Before the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut a few weeks ago, I had begun writing an essay about race, gender, and free speech at the University of Missouri. The President and Chancellor have recently stepped down amidst charges from the student body that they were unresponsive to multiple incidents of racial intimidation (as well as a long tradition of racism on campus). Prominent news stories about Missouri faculty like Dale Brigham and Melissa Click have garnered equal parts praise and criticism, (depending on who you were talking to), for their differing responses to the attack.
I was particularly interested in the nuances of Click’s story. A communications professor who studies fandom and popular media, she was caught on videotape yelling for “some muscle” to kick out a student journalist from an area where students were organizing the protest. She apologized and lost one of her courtesy faculty appointments, but in the aftermath, both her appearance and scholarship were mocked mercilessly and she received rape and death threats. Then, amidst everything else going on, Missouri Republican Kurt Schaefer wrote a hostile letter to the University, seeking to block a graduate student in the sociology department from doing research for her dissertation on the effects of Missouri’s law mandating a 72 hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. The school continues to roil with unrest, while pundits mourn the ongoing wussification of American college students and the reign of “academic fascism.”
Taken together, these events speak to a complex skein of issues that rest at the very heart of the histories of free speech, the modern university and academic freedom, and racial and gender injustice.
But then the bombs and bullets exploded as we all headed into the weekend and I, along with everyone else, was struck dumb with horror. Innocent people’s blood stained the walls of cafes and concert halls, and in response, the world wept, changed its profile picture, and declared its solidarity. I stopped reading about Missouri and started reading about ISIS and Syria.
But as the events in Paris were still unfolding, I noticed in real time a concerted effort by Republicans on social media to link the activism on the Missouri campus with the ISIS attacks. Journalist and former New York Times bureau editor Judith Miller wrote with contempt, “Now maybe the whining adolescents at our universities can concentrate on something other than their need for ‘safe spaces…’” Actor James Woods (who tags many of his posts with #tcot or “Top Conservative on Twitter”) dismissed a contentious conversation with another user, telling her to “Go to your ‘safe space’ and yap about gender issues. Nobody with a brain wants to hear this nonsense right now.” Another person agreed, terming liberal ideals of tolerance as “bullshit,” and ignorant of the “the real enemy.” She concluded mockingly, “Don’t want to offend anyone.”
One Twitter user (with the decidedly ignoble handle of “Retard_Bro2”) put it even more explicitly: “Maybe a wacky professor will call in some ‘muscle’ to keep ISIS out of [their] ‘safe space.’”
These statements make no bones about what the right sees as the consequences of liberal political correctness: A divided country, its various factions too busy being angry with each other to stop the scary brown men who want to destroy civilization and kill as many people as they can.
In this logic, being feminist is un-American. Working for racial justice is unpatriotic. Because by pointing out what’s wrong here at home, we’re hastening our own destruction.
If progressive folks want to combat these claims head on, they have to change the conversation away from irrelevant arguments over whether “safe spaces” are for wacky feminists and traitorous social agitators. As a talking point, last time I checked, poop swastikas and rape threats were pretty good reasons for people to be disgusted. Can we compare these things with mass murder? No. But let’s face it — all three offenses have zero place in our society. Why let the “lesser” ones stand at all?
Of course there is no easy answer to fix the racial and gender problems facing our nation, our campuses, our media, our workspaces, our homes, and our very bedrooms. It is incredibly difficult to balance majority demands with minority protections, or the crucial need for public safety while maintaining religious tolerance and compassion. Given the arguments about when life begins, if gender is constructed, or what constitutes marriage, the right to religious freedom versus the right to privacy and bodily integrity will never be fully settled. There are too many nuances and gray areas for there to be one law, one court decision, one side of absolute and immutable right forever.
We can be far less measured about the threat of radical religious extremism (Late night TV host John Oliver certainly didn’t hold back!), which is a real threat that demands our attention.
Just this past week, Kurdish forces uncovered a mass grave of Yazidi women murdered by ISIS zealots. These victims were most likely women deemed too old or ugly to be enslaved or used for sex.
ISIS is misogyny personified. In talking about the way this organization treats women, there is zero place for cultural or religious relativism. ISIS men gain and keep power through the control, enslavement, and sexual exploitation of women. ISIS men are creating a world for themselves where women aren’t just second-class citizens with no rights. Instead, as the bodies in the mass grave demonstrate so bluntly, they are literally part of the dirt these men walk upon.
This is disgusting and our feminist condemnation of this group is well deserved. We should be talking about it more than we have been. (Check out these stories for some great discussion about what Muslim women in the Middle East have been doing to combat ISIS).
But their barbarism also doesn’t invalidate our criticisms of what is happening here.
Some conservatives like to point out the horrific details of what happens to women in other countries as evidence of American women’s misguided notions about “patriarchy.” Here, we’re “whining” about gender pay gaps and the need for paid family leave, while gang rape or public stoning serves as the officially sanctioned punishment for women in other countries who step out of line.
Tell that to Melissa Click or Anita Sarkeesian or virtually any other woman here in the United States who has said something people disagree with in a public space. The rape threats aren’t far behind. I promise you they aren’t coming from the Twitter accounts of ISIS clerics six thousand miles away, trolling for women to admonish. You’ll have better luck tracing the IP address to the single white guy living in his parents’ basement in rural Missouri.
If ISIS is what the world looks like without the checks and balance of feminism and human rights work, then we have no greater task before us than to prove that sex equality and racial justice are the most important antidotes we have to combat its extremist ideology.
So start yapping.