Sunday, September 22, 2013

Professor David Guth, Freedom of Speech, and US exceptionalism

In a blog post in July titled “Tenure in Singapore and West-Centric Discourse,” I had discussed the hypocrisy of US rhetoric of free speech that gets easily thrown around in a celebratory story of American exceptionalism narrated through the lens of free speech. In that article, commenting upon the monolithic articulations about Singapore made by US academics on the tenure case of Dr. Cherian George, I had shared stories of the US academics Ward Churchill and Norman Finkelstein who had been systematically silenced from US academe because they offended the status quo of American society.

Both these academics were ultimately cast out of US academe because they voiced uncomfortable truths.

The reality in the US I had argued is that academics are indeed fired if they don’t tow the line and if they offend the normative expectations of the status quo. As in the case of Churchill and Finkesletin, articulations of civility and arguments of quality are often used simultaneously to silence dissent.

In a recent instance of another such violation of these normative expectations, University of Kansas Professor David Guth has come under fire because he twitted “"#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you."

Professor Guth teaches in a School of Journalism and Mass Communication, a site of teaching where the concepts of first amendment and free speech are probably taught to every undergraduate student.

Before sending him on an unpaid leave, the administration of the University posted a response, titled “University of Kansas decries offensive comments.” In that statement, Kansas Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication observed:

"While the First Amendment allows anyone to express an opinion, that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others. That’s vital to civil discourse. Professor Guth’s views do not represent our school and we do not advocate violence directed against any group or individuals.”

This is from a Dean of a School of Journalism and Mass Communication! Dean Brill teaches us that First Amendment privileges need to be balanced with the rights of others. Articulations of First Amendment can be sacrificed to the need for maintaining civil discourse.

However, Dean Brill does not clarify for us what she means by civility or who is it that ought be making the assessment of civility.

Further to the point, she either intentionally or unintentionally misreads the tweet by Professor Guth as advocating for violence.

What Professor Guth had clearly expressed is that “next time” a shooting takes place, let the consequences be faced by the children of the NRA. Rather than reading the tweet as a call for violence, I read the tweet in quite an opposite direction, as a much-needed response to the culture of violence in the US and as pushing for the NRA to take responsibility for the shootings that have taken place across the US.

It is ironic that Professor Guth’s boss, the Dean of a Journalism School misinterprets Guth’s articulation as advocating violence while in reality Professor Guth’s statement is an expression of horror in response to violence. In his articulation, Professor Guth holds the NRA responsible for this violence. I read his intent as a proposition to reduce violence rather than as an advocacy for violence. The irony then is in the intended misreading of the statement in exactly the opposite direction of what it was intended to achieve.

What I also find ironic about this scenario and other scenarios such as this is the rush to defense that my American colleagues are propelled to so that they can hold high their moral highground on the First Amendment. When expressing my dismay at the situation, I have been told that Professor Guth is employed by the state and therefore, will hav to pay the price for being a state employee. That First Amendment principles are violated here or that principles of academic freedom are at threat here go unchallenged.

Now imagine if the same scenario had played out in my current workplace in Singapore.

Could then a Professor of Communication be rightfully fired because they said something that is offensive to the state? Would the same colleagues in the US then be jumping up and down making claims of Singapore being an authoritarian state and calling for a universal code of conduct regarding tenure and promotion processes?

Under that same logic, would the US then be read as a totalitarian state, and what would then happen to the ideas of freedom of speech because the Americans think they have trademark on anything to do with freedom? Should then we in Singapore call for boycotting American universities? Or should we call for principles of fair trade that any American university would need to adopt before we sign them into partnerships?

How does the same response in one situation get attributed to the rightful role of the state and in another situation get read as the authoritarin intervention of a totalitarian state.

What is it about America and about Americans that allows them to carry out their moral highground  in the face of such clearly evident hypocrisies?

When Associate Professor Cherian George in Singapore had not received tenure at NTU, I had read the responses of my American colleagues as jingoistic. I had noted that calls to boycott Singapore seemed silly and jingoisitic, without real understanding of the complexities of tenure and promotion processes. I had further noted that the response of the many of my American colleagues were hypocritical as the US is full of examples where academic freedom is disergarded.

Let my American academic colleagues prove me wrong.

Let them stand up to their rhetoric of free speech for once and demonstrate that their rhetoric is not just empty rhetoric. When questions of free speech are not being debated in another country but amidst our very professions in our own back yard, let my American colleagues stand up and prove that they do really have a backbone and the moral fiber to stand up.

Here is to the hope that my colleagues globally stand up to the silencing of their American colleague in a totalitarian America.

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