Throughout the early 2000s, a conservative student group at my university was very aggressive—attacking faculty through online forums (using anonymous screen names), creating lists of faculty conservative students should avoid, and sponsoring an inordinate number of Cultural Life Programs (CLP). This group had significant outside (also anonymous) funding as well.
Once, the conservative antagonist Ann Coulter was a sponsored speaker on campus by this group. I mentioned this in a class, noting her lack of credibility, and a student responded with, “But her books have footnotes.”
I think about this exchange often because the student was recognizing the conventions of scholarly work, conventions that are apt to supersede in a superficial way the credibility of the scholarship or the scholar; footnotes denoted for the student credibility—without the student considering whether or not the sources were credible, whether or not the conclusions and claims made by Coulter were credible.
In this era of Trumplandia, the tired but resilient claim that universities are liberal and that conservative scholars are nearly absent or at least ostracized is once again gaining momentum. As well, the resurgence of the oppressed white male has gained momentum.
Those contexts are also driven by calls for free speech, allowing all sides a voice, and mostly superficial arguments about the tension between academic freedom and politically correct speech and concepts such as safe spaces.
Here, the post title, “Blue Scholars,” is not yet another addition to the “quit lit” genre, but an investigation of the race and gender implications of respectability politics in the work of scholars.
Consider the issues raised in these two following Tweets:
Had a two hour friendly but infuriating argument/debate with some folks the other day about why there’s cursing in #HTBLSAR. “Why do you have to curse?” Because I want to and I’m a free black woman it’s MY gotdamn book. That’s why. It’s really that simple. Case closed.
— HRH The Duchess of Sussiology (@alwaystheself) May 21, 2018
I’m no fan of Jordan Peterson. But when someone says something controversial like “I support enforced monogamy,” the correct response is to ask “ enforced how?” It is not to assume the worst and shriek. If we can’t manage even this level of rationality, civil discourse will die.
— Dan Gardner (@dgardner) May 20, 2018
The expectations around social scientist Crystal Marie Fleming—the chastising of respectability politics, not what she claims but her prfanity—are quite distinct when compared to calls for civil discourse as a response to Jordan Peterson, a public scholar who has been thoroughly discredited while also being quite popular outside of academia.
Fleming is facing the academic and public stigma about working blue—the use of profanity superseding the content of her discourse. Peterson, a misogynist cloaked in academic garb and discourse, benefits from calls for civil discourse, a subset of respectability politics, because his language and the language of his detractors allow reprehensible ideas a stage more prominent than they deserve.
Fleming’s experience as a scholar parallels Colin Kaepernick’s confronting arguments that his message was not the problem, but how (and when) he was conducting his protests.
Beneath calls for respectability politics and civil discourse, then, are the interests of white and male privilege; the existing power structure always benefits from a demand for resect by default and for civility, the antithesis of protest.
Language and content, as I have examined in terms of stand-up comedy, are always about race, gender, and social class. The how of language, invariably, becomes the focus as soon as any marginalized group becomes confrontational, critical, empowered.
“Don’t speak or write that way” and “Don’t act that way” are always about the status of power—not about right or wrong, credible or baseless.
The criticism leveled at Fleming and the calls for civil discourse to allow Peterson’s vile arguments are windows into the failure of academia, an Ivory Tower trapped still in Medieval paradigms of authority, rhetoric, and deference.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:
“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)
A moral imperative wrapped in blasphemous language.
I prefer the moral imperative, and I prefer the critical scholar working blue while rejecting the false calls for civility that foster scholars pandering to the worst among us.
If there are words that should give us pause, they are “respect” and “civil discourse”—not the seven words you can’t say on television.