There was a time when victimising dissident academics by branding them ‘mentally ill’ was confined to totalitarian societies like Stalinist Russia. In the 21st century, however, such demonisation is deemed acceptable by universities in the US and the UK, where an increasingly intolerant and illiberal campus culture now prevails.
Take the case of New York University liberal studies professor Michael Rectenwald. He has been forced on to paid leave for the rest of the current semester. His crime? He’s been accused of ‘incivility’ by some of his colleagues. The problem is that he transgressed the unwritten rule that forbids academics from criticising the illiberal practices that abound on campus today, from safe spaces to trigger warnings to the crusade against cultural appropriation and microaggressions.
Rectenwald knew his criticisms would incur a significant cost, which is why he initially used an anonymous Twitter account: Deplorable NYU Prof. After he acknowledged that he was indeed the author of this Twitterfeed which, among other things, made fun of a poster circulated to NYU students advising them to avoid wearing culturally inappropriate Halloween costumes, he quickly faced the wrath of the campus moral police. A committee calling itself the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group wrote a not very liberal letter to the NYU student paper condemning Rectenwald. Like a 21st-century Inquisition, they acted as both moral guardians and stern judges. ‘As long as he airs his views with so little appeal to evidence and civility, we must find him guilty of illogic and incivility in a community that predicates its work in great part on rational thought and the civil exchange of ideas’, they wrote. ‘Guilty’ – cast him out.
Perhaps Rectenwald wasn’t especially civil in his communications. Maybe his writings did contain logical leaps. But surely the whole point of a liberal university is to use debate and argumentation to expose such alleged weaknesses and clarify the issues at stake. The reaction to Rectenwald fundamentally diverged from this liberal tradition, through simply condemning him and discrediting his character. The department dean told Rectenwald that some of his colleagues were worried about his mental health and so he was instructed to take leave and get help.
However intemperate Rectenwald may have been in his social-media posts, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the decision to force him out was motivated by a hostility to his views on diversity rather than a concern for his mental health. The letter published by the Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group accused Rectenwald of failing to use language that demonstrates respect for diversity. The missive concludes that ‘the cause of his guilt is the content and structure of his thinking’. This moral condemnation of guilty thoughts expresses an attitude more commonly associated with censors than with mental-health professionals. In an academic environment, badly structured thoughts are usually criticised and discussed; it is only in backward, medieval institutions devoted to upholding dogma that bad thoughts are held up as markers for ‘guilt’.
The ease with which Rectenwald’s detractors made the leap from criticism to condemnation and then to punishment is fuelled by the ascendant idea that the value of diversity trumps that of free expression. On Anglo-American campuses, diversity is increasingly treated as a fundamental value that is often threatened by freedom of speech. This is recognised by PEN America. In its recent report on campus censorship controversies, it acknowledged that, among younger members of faculty and students, the value of free speech is trumped by that of diversity, so that ‘at times… groups of students question the value of free speech itself’.