Safe Spaces: Not Just for Classrooms Any More

Douglas Muir
Douglas Muir

by James A. Bacon

Narrowing the realm of politically acceptable speech, not only on but off the grounds, the forces of political correctness at the University of Virginia have compelled adjunct professor Douglas Muir to take leave from teaching positions at the School of Engineering and Darden School of Business. Muir’s offense: comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan.

Muir caused a stir when he added a comment to a Facebook post by Charlottesville real estate agent Roger Voisinet. In the comment, Muir stated, “Black lives matter is the biggest rasist (sic) organisation (sic) since the clan (sic). Are you kidding me? Disgusting!!!”

When Charlottesville City Councilman Wes Bellamy heard about Muir’s comment, according to the Daily Progress, he wrote, “How can you compare people standing up for justice to the KKK, who have unapologetically hung many African-Americans? They are outright and blatantly racist, and when you look at Black Lives Matter, that’s white people, Latino people, Asian people and young and old. … Comparing that to the KKK shows me how culturally incompetent some people can be. It shows me how much work we need to do in this country.”

As the furor gathered momentum, engineering and business school officials released statements denouncing Muir’s Facebook comment. Said Craig E. Benson, dean of the engineering school: “While free speech and open discussion are fundamental principles of our nation and the University, Mr. Muir’s comment was entirely inappropriate. UVA Engineering does not condone actions that undermine our values, dedication to diversity and educational mission. … We believe humanity will not solve its ongoing challenges unless it embraces the ideas and talents of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.”

The circumstances of Muir’s departure are uncler. However, Benson’s statement that “Mr. Muir has agreed to take leave” implies that university officials asked him to step down from his teaching positions.

Bacon’s bottom line: Let me make one thing crystal clear — I do not agree with Muir’s comment. I am not a fan of Black Lives Matter but I would not characterize the movement as “racist.” At the same time, I object to the hysteria over his comment and find it frightening that a comment made in a forum outside the university classroom would lead to his ouster. Purging him for his thought crime — and let’s be honest, that’s exactly what his offense was — declares that the views of a large swath of the populace are so illegitimate that they cannot even be expressed. Such an approach does not change anyone’s heart: It drives incorrect thinking underground and breeds bitter resentment.

I had hoped that the University of Virginia would resist such campus totalitarianism, but the tenor of the times has reached such a fevered pitch that Mr. Jefferson’s University has declared some views to be literally unspeakable.

Before I take a closer look at how the university is shutting down free speech and intellectual diversity, let me repeat that I do not agree with Muir’s statement that BLM is “racist,” much less the most racist organization since the KKK. BLM arose in response to a legitimate concern: the excessive use of police force against African-Americans and the unequal impact of the criminal and civil justice system. All Americans, including conservatives, libertarians and others who hold civil liberties dear, should oppose unjustified police force. All Americans should oppose racial discrimination in criminal sentencing, and all should be disturbed by the debilitating impact of court fines and penalties on minorities and the poor. These issues received insufficient attention in the past, and BLM deserves credit for bringing them to the public’s attention.

However, there are good reasons why many Americans dislike BLM. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of the issues– to pick one example, the fact that many African-Americans lobbied for harsher penalties against crack cocaine in the 1990s when it was tearing apart black communities — BLM has taken the hard-leftist position that all perceived injustices are the result of a deeply racist system, that broader society is deeply racist, and that anyone who disagrees with its leftist critique and prescriptions themselves are racists. The movement (aided by the media) has created an exaggerated sense of injustice by assuming police guilt before all the facts are known; often the facts have either exonerated the police or showed the circumstances to be more ambivalent that initially believed. BLM rhetoric also has stirred up animosity that encourages some African-Americans to resist the police, thus creating more potentially violent confrontations and inspiring police to back away from engagement in some inner-city neighborhoods — the so-called Ferguson effect — which in turn has fomented a sense of lawlessness and a spike in black-on-black murder.

Does all that make BLM “racist,” as Muir suggested in his comment? No, I don’t believe it does. BLM is a coalition that encompasses people from all races who are combating what they perceive as racism, and their express goal is to purge the system of racism. (One can argue the degree to which BLM beliefs are grounded in reality, and one can point out the unintended consequences of its rhetoric without labeling it racist.) So, I would say that Muir’s comment was unfounded and a distraction from the real issues.

But was his throw-away comment, made in an online forum unaffiliated with the university so reprehensible that it should cost him his job teaching entrepreneurship? That’s a very different matter.

First, I would suggest that Muir’s views are hardly exceptional. According to the Pew Research Center, “All told, 43% support the movement. … About one-in-five Americans (22%) oppose the movement.” (My italics.)

By denouncing Muir, university officials are saying that the views of one-fifth of the American people are so beyond the pale that the mere expression of them is sufficient grounds for losing their job. Did Muir even bring this personal view into the classroom? I have seen no evidence that he did. Nor have I seen any evidence presented that his personal views affected his teaching or his interaction with African-American students. Maybe such evidence will surface, but I haven’t seen it, and such evidence was not needed to fuel the hysteria leading to his ouster.

UVa Provost Tom Katsouleas
UVa Provost Tom Katsouleas

Look how senior UVa administrators framed the issue. Provost Tom Katsouleas felt moved to issue an October 7 statement that Muir’s statement “on his personal Facebook page” is “inconsistent with the University of Virginia’s values and with its commitment to the principles of academic freedom.”

I dare say that in an institution of 15,500 faculty and staff, many employees have made provocative and ill-considered statements on their Facebook pages and other online forums — some from a leftist perspective as well as that of the right. But this is the first time (in my recollection) that a university Provost felt compelled to single one out for condemnation. Katsouleas went on to say:

The University of Virginia stands firmly against racism and social injustice of any kind. Our mission statement offers “our unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by distinctive foundational values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect.” This position in no way squelches academic freedom, which welcomes dissent and encourages the voices of others whose perspectives may differ from ours — thereby adding new insights to our own. But statements such as Mr. Muir’s do not foster intellectual exploration, nor do they encourage the voices of others.

Our own School of Nursing puts it best: “Compassion and respect live here.”  We can engage in healthy debate and respectful disagreement without offering insults that suppress the free expression of ideas. I encourage all of us to keep respect and truth at the center of the conversations we will have about this incident in the coming days.

Healthy debate?

What debate? There is no debate here. Muir’s view is being suppressed, pure and simple. This position in no way squelches academic freedom? No, it just squelches views expressed in passing in an informal, non-university setting. Would any professor dare express views similar to Muir’s in any classroom, debate or academic forum? Welcomes dissent? Oh, really? Dissent is welcome — but dissent of the wrong kind is rewarded by being run off campus. Encourages the voices of others whose perspectives may differ from ours? Right. Just as long as the perspectives stay within in the bounds that enforcers of the current orthodoxy declare to be acceptable.

Of all of Katsouleas’s statements, perhaps this is the most priceless: Mr. Muir’s [views] do not foster intellectual exploration, nor do they encourage the voices of others. What does that even mean? Muir didn’t try to shut down anyone else’s view or their right to express those views. There is only one view being suppressed here, and that is Muir’s.

The statement issued by engineering Dean Benson and John Fitzgerald Gates, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, betray a near-identical thinking:

A recent comment regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, posted on social media by Doug Muir, a lecturer in our School, has raised serious concerns about UVA Engineering’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and support of populations that are traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

While free speech and open discussion are fundamental principles of our nation and the University, Mr. Muir’s comment was entirely inappropriate. UVA Engineering does not condone actions that undermine our values, dedication to diversity and educational mission. Our faculty and staff are responsible for upholding our values and demonstrating them to students and the community. Mr. Muir has agreed to take leave and is preparing his own statement to the community.

We believe humanity will not solve its ongoing challenges unless it embraces the ideas and talents of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. UVA Engineering is educating the nation’s future leaders, problem-solvers and policy makers. We expect our faculty and staff to create a climate that supports and engages all.

This incident has illuminated the need for further dialogue. UVA Engineering must work together to advance a shared vision for a truly inclusive learning community.

UVa Engineering Dean Craig H. Benson

“Free speech and open discussion are fundamental principles of our nation and the University.” Except when the wrong people are speaking up.

“We believe humanity will not solve its ongoing challenges unless it embraces the ideas and talents of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.” The claim to tolerate “diverse perspectives” is demonstrably false. No one has (yet) suggested that Muir’s personal views affected his performance as an instructor. The statement makes a mockery of itself.

“This incident has illuminated the need for further dialogue.” Dialogue? What dialogue? The conversation about race is totally one way. The message: Submit to the orthodoxy or be expelled from the university community.

I find it remarkable that Muir apparently was never given an opportunity to clarify his hasty, ill-considered remark or apologize for it before being asked to step down. Once upon a time, liberals and leftists nurture memories of the McCarthyite era when the nation’s anti-communist fervor persecuted artists and intellectuals for communist affiliations. Of course, back then, liberals and leftists were on the receiving end of intolerance. Today, with leftist orthodoxy reigning supreme, universities are abandoning the hallowed ideal of addressing ignorance with reason. But intellectual intolerance in the name of racial tolerance is just McCarthyism under another name.

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17 responses to “Safe Spaces: Not Just for Classrooms Any More”

  1. I write this a few hours before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appear in St. Louis at their second Presidential Debate. Two nights ago, the Nation watched a press feeding frenzy take place over Mr. Trump’s “locker-room” remarks eleven years ago, made over an open mike which he was unaware of. Let’s compare some attributes of those developments with the events you write about, Baconius.

    Was this an invasion of privacy? Certainly the Trump recording was made in a non-public setting and without his knowledge — i.e., ‘private.’ Arguably the Muir Facebook posting was private also, in that it wasn’t intended to be redistributed publicly and we do not have the context (what, exactly, is the antecedent of the word ‘disgusting’ for example?). But any politician (or intending future politician) knows that ANYTHING you say recorded in ANY medium can be used against you (and probably will at some point) in the rough and tumble of politics, and so (after Gary Hart anyway) invasion of privacy is no defense.

    Was the statement “true”? There are lots of possible answers to this question. Saying you “can do anything” to a woman because you are “a star” (and giving lots of crude examples) is true only in the sense that Trump’s ‘conquest’ seems to him to illustrate the conclusion; however the conclusion does not, as a matter of logic, follow from one single example. Whether BLM is racist depends upon your definition of racist. An organization such as BLM, created (and named) to make a point about race is, in one, literal, obvious sense, racist. People who view BLM this way seem to insist on color blindness and react negatively to black student demands on campus and other such expressions of ‘black pride.’ And I have heard others argue that ‘racist’ is an epithet properly applied only to actions or beliefs of racial oppression or racial disrespect and the victims’ reaction to fend off or rebut racism cannot, by definition, be racist.

    Why did the press jump on the statement? Certainly I believe Trump has given ample indications of his views about women as sexual objects before, and so the recording is utterly consistent and predictable. And I also believe the press is piling on because the subject matter is so salacious, and perhaps also because the press has ‘gone easy’ on him in the past and wants to make amends, proving its political correctness to that small contingent of readers who now claim to realize what the man is like for the first time; but for most of us it is simply another press feeding frenzy at the ample trough Mr. Trump keeps on filling with swill. In contrast, we have no context for judging Mr. Muir apart from what he said and the reactions to it, but that reaction (at least from the University’s officialdom) seems designed to pre-empt an outcry both off and on the Grounds, which outcry, they seem to say, would not have respected the off-campus, off-duty nature of the remark so why should those reacting to it? The absence of any effort to distinguish between on-campus and off, between this teacher’s performance of his duties and his personal views, betrays the essentially-moral nature of the judgments being made by the University here.

    Mr. Trump proclaims himself a predatory threat to nubile women and declares his demeaning views of the entire gender and he remains eligible to debate tonight and perhaps to be elected our President. Mr. Muir criticizes the BLM movement as racist and he must go because “We expect our faculty and staff to create a climate that supports and engages all.” Given the student protests which have resulted from less-explicit racial provocation on many other campuses, perhaps this pre-emptive strike was a wise tactic for a modern university administrator bent on promotion, but it betrays the mission of the University — to seek the truth — which I would like to think includes, seeking to put political correctness in its place.

    1. baconius Avatar

      Acbar, It is true, Trump was engaging in “locker room” banter, not knowing that he had a live mic. Regardless, I found his braggadocio to be crude and reprehensible. I have an 18-year-old son and I have instructed him in the values and mores of the Bacon family, which is always to treat women (and all people) with dignity and respect. I will not deny it, I find Trump loathsome. Now, how should the American people express their distaste for Trump, a person who has offered himself as president? Speaking personally, I cannot vote for him. (For very different reasons, I cannot vote for Clinton, thinking that the libertarian Johnson would be my fallback, but now I’m thinking that voting for him would be voting to put a stoner into the highest office in the land, so I’m really adrift.)

      Regarding your point comparing Trump’s indiscretions to Muir’s. Trump doesn’t have a right to be president. Muir does have a right to free speech.

      Regarding the university’s response to the controversy, I am astonished by the pusillanimous response. Senior university officials sent out a message loud and clear: If you run afoul of the forces of political correctness, you’re on your own. Don’t count on us to stick up for you.

      1. Larrytheg Avatar

        Trump had to be wearing a mike – to get sound that was that clear – consistently…. he was not “unaware”…. the whole thing was staged as a promo

  2. Larrytheg Avatar

    freedom of speech is guaranteed – you ability to use it. You are not guaranteed you can use it without consequences if you are affiliated with an organization that has it’s own values… that affiliation is contingent on them finding you and your behaviors – and views – acceptable to them.

    that would be a Church, a club, a volunteer org, a social group.. and yes an employer.

  3. Larrytheg Avatar

    not sure how I actually was able to comment… I tried a lot of different ways -unsuccessfully then somehow was able to on this try… but cannot remember exactly what I did… my email is so Acbar shoot me an email and let me know how you got logged in.. thanks.

  4. Larrytheg Avatar

    looks like I might be viewing BR from the WordPress site and commenting from there as opposed to using the BR website.

  5. Vic Nicholls Avatar
    Vic Nicholls

    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for bringing them up.

    What I find odd is when these events happen, the schools always say the person doesn’t represent their values. Well I’m sure there are a lot of people on campus who’s values aren’t represented by what people say.

    Its also interesting that it was on his personal FB page. I already know of the monopoly hospital in the area putting in writing they will monitor your social media, especially where it concerns them. I’d say talk about a first amendment rights violation.

    People should be allowed to speak their peace. I say I would rather know what a person believes in and stands for and then I can make the decision whether or not I want to deal with that person in the future.

  6. Larrytheg Avatar

    I think we’re letting social media distract us on what people say – what they can say in public through long-standing traditional means – perhaps in an old-fashioned letter to the editor or standing up at a public forum, etc – they sure can say their peace but if they say things that conflict with what their employer feels or for that matter their church or other affiliations, even friends or family , that one has – it can affect that affiliation and one can easily imagine truly outrageous things that would clearly be over the line, say… supporting the lynchings of blacks or other just repugnant views… the point being – you don’t have the unrestricted right to say ANYTHING – that won’t have consequences unless you already live in a cave and have no affiliations that you care about being affected.

    I’m not advocating that there be restrictions on the right to free speech – at all – I’m just saying as a practical thing – a lot of employers whether it be police departments or WalMart or a hospital or you name it – they probably have a Mission statement and/or a list of corporate or organizational values and you are free to not agree with them, – quietly – or even debate them internally at an appropriate venue, but if you go public with them – then there could be consequences depending on the severity of the differences.

    We also ought to recognize the difference between arguing a hypothetical position in a purely academic discussion – a clear exercise of an intellectual dialogue – and advocating for a strong personal view…

    as they say – some can wear many “hats”…. and when you wear that “hat” is not really “your” hat.

  7. djrippert Avatar

    Muir’s comments were pretty inane. Given the spelling and grammatical errors I have to wonder if he might have had a few too many before taking to Facebook to enlighten the world with his wit and wisdom. Having said that – I’m not sure what he wrote is a firing offense. He thinks BLM is a racist organization. Is saying that really contrary to UVa’s mission of inclusion?

    1. Larrytheg Avatar

      yeah, one might be dissuaded from thinking he was a real professor, eh?

  8. I agree, sounds like too many imbibed for thoughtful consideration of anything. But to JB’s point, where is freedom of speech in this? If you want to ponder something really scary on that subject, read this lead editorial from the student newspaper at the U of Minn:
    The editorial was mentioned in the WSJ today but reading the original, along with some of the student comments, is JB’s theme underscored! These are our future journalists demanding the suppression of free speech on campus — they conclude, a pro-Trump “Build the Wall” painted on a bridge [sounds like UVa’s Beta Bridge] by the local YR club is so offensive to Latino sensibilities that public utterance of this view should not be allowed.

  9. Larrytheg Avatar

    let me ask a hypothetical. Is the feeling that ANYTHING someone wants to say is “protected” speech anywhere they want to express it?

    think really ugly like ” all “n___s” should be hung ” or “all Jews deserved to be gassed”, etc…

    Now if you have no line and your position is that any/all is protected, then I congratulate your principles.

    If, on the other hand, you find yourself with your own “line” – then can I legitimately ask why your line is more righteous/correct than others or would you then want some kind of “rules” to keep the really, really offensive stuff at bay?

    I don’t defend the college kids – I just point out they still have a few years to work on their principles and values… and that many who are far older may not be any further along on a concise and self-consistent view – especially if
    you put the “say anything” proposition to them also.

  10. […] advocates to return his call. Recalling the column I wrote  a couple of days ago (see “Safe Spaces: Not Just for Classrooms Any More“), he contacted […]

  11. Larrytheg Avatar

    so if few folks REALLY believe that anyone can say anything, anywhere and there are limits- then how do we reconcile the differences of opinions about where the limits should be ?

  12. baconius Avatar

    Interesting comment thread on Shaun Kenney’s Facebook page:

    In that thread, Andrew Shella quotes a Bloomberg article to the effect that employers have a wide latitude to fire employees whose speech casts the company in a bad light. The first amendment protects against government restriction of free speech, not private restriction.

    I would like to know if UVa has a formal policy regarding social media posting that it has distributed to all employees, or whether it is applying its standard to Muir retroactively and arbitrarily.

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