Freedom from Criticism

I have argued many times on this page that there is a dangerous new rights theory gaining traction in today's college campuses.  That theory holds that there exists a freedom (mostly for people in "protected" groups -- women, minorities, etc) from being offended or even being criticized, and that this trumps free speech. 

For years I have supported the legality of what is called hate speech -- not because I agreed with it, but because I thought its expression, no matter how contemptible, should be legal.  Free speech should have no content tests.  I also argued that there was a slippery slope.  If making racist remarks is illegal today, perhaps just criticizing a woman or an African American might be illegal tomorrow.

Enter Priya Venkatesan, former English teacher at Dartmouth.  Ms. Venkatesan was hired by Dartmouth to teach all kinds of odd (but always trendy) socialist eco-feminist babble.  Such courses seem to be a staple of colleges today.  I remember a number of such professors at Princeton, but it was no big deal as long as the course were clearly labeled and one could avoid them.  After all, if people really were attracted to such drivel, it just left more spots open for the rest of us in classes that actually prepared us for the real world. 

The problems began, though, when Ms. Venkatesan's students refused to blindly agree with her  (apparently, they did not attend the University of Delaware indoctrination course that explained why you are not allowed to criticize anyone but white males).

The agenda of Ms. Venkatesan's seminar, then, was to
"problematize" technology and the life sciences. Students told me that
most of the "problems" owed to her impenetrable lectures and various
eruptions when students indicated skepticism of literary theory. She
counters that such skepticism was "intolerant of ideas" and "questioned
my knowledge in very inappropriate ways." Ms. Venkatesan, who is of
South Asian descent, also alleges that critics were motivated by
racism, though it is unclear why.

After a winter of discontent, the snapping point came
while Ms. Venkatesan was lecturing on "ecofeminism," which holds, in
part, that scientific advancements benefit the patriarchy but leave
women out. One student took issue, and reasonably so "“ actually,
empirically so. But "these weren't thoughtful statements," Ms.
Venkatesan protests. "They were irrational." The class thought
otherwise. Following what she calls the student's "diatribe," several
of his classmates applauded.

Ms. Venkatesan informed her pupils that their behavior
was "fascist demagoguery." Then, after consulting a physician about
"intellectual distress," she cancelled classes for a week. Thus the
pending litigation.

Litigation, exposure of the names behind anonymous course evaluations, and email threats from Ms. Venkatesan follow.  More from Lubos Motl.

Postscript:  By the way, it is just astounding to me that anyone with an over-room-temperature IQ could passionately believe that technological progress is bad for women.  One might argue that way society is organized still under-utilizes women and/or puts artificial roadblocks up to a woman's progress, but get some perspective!

Pre-modern life for women was horrible.  Because of the biological complexities of child-rearing alone, they died young far more often than men and their physical vulnerability caused them to be marginalized in virtually every society of every culture of the world until at least 1750 and really until 1900.  The whole women's movement is built on a platform of technology that only begins with the pill and encompasses a thousand things from automobiles to computers that reduce the importance of size and physical strength in getting ahead in the world. 

  • morganovich

    "From the vantage point of social constructivism, scientific facts are not discovered but rather created within a social framework. In other words, scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct."

    -p. venkatesan

    wow.

    she could work for al gore.

    this sounds a great deal like:

    "Nobody is interested in solutions if they don't think there's a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis."

    -a. gore

    both seem to imply that it's fine to just make up a bunch of stuff, call it fact, and proceed to have an allegedly meaningful policy discussion from that point. francis bacon must be spinning in his grave...

  • nicole

    Is there any basis whatsoever for suing someone other than an employer or coworker for workplace discrimination? Do you think thousands of inner-city public school teachers that get called four-letter words on a regular basis could be suing their students?

    Maybe they're just not as sensitive, since they don't have to take time off due to "intellectual distress."

  • jimk

    The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
    What is the social construct associated with this statement? Someone please enlighten me.

  • http://that-xmas.livejournal.com/ Xmas

    JimK,

    Cardinal directions are artifacts of the patriarchy. In fact, geography and astronomy are simply another way for men to mark and keep women in their place.

  • rxc

    One of the most liberating technologies for women is quite banal - washing machines. My mother is old enough to remember washing clothes in a stream as a child, and she has absolutely no intention of going back.

  • dearieme

    "caused them to be marginalized in virtually every society of every culture of the world until at least 1750": both Elizabeth of England and Mary Queen of Scots had superb educations and became, rather obviously, monarchs. Not that I disagree with your thrust.

  • Another guy named Dan

    It seems to me the whole deconstructionist movement has two goals. First to restore the primacy of philosophical thought over empirical inquiry. The second is to restore man to the center of the universe whithout having to resort to the invocation of a deity.

    Thus it is not the physical world that's important, but man's reaction to it that counts. There would be no universe if man were not here to observe it, and since there can be no absolutes in the system, then every possible mode of observation must be equally valid.

    Interesting enough if you want to impress your liberal arts friends at a cocktail party, but Lord help me if I ever have to cross a bridge designed by someone who believes the modulus of elasticity of structural steel is nothing more than a social convention.

  • Homer

    Weird stuff like that is one of the reasons I have no desire to go back for another degree. On a separate but strangely related note, I was once told by a deaf person that it "is against the law for you not to understand me." I was waiting tables and after he sent the food back the third time for something being wrong, I simply said that I was sorry but I didn't understand what he was trying to order. Given the Americans with Disabilities Act, it probably was against the law. Imagine applying standards like that to hate speech. Could it be against the law not to agree with something said one day?

  • Hopeful Reader

    Is there even one book in print that expounds the moral illegitimacy of the 'hate speech' construct?

    My Amazon and Google searches have turned up empty.

  • john strauss

    You guys are a bunch of hicks. Of course she is fit to comment on science. The woman has a masters degree in Genetics. Do you?

    http://dartmed.dartmouth.edu/summer07/html/bio_venkatesan.php

  • la petite chou chou

    Queen Elizabeth was greatly chastised for not having a man at her side.

    So what I gather from this story is that it is unacceptable for her students to question her knowledge or to be skeptical etc...because being such is unthoughful, but it is perfectly ok for her to tell them, essentially, that they were behaving like fascists?

    ...Interesting...I wonder if any of them went to the doctor for mental anguish about that. I somehow doubt it.

  • http://dicentrasgarden.blogspot.com dicentra

    "both seem to imply that it's fine to just make up a bunch of stuff, call it fact, and proceed to have an allegedly meaningful policy discussion from that point."

    It's worse than that: they're not implying it, they're stating it outright.

    If science posits the concept of "facts" and "empiricism," and there weren't any women around to assist in formulating these concepts, then they're by definition "patriarchal," and the patriarchy has one goal only: the savage suppression of women.

    Ergo, "facts" and "data" are tools of patriarchal oppression, and it's the feminist's duty to subvert and undermine these tools, thus to empower women.

    Postmodern linguistics asserts that all cognition is moderated by language. In other words, you can only comprehend what you can express linguistically, so they who best understand language (surprise! linguists and literary theorists) become the Grand High Priests of What Is And What Ain't.

    Their concept of how language relates to reality is similar to the thought experiment where you shoot an arrow toward the wall, and first it travels half the distance, then half the distance again, and because you can halve the distance infinitely, the arrow never reaches the wall. In theory, anyway.

    But academics never seem to get that the arrow does in fact reach the wall and even pierces it, thereby rendering the thought experiment null and void. They go to the grave insisting that the arrow doesn't reach the wall, you rednecked ignoramus, and you would know it didn't if you had attended an Ivy League school and read Derrida.

    They create Escher sketches with words, and can't understand that their linguistic worlds are the distortion, while reality marches happily on without them.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a3/Escher%27s_Relativity.jpg

    Anyway, what it amounts to is that feminists and Leftists figure that The Patriarchy and Evil Conservatives and whomever else they've demonized have been using "facts" and "data" and "science" for lo these many centuries to oppress The Other, so turnabout is fair play. They think that their opponents dress up their arguments in the cloak of objectivity and truth (which doesn't exist) to intimidate and bully others, so they go ahead and play fast and loose with facts and studies and empiricism as a way to fight back.

    The Narrative Must Be Served, after all. They're fighting the battle of Competing Narratives, while the rest of us just want to know what's actually going on.

    Poor deluded fools. Us, I mean. Those who actually think that it's possible to know something without having learned it in college.

  • HTRN

    Here's an interview with the person in question.

    She comes off as half a bubble off center.

  • morganovich

    nicely put dicentra. i would also add the other grave flaw in the theories linguistic cognition dominating science: it focuses entirely on VERBAL language. math is a language as well. it's a thought construct that has nothing to do with speech full of it's own patterns and intuitions.

    these deconstructionists are verbal imperialists! the math department should sue them for demeaning their language and culture!

  • Mesa Econoguy

    I had the displeasure of witnessing the first waves of this type of behavior/movement first hand (at a different eastern liberal arts college), and it was and is frightening.

    The progression of this academic fascism was from 60s activism to alternative culturalism, to making multi-culti mainstream, and now to multi-culti left wing mainstream dictatorship.

    This should scare the living hell out of every parent planning on college education for their children. It should also scare everybody else because it is spilling out of college campuses into everyday life.

  • http://geistbearbrewing.com Thomas

    Funny thing a PoliSci professor I took a theory class from about 14 years ago was studying this area and predicted this outcome. It was part of the reason he no longer teaches political science.