Academics like to think of themselves as autonomous thinkers, and academia—meaning literally the protected realm of free speech—gives professors not only the right to speak their minds but also, via the institution of tenure, protection against losing their livelihoods by displeasing those more powerful than themselves. The fact that civil polities treasure safe spaces for free speech attests to their progressive bona fides. Especially in our times, when new social networks can turn ominously feral, one would hope that academics and their institutions, especially small, face-to-face college communities, could return that investment and resist anonymous, predatory, crowd behavior.
Yet mob rule is precisely what happened this past semester at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, along the Thames River. Over the course of the past spring semester, philosophy professor Andrew Pessin was driven from campus based on a malevolent reading of a Facebook post in which he depicted “the situation” in Gaza as one in which the Israelis had confined a “rabid pit bull” to a cage, while animal rights activists protested for the poor beast’s release. Although Pessin didn’t specify in the text, he and a commenter did make clear that this metaphor referred to Hamas terrorists, not to the population generally.
But in an attack spearheaded by a Muslim student who in high school had begun a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and a Muslim professor, recently appointed head of the new Global Islamic Studies Program, a small group of activists, given the run of the school paper by its editors, accused Pessin of comparing all Palestinians to rabid dogs and calling for them to be “put down.” Pessin, they claimed, “directly condoned the extermination of a people. A member of our community has called for the systematic abuse, killing, and hate of another people.” The editor who arranged for the publication of all three letters did not ask Pessin for a response in the same issue.
Shock and horror spread through the community, triggering among many traumatic memories of verbal, racial, dehumanizing abuse, and arousing heretofore silenced “marginal voices.” A great cry went up against racists and hate-speakers of all kinds. Racist graffiti, probably written by an outsider, found in the Student Center bathroom, added to the cries of hurt and indignation. Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron accepted student demands that classes stop and that the entire campus turn itself to a mandatory discussion of racism and hatred. In that discussion those accusing Pessin had the conch, and proceeded to label anyone who disagreed with them “racists.”
While the invigorated community found new meaning, Professor Pessin found himself amid a waking nightmare. He and his family were the ones who became unsafe. A previous explosion had made his house uninhabitable; his ailing wife and three kids had to find new accommodations as Pessin found himself the subject of a relentless campaign of vilification. Thanks to an accusatory petition sponsored by the news editor, the episode became an object of worldwide reproof online, reaching even places from which have issued fanatics who have threatened to assassinate those who insult Islam.
At the same time, Pessin’s colleagues abandoned him. Indeed both administrators and colleagues urged him not to defend himself, lest he anger the accusing students further. One colleague asked him to stop making life difficult for other Jews still on campus by fighting back. The chair of his department threw him under the bus in deference to student crying because Pessin had tried to defend himself.
Overwhelmed by the hostility and the lack of support, on March 23 Pessin took a medical leave of absence. The next day, the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) issued a formal condemnation of hate speech, citing “the Facebook post of a certain faculty member.” In rapid succession virtually every department, program, and institution on campus issued a similar pronouncement, marked primarily by mimetic and superficial piety about opposing hate-speech. Dissenters were pressured so that near total unanimity prevailed. During the entire episode, only one out of 200+ colleagues emailed Pessin to ask his side of the story.
The college administration held an all-campus open forum on March 25 to allow students to speak about racism on campus, and to denounce hate speech. President Bergeron’s opening remarks, however, refused to name Pessin. This aroused the activists, who wanted to subject Pessin to “Red Guard” humiliation. Students opened their remarks with: “Fuck you Bergeron!” Complained one of the accusers, “How can we heal if Pessin isn’t denounced by name?” The next day, activists rammed two resolutions through the Student Government that targeted Pessin and demanded, in the name of solidarity, that the senior administration denounce him.
Hence the “discussion” about race and hate quickly became intimidating and indoctrinating. The predictable tragedy of the whole affair was how, in the name of progressive goals, a revolutionary moment empowered some of the most anti-progressive forces on campus. The administration quickly appointed three interim Deans of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, all from CCSRE, who planned a series of events that, at least where Israel was concerned, systematically pumped hate propaganda into the campus community. Said one dissident faculty member to his colleagues: “Some of us will feel the emotion shame: shame at the way the faculty treated Andy. And I will be one of them.”
How are we to understand what happened at Connecticut College? Orwell can certainly help, and Emile Zola, too. So can, it seems, William Golding’s irrepressible Lord of the Flies. But the most incisive insights perhaps come from a Girardian analysis of the sacred violence at the origin of all primitive religious solidarity. Kill an arbitrary surrogate victim, a scapegoat, and create solidarity among the guilty survivor-participants. That is why activist participants saw the Pessin Affair as a time of mobilization, deepening and enlarging the “inclusively excellent” community, a revolutionary time of courage, commitment, and democratic reform. Others, mostly outsiders and (rare) internal critics, saw Pessin as a scapegoat sacrifice. Of course, being a postmodern sacrifice, there was no blood.
Is there a larger lesson, too? One can make a case that the entire incident resembles an unalloyed albeit small-scale victory in the cognitive war being waged by Islamists against Western democracy. To most of those prominently involved, especially in postmodern/post-colonial guilds like Race and Gender studies, such a claim seems outlandish, even paranoid: In their minds the Pessin business had nothing to do with jihad or Islamism, but everything to do with human rights, dignity, and democracy. They may genuinely believe as much, however, and still be useful dupes in service to those with different priorities.
Anyone familiar with Islamist cogwar practices would see the Pessin Affair as a major success across the board. Consider: It served up extensive cooperation between the Global Jihadi Right (GJR) and the Global Progressive Left (GPL), all in the name of a common revolutionary desire to transform the nascent global community and oppose (U.S.) imperialism. It bonded the GPL/GJR alliance over their shared view of Israel as the Dajjal/Antichrist, the apocalyptic enemy in the battle for world salvation: Destroy Israel for World Peace! Once again, progressives not only fell silent while jihadis incite against Israel, but labeled those criticizing Islamic extremism “hate-speakers.” The same ideologues who reject Jewish complaints that it is anti-Semitic to compare Israel with the Nazis, consider criticism of jihadi depravities “Islamophobic.” Just to punctuate the post-colonial flavor of the times, one of Pessin’s faculty colleagues went so far as to dismiss calls for “due process” as “Eurocentric.”
Both groups claimed victory in the Pessin Affair, but events clearly degraded the academy and favored the Islamists’ perception of Western secular globalization as a vehicle for global Islamic domination: Praeparatio califatae. Nor need even the Muslims in this affair be conscious agents of this process. They, like their progressive colleagues, may just think they fight for the honor of Islam and against perfidious Zionism. Nonetheless, they not only demonized and isolated Israel and its supporters; they shielded some of the most odious jihadi hate speech on the planet today from “Islamophobic” criticism.
How did this happen? Those who organized the drive that chased Pessin from campus were demopaths. Demopaths systematically invoke principles of fairness, empathy, and concern for the “other” when claiming the protections of a progressive society for themselves. In other words, they demand protection from dehumanizing criticism but refuse those protections to others. In the Pessin case, they claimed a psychic trauma at the very possibility that a professor might have called for genocide, even as they protected, validated, and promoted the cause of a group, Hamas, that literally dehumanizes Jews (“descendants of apes and pigs”) and calls for their extermination.
Demopaths excel at what Ashley Thorne of the National Association of Scholars, has identified as “staged emergencies.” In a staged emergency, supposedly outraged and wounded voices accuse a target of allegedly “racist” or “misogynist” speech and insist that their (often deliberate) misreading has caused a traumatic crisis that needs urgent and total attention. There is a common internet analog these days. John Gordon, a retiring Professor of English at ConnColl, has described the
on-line person whose whole point of existence is to be offended . . . because we are all in this “trigger-point” phase where being offended on-line and therefore being licensed to vent your offendedness, thus demonstrating your moral superiority to anyone not thus offended.
Thus, those who composed the petition argued that it was racist and dehumanizing even to compare Hamas to a pit bull, despite the fact that Hamas embraces precisely what the petitioners denounced: “dehumanization, genocide, colonialism, and hatred of others.”
Demopaths also try to ally with other causes, to enlist the collaboration of the naive and credulous. Thus, at the time of the Ferguson riots, Palestinian intifadists joined forces with the most radical of protesters in an attempt to graft their own parochial war onto the racial conflict in the United States. The Ferguson protests equaled an American Intifada. At Connecticut College, Global Islamic Studies teaches students about the (presumably favorable) “impact of Islam on the fight for racial equality in the United States.”
Unfortunately, many self-styled liberals and progressives seem incapable of questioning the motives of the radical Muslims with whom they “dialogue”, and who reflexively attack anyone who questions them as paranoid and “Islamophobic.” One of the key elements in Pessin’s inability to defend himself was the rapidity and unanimity with which the faculty surrendered before this form of emotional blackmail. Alone among the non-tenured faculty, English Professor Jeffrey Strabone resisted the peer and student pressure to toe the mimetic line.
Just as we subject banks to stress tests to see how they would hold up when challenged with a crisis, we might consider checking out our institutions of higher learning to assess their vulnerability to staged emergencies, especially of the jihadi sort. Just how far has the revolutionary fusion of the Global Jihadi Right and the Global Progressive Left penetrated teaching and aligned itself with an aggressive form of anti-Islamophobia and revolutionary activism? The results of these stress tests would be useful to administrators interested in assembling counter-forces prepared to defend the democratic public sphere in case of an attack, as well as useful to parents wishing to choose a campus that will do best by their children. There are real differences among campuses in this regard, and they should not be kept secret.
Only when we can tell the difference between real pain and staged pain can we defend a tradition of freedom of speech that needs those people who wish to live free, including Muslims, to have seriously thick skins when it comes to facing criticism. So far it’s one way—“privileged,” “Eurocentric,” Westerners must be ferociously self-critical, while their critics freely brutalize them, without tolerating any criticism of themselves. It’s a catastrophic marriage of pre-modern sadism and postmodern masochism.
As for the faculty and students at ConnColl, they are in an enviable position. Self-criticism and contrition from them could produce extraordinary learning curves in the life of their institution of “higher learning.” If any place could profit from a performance of The Crucible right now, it’s Salem on the Thames. If any student newspaper or student government organization could profit by hosting an searching (and possibly searing) discussion of what it means to run an elected body or a newspaper, it’s ConnColl’s SGA and the College Voice. Imagine the maturity of those who would have gone through that process. Imagine the resilience of the culture with people experienced in defending an open (inclusive) society. We, especially progressives, need not mime the blood sacrifices of old.
A longer and extensively linked version of this essay is available at the Augean Stables, as is an archive of fifty-plus items relating to the Pessin Affair.