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August 02, 2006


Evan Jones

Your argument relating to Kevin Barrett—"Barrett may very well be completely wrong," but because of the importance of academic freedom he should nonetheless be protected by his University—rings clear and true. Provost Farrell's statement, "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," is, of course, as true as true can be. I wonder, however, how the continuation of your argument might change if the opening premise became, "Barrett may very well be absolutely right."

As for Mel Gibson, your expansion of the discussion was interesting, but grew farther and farther from the point. It seems clear to me that Gibson's intent, grossly inappropriate and oh so worthy of apology, was merely to insult the officer in question. Was he sorry? You bet. Had the officer's name been Rojas or Chow, is there any doubt his remarks would have veered off in the direction of Bruce Lee or Pancho Villa? The old saw, "Instant asshole, just add alcohol" would seem very much at home here. Not all alcoholics are assholes, but Gibson made it perfectly clear that with a little alcohol and a fast car he has the potential to excel.

Found my way here via Abbas Raza's selection for Three Quarks Daily today. Hope to come back often.



Many thanks. Most of the commentators over at 3QD seem to be speaking more to their own understanding of the Barrett incident, so I particularly appreciate your interest in the specific argument I was trying to develop.

Regarding the Barrett incident itself, yes, I definitely think that his political views on this topic should not impact the university's decision to allow him to teach the course. I am not certain, however, that I understand where you are going with your final question? Certainly, if one supports Barrett's rights might be completely wrong, would not one be equally supportive of his views even if he were "absolutely right"?

Regarding Gibson, I realized after the fact that the Juan Cole post I linked to was not the one I had in mind at the time, but since quite a few readers had already followed the link, and since I can't remember precisely which post I was actually thinking of, I decided to leave it for the time being. At any rate, I was trying to make two points with the Gibson example.

First, I think that there is reason to believe that his drunken ramblings were necessarily completely random. I am certainly not an expert of Gibson's religious or political views, but it is well-known that his Passion of the Christ was widely criticized for its apparent anti-Semitic implications. Furthermore, it is also well-known that Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, is an outspoken Holocaust denier, and Gibson fils has consistently refused to explicitly distance himself from those views. Does that mean Mel himself is necessarily anti-Semitic? Of course not, but it does help to explain was his drunken ramblings that night were seen has potentially meaningful.

At any rate, my main point is not about Gibson himself, but rather to say that there are many people (like, apparently, Mel's father) who hold and articulate beliefs that many of us agree are untenable and dangerous.

Therefore, I wanted to propose two thought experiments. First, if a professor were a vocal and public supporter of such beliefs outside the classroom, would his university be justified in taking action even if those statements and actions did not directly impact his teaching or scholarship? I'm inclined to think that there might be certain situations in which such action might actually be warranted.

Second, I wonder about the inverse scenario--what if, say in a course on the Holocaust, the professor is confronted with a student who insists that the Holocaust did not even take place? Would it be appropriate, even possible, to accept such an extreme view as merely a "difference of opinion"? But, if the student were given a poor grade for missing the point of the class, what would prevent him from claiming that the professor was "advocating" a specific set of political believes which the student did not share?

Of course, I am playing the devil's advocate, but to make a couple of points. First, though I strongly support academic freedom, I do think that there might be reasonable limits to what positions that freedom might sanction. Second, I disagree with the attempts by Fish, Bérubé, and Menand to distinguish between either politics and analysis (Fish) or between "advocacy" and viewpoints (Bérubé and Menand). Basically, I think that many (or all?) "viewpoints" are, at some level, political, and to argue otherwise is disingenuous.




The distinction between "politics" and "advocacy" in determining the real "freedom" that academics should possess reminds me of how Zizek describes the Lacanian Real in *The Puppet and the Dwarf*. Zizek writes, "The real is *simultaneously* the Thing to which direct access is not possible and the obstacle that prevents this direct access; the thing that eleudes our grasp and the distorting screen that makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first standpoint to the second" (77). It seems that Fish and company are caught trying to articulate the shift between perspectives (fair and balanced [all rights reserved]), revealing the ideological limits of their ability to access a "real" freedom of speech. The ideological limits perhaps are related to the power structure of the classroom, which leads to the more difficult questions that you raise as to what determines the boundaries of responsible speech and how these boundaries should be policied.


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