What do you do with a no-platformer? Apparently, you no-platform them.
Every scuffle looks the same from the outside. First, left-wing students try to shut down right-wing speakers and professors on their campuses. (“No-platforming,” the tactic has been called.) Then, centrist op-ed writers spill bottle after bottle of ink on the subject, joining the right-wingers to tell the left-wing brigade that they’re the ones who should shut up. No one comes off well.
The latest to-do is taking place at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where tenured professor Amy Wax wrote a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer proclaiming “all cultures are not equal,” told the student paper that “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans” because of their “superior” mores, and — in a 2017 interview about the flaws of affirmative action dug up by a disgruntled student — declared that she had never seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class “and rarely, rarely in the top half.”
Critics excoriated Wax’s initial essay as white supremacy in the guise of scholarly argument. Fifty-four Penn students and alumni called on the university to denounce what they saw as racism, and 33 Penn Law faculty members soon did just that in an open letter. Wax responded by tripling down in an on-campus Federalist Society lecture and the pages of the Wall Street Journal. After the statements about class rank surfaced, Penn stripped Wax of her duties teaching curriculum courses first-year students are required to take. She will still teach a full schedule of elective classes. The law school dean has said Wax’s claims were false but hasn’t provided the (proprietary) data to debunk them.
Wax’s story poses important questions, so it’s a shame few seem interested in answering them. A campus where no professor can express skepticism about affirmative action without her colleagues rising up in revolt isn’t much of a campus at all. If administrators turn classrooms into artificial worlds filled with people who think and talk identically, graduates will emerge poorly prepared for the real one.
On the other hand, there’s a difference between expressing skepticism about affirmative action and seizing on the supposed deficiencies of your students to make that point. It’s hard to imagine first-year African American students who have no choice but to take Wax’s class will feel they’re getting a fair shake after she described almost all of their predecessors as failures. Somewhere, there’s a line. By shifting from philosophical debate to slurring her own pupils with purported (and private) statistics, Wax crossed it.
The problem is that no one cares where the line is, at Penn or anywhere else. No matter what actually happens in a campus case that makes national headlines, a reliable slate of public intellectuals will defend the offender. And they’ll do it the same way every time: by turning the controversial actor who complains that victim culture has trampled on their academic freedom into, well, a victim. More often than not, the complainant will join in.
Wax, unsurprisingly, has managed to fit her plight into the same framework. In her Wall Street Journal essay, published before the discovery of her class-rank remarks, Wax decried the open letter professors wrote condemning her rhetoric. How dare they stifle her right to express controversial viewpoints, she asked, by … expressing viewpoints of their own. To cover up the irony, Wax focused her critique on the letter’s lack of substance: “They are sending the message,” she charged, “that civil discourse is unnecessary.”
Wax might have had a point — if the primary mover behind the letter hadn’t written a 15,000-plus-word blog post explaining his motivations, and if another hadn’t produced a shorter version of the same thing. An editor’s note at the bottom of Wax’s piece reads, “The essay has been updated to note that two signers of the open letter condemning Ms. Wax’s op-ed later wrote substantive responses to her arguments.” Whoops. Wax also says the law school dean suggested she take a leave of absence this summer (he denies it), but she declined and that was the end of the matter.
What Wax really faced for her writings before the class-rank comments surfaced was plain old public criticism. Now that those comments have circulated, she has lost her first-year teaching spot but maintained her position, salary and seniority. It’s possible to probe how Wax’s punishment might fit her punditry, but it pays for Wax, and for the writers on her side, to stick to the narrative of the truth-teller stampeded by the closed-minded masses. These thinkers have figured out how to monetize martyrdom — how to snag slots in prestigious newspapers, or rack up Twitter followers, or garner click after click with cartoonish tales of persecution.
It’s lazy thinking, but one thing’s for sure: It will always find a platform.