Belly of the Beast

Sociologists call for a systematic response to online targeting of and threats against public scholars.

August 14, 2017
 
From left: R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Jessie Daniels, Marisa Allison and Adia Harvey Wingfield

MONTREAL -- Race, religion, gender, inequality. They’re all central to sociology, the study of social relationships and institutions. They’re also topics over which scholars -- Johnny Eric Williams, Dana Cloud, Sarah Bond, Tommy Curry, to name a few -- have been targeted in recent months. It’s no wonder, then, that a number of sessions at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association discussed the troubling trend of threats against professors engaged in public scholarship.

One such session, "Protecting Public Scholars From Backlash," was actually pitched 18 months ago, before the newest round of hate mail and threats of violence filled professors’ inboxes. At the time, session co-organizer Eric Anthony Grollman, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond and a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, was concerned about scholars like Saida Grundy, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University whose sociologically sound online comments about young white men sparked ire in 2015 (she kept her job).

In the interim, Grollman said in introducing the panel, public backlash against scholars has only grown. There’s also plummeting public confidence in higher education and what Grollman described as a new level of anti-intellectualism infused with racism, legitimized by the Trump administration.

Yet while personal attacks can feel isolating and shocking, they and other panelists said, they’re part of a well-funded, systematic attack on progressive academic ideals.

“Our goal here is to think sociologically about this problem,” Grollman said, noting that marginalized scholars -- people of color, women and LGBT scholars -- are disproportionately targeted. “These attacks are not isolated incidents, but they’re actually part of a larger conservative assault on higher education, and it’s not limited to what we call our extramural utterances … There are scholars who’ve been attacked for what they teach in the classroom, for the type of research they do.”

Grollman and others described a common cycle of a professor’s comments on a politicized topic first appearing on a right-wing website such as Campus Reform, which is supported by the conservative Leadership Institute. It’s soon followed by other, similar websites and news outlets and, finally, Fox News. Then, they said, “ensue the death threats, the threats of sexual violence, calls for them to be fired and lose their jobs. This is not a whimsical thing -- there’s an actual system in place.”

If threats against scholars are organized where, then, is sociology’s organized response? Other panelists asked this question and offered thoughts on how the discipline should both support threatened scholars and proactively work to prevent such targeting.

A Systematic Problem Needs a Systematic Response

Borrowing a term from Prudence L. Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, panelist Jodi O’Brien, professor of sociology at Seattle University, asked whether sociologists want to be “interventionist scholars.” O’Brien, who lost a deanship at Marquette University in 2010 after accusations that she was anti-family (what O’Brien and many of her supporters allege was a ruse for rejecting her for being a lesbian), said she’s deeply interested in the idea. Indeed, she said, another problem with and goal of anti-academic trolls is that they detract from the faculty mission of fostering “democratic equality in creating citizens.”

Yet as a profession, O’Brien said, “we are ambivalent about public scholarship … We talk a good talk, but we don’t support it in a myriad of institutionalized ways. We don’t support it in our training of graduate students, we don’t support it in the tenure process.”

If sociologists want to be “interventionist public scholars,” she said, amending Carter’s original phrase, they must challenge their elitism and “train, facilitate, value and support one another” in systematic ways.

Picking up on Grollman’s and O’Brien’s assertion that those in the crosshairs are often the most vulnerable, Marisa Allison, a graduate student in sociology at George Mason University, said adjuncts need extra support from their peers. She cited the case of Lisa Durden, a pop culture commentator who lost her job as an adjunct instructor of communications at Essex County College this summer after defending Black Lives Matter on Fox News.

Some More Vulnerable Than Others

“There’s a concerted thing happening here, and we need to wrap our heads around it, while also recognizing those who are the most vulnerable need the most help,” said Allison, who studies non-tenure-track faculty members. Among other recommendations, she said professors need to push for a full faculty review of scholars under threat of termination for their public comments and to start supporting scholars across disciplines.

Allison also said it’s important for scholars to know what their colleagues are working on, to be aware of any possible fallout ahead of time.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis who has contributed to Inside Higher Ed, also linked threats against scholars to the adjunctification and general neoliberalization of the university, saying labor -- even academic labor -- doesn’t carry the weight it once did. At the same time, she said, institutions are keen to “extract” public scholarship work from their faculty members to advance their brand, even if the they’re not prepared to support those faculty members in the face of controversy.

“The irony is that a lot of times universities want to bring, highlight or take advantage of the work of academics who are able to put their work into that public sphere,” she said. “But then what happens when people come after you for that public profile? There’s not that same match there.”

Wingfield said she’s faced public criticism before for her work. She advised against the urge to purge inboxes of hate mail, arguing that it’s important from a legal perspective to save and document everything. That’s after cluing in one’s administration to backlash before the “outrage machine” really gets going.

“That puts you in a pre-emptive position to protect yourself a little bit,” she said. That way, she added, one is in the position to later say, “See, you know what’s been going on. Don’t act all ‘brand-new’ now.”

R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, associate professor of sociology and black studies at the City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said he’s coached himself and colleagues through the public attacks and warned that when the coast looks clear, it’s not.

The Coast Is Not Clear

“It only calms down so it can start up again,” he said, advising scholars to “understand the cycle.” Namely, he said, “It ain’t over till it’s over and it gets worse before it gets better.”

More specifically, Lewis-McCoy said there’s the initial incident: the tweet, the mention, the comment, the reference. That then gets amplified by the “outrage machine.” Then the professor’s institution is contacted by members of the public, which prompts a meeting with administrators.

That meeting is the beginning, not the end, said Lewis-McCoy, noting that institutional responses to controversy are distinct from the faculty member’s individual response. Because one response is “never enough,” he said, the cycle typically ends only after solution or sanction. For this reason, he advised scholars in the cycle to obtain their own legal counsel, as the campus legal team will protect the institution’s interests (the same goes for union counsel, he said).

For colleagues, Lewis-McCoy advised contacting affected scholars to show personal -- not just public -- support. Ask them if they’re OK, he said, and offer to take over their social media feeds to upgrade their passwords to prevent hacking and off-the-cuff responses.

Over all, he said, “It’s not about avoiding what we do, but doing what we’re doing and getting greater support.”

Support for Affected Scholars

Panel co-organizer Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at CUNY’s Hunter College and Graduate Center, recently co-wrote a book called Going Public: A Guide for Social Scientists (University of Chicago Press). She said that even scholars who aren’t on social media can be targeted and it’s up to professors to educate their administrations about systematic attempts from well-funded ideological corners to discredit liberal and progressive professors. Sometimes, she said, they may even find sympathetic ears.

Abby L. Ferber, a professor of sociology and women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and president of Sociologists for Women in Society, attended Saturday’s session ahead of a panel she’s leading here today on protecting scholars from right-wing attacks. Ferber’s been targeted for online harassment in relation to her participation in the annual White Privilege Conference, via videos distorting her public comments and more. The changing environment for educators involved in such work has led her to teach more classes online, out of safety concerns, she said.

Ferber recently published an article in the Humboldt Journal of Social Relations based on conversations with five other women attacked in strikingly similar ways for their research, including that on climate change. Ferber says that the elements of the political right have begun to attack individual faculty members in hopes of striking from the curriculum historically overlooked subject matter. The overall effort, she wrote, is to silence these professors, with obvious implications for academic freedom.

Of her subjects, Ferber said those who had allies -- especially those who read hate emails and threats of violence for them -- felt least vulnerable. Only one faculty member said she felt supported by her university based on its response to the respective controversy.

Ferber's paper suggests various suggestions for institutional responses, based on feedback from subjects. They include:

  • Be proactive, not reactive. Have a protocol in place.
  • Put safety first. Then ask faculty members what they need.
  • Publicly condemn the form of the attack itself. Support civil dialogue by naming abuse and harassment for what it is.
  • Provide faculty members with resources for help and information about what they might experience next.
  • Honor professors’ wishes about being kept in the loop or not.
  • Do not individualize the problem.
  • Suggested responses for faculty members include talking to local and campus police, forwarding threatening messages to police and federal authorities, saving every message, denying trolls the response they seek, and seeking support from those who know your work.

Numerous attendees at ASA have asked what the association might do further support affected scholars. Michèle Lamont, professor of sociology and African and African-American studies and the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies at Harvard University, and association president, said its governing council will this week discuss a number of concrete agenda items for action.

Concurrently, and not only because the attacks, the ASA is working to increase public engagement. It asked the Trump administration earlier this year to rescind the travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, for example. The annual gathering also offered a several how-to-style panels on public scholarship.

“Sociologists are not a unique target for these types of attacks, but we do study topics which people do often feel the most passionate about, such as family, religion and race,” Lamont said. “We do hope that demonstrating the value of sociology to a public audience will serve as a tool in mitigating these attacks, but there are all sorts of positive, proactive reasons to engage with the public.”

Lamont said there will always be those who react negatively to the sociologists’ work, but that “they should not be the ones who get to dictate this work through threat and intimidation.”

Looking Ahead

And what of scholars who have already lived out their intimidation cycles? Williams, the associate professor of sociology at Trinity College in Connecticut who was placed on leave (later lifted) this summer for online comments on race, backed out of ASA this year. He and his family had to leave the state due to threats, and it was simply too soon to attend the meeting and talk about his experience, he said via email.

Grundy, of Boston University, attended this year’s meeting, with two years between now and her outrage cycle. Does she think the climate for scholars will improve? No, she argues in a recently published article in Ethnic and Racial Studies called “A History of White Violence Tells Us Attacks on Black Academics Are Not Ending (I Know Because It Happened to Me).” Grundy says that attacks on black academics are fundamentally anti-black attacks and do two things: attempt to stall black progress and reinforce white identities, particularly in newly digitized spaces.

“My assessment is that we have no reason to think this will get better and, in fact, the routinization and ritual of these attacks is part of the point,” Grundy said this week. “Histories of terroristic white violence have shown us the same.”

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