Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn recently proposed in The Harvard Crimson that academics should be stopped if their research is deemed oppressive. Arguing that “academic justice” should replace “academic freedom,” she writes: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”
In other words, Korn would have the university cease to be a forum for open debate and free inquiry in the name of justice, as defined by mainstream liberal academia.
Unfortunately, this is already a reality in most universities across America, where academics and university administrators alike are trying, often successfully, to discredit and prohibit certain ideas and ways of thinking. Particularly in the humanities, many ideas are no longer considered legitimate, and debate over them is de facto non-existent. In order to delegitimize researchers who are out of line, academics brand them with one of several terms that have emerged from social science theory.
The first term, “hegemonic,” is frequently used in history courses, literary criticism, and gender studies. Hegemony, of course, is a legitimate word that is often useful in describing consistency and uniformity. However, most people outside academia are unaware that being called ‘hegemonic’ is the insult du jour. It strongly implies that you are close-minded and perhaps even bigoted. This term may be applied to offences ranging from referencing the habits or dress of a cultural group to discussing the views held by a religion (and daring to question them—so long as the religion in question is not Christianity).
To do these things is to “essentialize” those people by speaking about them broadly and being so bold as to imply that they may share a practice or belief in a general sense. It is the insult of those who would have every department in academia broken down into sub-departments ad infinitum in order to avoid saying anything general about anything, resulting in verbal and intellectual paralysis.
This strategy of labeling has been particularly successful in its application to middle-eastern and Islamic studies. Any author, or student, who does not join in the liberal narrative about Islamic culture—which includes unwavering support for Palestinians, the absolute equality of men and women in Islam, and an insistence on the peaceful nature of the religion despite any violent tendencies in its foundation— will find themselves labeled an “orientalist.”
Edward Said popularized this term in his 1978 post-colonial work Orientalism. According to many of my colleagues, an orientalist is a person who writes about the Middle East from a “western perspective,” which is when one does not unquestioningly support and affirm Middle Eastern and Islamic culture. This does not mean that westerners are excluded from writing about the Middle East and Islam. A westerner can do so successfully so long as their research is void of criticism. Write anything else and you will find yourself labeled an orientalist and no graduate course will touch your work with a ten-foot pole.
Sadly, this is precisely what has happened to the work of Bernard Lewis, one of the world’s most renowned Middle East scholars. Because he has written about clashes between Islam and the West, and is willing to look at the Middle East outside the utopian academic optic, Lewis has been “dis-credited” and replaced with authors like Tariq Ramadan in college or graduate course syllabi. Similarly, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown universities, has been dismissed as “not a historian” by some academics, presumably because of his pro-Israeli stance. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, an associate professor at Reed College, strips the scholar Daniel Pipes of his status as a historian, writing that he is a “historian of Islam turned pro-Israel activist,” implying that the two are mutually exclusive.
The effect of discrediting one’s opponents in this way—rather than engaging and debating their ideas—is to create an academia where there is only one right way to think. If you dissent, you will be blackballed and labeled as hegemonic or orientalist.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in Brandeis University’s withdrawal of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently because of her “controversial” stance on women’s rights in Muslim society, which mostly consists of objecting to things like female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and honor killings. Rather than defending Hirsi Ali, or at the very least welcoming the debate that her presence would bring, Brandeis chose to shut her out. This was done at the behest of Brandeis faculty, students, and the Council of American-Islamic Relations, all of whom claim she is Islamaphobic.
The censorial climate of academia extends beyond tenured professors and touches the students, both in undergraduate and graduate school. They are being taught what is and is not an “acceptable” way of thinking rather than being encouraged to think through difficult questions on their own.
(I recently met a fellow graduate student from a Muslim-majority country who confessed that she is disgusted with the way women are treated in her home country. She finds the inequality unacceptable. However, she felt the need to make a caveat: “I know as an academic and a Muslim I shouldn’t say this…”)
The trouble is, very few in academia will even engage supposedly orientalist and hegemonic views. How can one argue against a room full of graduate students—and a professor—who dismiss such views out of hand and label dissenters with epithets that are tantamount to “racist” in academic parlance?
Korn’s dream of a “just” academic utopia is already being realized. But like many utopian visions, there is a dark underbelly. Anyone who does not ascribe to the dogma of “academic justice” can expect to be shunned and muzzled—as Brandeis demonstrated recently. The irony is that in its effort to eliminate allegedly close-minded and bigoted views, the university itself has become illiberal, dogmatic, and intellectually hegemonic.
If we shut the doors on academic freedom, the acceptable territory of research and discourse will continue to shrink over time, and the self-censorial dogma of the academy will inevitably trickle out beyond the boundaries of the university campus, threatening freedom of speech—and thought—in society at large.
M.G. Oprea is a PhD candidate in French linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin.