie, whatever - they're a symbol of racist power struggles dating back centuries.

Worse still, this infantilizes minorities to an extreme degree, asserting that all this historical baggage is dredged up in people at the mere sight of a firearm. This is nothing more than the bigotry of low expectations, and it's made doubly tragic by the fact that Wilkinson is in charge of teaching students.

As had I said earlier in the overall thread, anyone who thinks that should join me at QuickShot or Stoddard's Range in Atlanta, where the majority of patrons and staff are black. In my experience, people in the South are far more familiar with, and thus comfortable with, firearms. The result is that they do not feel "threatened" by non-threatening situations like that which is clearly the case in Brenna Spencers graduation photo.

Anyone threatened by that photo would be among the most fragile, weak-willed people I've ever encountered, and unlike Wilkinson, I don't believe that "People of Color" are inherently that fragile.]
Will: "(Go watch an hour of NRA TV videos if you don't believe that this is what's up.)"
Me: Not one single gun-owner I know or have talked to has shared with me an "NRA-TV" post as a justification for their rights. Not once. And I know a LOT of gun owners & Second Amendment supporters.

The NRA is loud, but as far as I can tell, the only reason they "represent" anyone is because they get headlines and airtime from hyperventilating reporters who see them as the enemy.

[And once again, this doesn't have anything to do with Brenna Spencer]
Will: "But she's also correctly confident that her heavily cultivated whiteness and femininity defuse the sense of threat (that's what Dana Loesch is for), which is why she can do something that really would put one of her black male classmates at risk of being murdered by the police."
Me: Murdered by the police at a photoshoot? For college graduation photos? Black kids take photos with guns a lot. Will's stretching like taffy on this point.

Take Antonia Okafor, for instance:

And Antonia is hardly alone. You might remember this infamous photo from a few years back.

Will doesn't seem to be able to differentiate between the dangers of a kid displaying a gun while interacting with a cop in any kind of situation where that could actually be construed as a threat, and the context of taking what are essentially props to a private photo shoot.

Fortunately, I've worked as a photographer and video producer for a long time and I can differentiate between the two.

It's actually not that hard, though, so I'm not sure why a supposed academic is struggling with it.
Will: "A black kid about to graduate college would NEVER do this because they're literally NOT FREE to do it without imperiling their freedom and safety."
Again... Wrong. Good prose, but wrong. See above.
Will: "But she is free to do it, because she is a well-to-do white southern lady, and does. It is an ostentatious display of unequal power, unequal protection of basic rights, and a signal of the willingness to use violence to protect these inequalities, but winkingly portrayed as an underdog's plucky act of defiance against injustice."
It's definitely easier for pretty girls to get away with stuff like this. I don't suppose we want to get into a conversation about male privilege, here, but anyway.... Wow.

[Wilkinson's just made Brenna Spencer the representative for the entire history of power and oppression in the South. Poor miss Spencer is now the poster girl for white power and inequality, and her photo (scroll up to the top if you forgot which one we're talking about, I won't blame you given the hyperbole on display here) is a symbol of violence in defense of her people's oppressive regime.

At this point, I've got nothing left for Wilkinson's point but sarcasm and contempt.]
Will: "If you think this sort of thing doesn't carry over to campuses in places like Chattanooga and make students fearful of freely speaking their minds, you're wrong."
I don't think I am.
Will: "If you don't think the point of "political correctness" is to resist this fear and create a sense of safety for people who have less power, you're wrong."
Yeah, again... I don't think I am.
Will: "And if you think that the expression-chilling effects of PC on campus is worse than the expression-chilling effects of ongoing invidious inequalities in basic rights and effective political power, as illustrated in this photo, you're wrong."
Definitely not wrong on this.
Will: "And if you look at this photo and say, "I don't see the problem," you're part of the problem."
Blow it out your ass, Will.

Reading through Will's comments again, you'll note that my patience runs out the more he resorts to moral grandstanding and starts accusing people (me) of malicious intentions.

After way too many years of having these kinds of conversations, I've come to realize that people who do that have little intelligent to add. When you rest your argument on trying to paint your opponent as evil, rather than on solid logic built on factual premises, you're skipping past the hard part of thinking and going right to rationalizing your pre-existing beliefs instead.

Increasingly, I get the impression that this basically defines Wilkinson and the Niskanen Center in general.

Today, when challenged on the Jeffrey Sachs report on Phil Magness' thread, Wilkinson had no response to his critics (many whom were much more successful academics) other than a snarky dismissal.

I guess this is what we're reduced to.

To the broader point, if your evidence for the claim that the real "threat" to free speech is coming from conservatives like Brenna Spencer, because of photos like this, you are not engaging in a serious argument. If your evidence for the idea that progressives are more frequently fired for their political speech is riddled with basic errors, and your claim that there isn't really a free speech "crisis" ignores basically everything that's going on at colleges & universities around the country or relies on quibbles over the definition of "crisis", you might be engaging in motivated reasoning.

And if your response to your critics is to be dismissive or call them bad people, your arrogance is out of control.

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