Cognitive Autonomy and Our Freedom from Institutionalized Reflex

Breaking: Government officials in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 26 postponed a policy that would have required proof of vaccination for COVID-19 for all students age 12 and over for the new school year. See the story in The Defender.

On the eve of the delta variant chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic hysteria, I commented on a Twitter thread initiated by 1619 Project co-founder Nikole Hannah-Jones, in which I noted that vaccine uptake among blacks was much lower than among whites, with the implication that the draconian COVID-19 policies of progressive cities and states would disproportionately impact the freedom of black people. For some reason this was controversial.

Below you will find the thread to which I was responding. Note that it specifically cites critical race theory. My response: “Given that tens of millions of blacks don’t want the vaccine, in light of restrictions, then is even more than an analogy.” I got back this: “Besides the ludicrous point that things Black people don’t like = Jim Crow, there are only 40 million Black people in this country. So please cite your source for the tens of millions of ‘blacks’ who oppose vaccines.” Stunned by the irrelevance of Hannah-Jones’ response and her ignorance about something she should know about, I wondered out loud, “Aren’t you a journalist?”

Before I turn to the controversy (which was minor in the scheme of things but not insignificant), I want to take a moment to note why it was important to make this observation (beyond the point about the equal treatment of black people to somebody who should have immediately identified with the spirit of the observation, since critical race theory purports to put central to its logic the relative effects of law and policy and enforcement across racial groupings). The nation recently learned that the District of Columbia does not have a contingency plan for unvaccinated students, who are banned from attending schools in person this fall after the first 20 days, and the absence of a plan appears to be by design. Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who you will remember as a zealous advocate of the Black Lives Matter riots over the summer of 2020, riots that ran simultaneous with the COVID-19 pandemic, admitted during a press conference that there are no alternative options, including virtual learning. According to data supplied by the city, over 40 percent of blacks ages 12-17 are not vaccinated.

That’s what I was trying to help Hannah-Jones and her audience understand: vaccine mandates and restrictions based on vaccinated status are discriminatory since they disproportionately impact black and brown groups. Instead of acknowledging the importance of my observation to her standpoint, either Hannah-Jones or one of her fans contacted the administration of my university and complained, portraying my comment as somehow outside the scope of acceptable racial discourse. Me, a sociologist, who specializes in race and ethnicity—my observation was somehow problematic.

I won’t name any names here, because there are people involved whom I value, but, instead of educating the person who complained about freedom of speech and academic freedom and the political and intellectual autonomy of teachers and researchers in the university’s employ, the complaint was sent down the chain of command and I was asked to consider not identifying my affiliation with the university in my Twitter profile (I am almost certain the person who made this suggestion to me was instructed to make the suggestion). My response was to ask the colleague, who is also on Twitter, and politically active in Democratic Party politics, as well as the activities of organized labor, whether his university affiliation also appears in his profile. After admitting that it did, the point was taken and the matter dropped. I have been determined to not let this episode have a chilling affect on me. I have become even more prolific and aggressive on Twitter (while Twitter continues to shadow ban me).

I am sharing this here and now (it has been nearly a year since this occurred) because the double standard involved in this case should be obvious but isn’t because of the depth of self-righteousness felt by progressives and the problem is growing every worse. The certainty of truth of progressive opinion on matters is such that it renders in the minds of progressives as hardly political speech at all, whereas the opposition’s point of view, not only obviously completely wrong, but also evil from a moral standpoint, is beyond the pale and thus reflects poorly on the institution—more than this, such opinions should be exorcised from the university. Of course, what reflects badly on the institution, especially an institution that, before all others, is supposed to embrace and defend the spirit of cognitive diversity, is precisely a lack of collective self-consciousness about its double standard.

I said my case was minor but hardly insignificant. There is a real crisis in today’s university. I recently wrote about the resistance among administrators and faculty in the UW-system to perform a self-examination on the question of free speech (see Science Politics at the University of Wisconsin—Deliberate Ignorance About the State of Cognitive Liberty and Viewpoint Diversity on College Campuses). There is a history of censorship and political bullying concerning speech in the UW system. In 2017, I wrote about a case, Don’t Talk About Innate Bisexuality at UW-River Falls, in which the campus pursued a “Check Yourself” campaign, the purpose of which was to teach faculty and students proper etiquette surrounding talk about sex, race, immigration, and so on. In effect, it was a speech code designed to impose terms of political correctness by those who have appointed themselves bearers of truth on the matter.

The University of Wisconsin’s strained relationship with free speech and academic freedom is what led the free speech organization FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to issue a rather poor report card for several of its campuses. My campus at Green Bay is festooned with yellow flags. And while explicit policy problems remain, the chilling effect of indirect public denunciation and vilification has become a growing problem. As I discuss at length in Refining the Art and Science of Propaganda in an Era of Popular Doubt and Questioning, the campus last year established as its Common Theme, “Truth: Information, Misinformation, and Democracy.” The series of events reeked of progressive angst over the rise of the popular voice and the concomitant decline in the faith in the academic priesthood, with the implication that faculty should be aware of some line established by some commissar in some high office somewhere. I reported in The Rules of Inclusion Represent the Totalitarian Desire to Punish Heretics and Infidels the scuttled survey will be supplanted by a year-long series of free speech events emphasizing civil discourse, often a euphemism for the rule of inclusion. I am watching the kick off even on Teams as I write this blog.

The next time I am asked whether I want to think about what post on social media (an implicit threat) or whether I want to conceal the identity of my employers from those who read my tweets, I have questions to ask back: Does the administration have any position on faculty extolling the virtue of critical race theory, gender theory, or queer theory? Are faculty admonished for criticizing conservative politics or Republican politicians? If this were the policy—or the instinct—administrators would have their hands full admonishing faculty. I can testify to the fact that nearly every day in the faculty suite is a hatefest with conservatives and Republicans the targets of hate. That’s fine with me. But when it comes to criticizing woke progressive ideas, then one has to worry not only about disciplinary action, but promotion, etc. I am neither a conservative or a Republican, but I have one thing in me that most of my colleagues do not: a healthy respect for cognitive liberty and the free expression opinions. My colleagues should be allowed to talk openly about most anything.

I remember faculty being extremely critical of Donald Trump for his policies regarding immigration. I authored the faculty senate resolution in support of Dreamers and that was widely praised and passed unanimously. Had the prevailing ideology been the other way around, I might have worried about whether I should have pursued that resolution. Not me personally, but others who are less obnoxious on this topic than me. As it was, I not only didn’t have to worry, I could count on accolades for having done good work on behalf of students currently in limbo (which was not my motivation). I am concerned, and so should you be, that the metric for acceptable speech would be determined based on partisan political ideology. If the speech is woke progressive, then it is acceptable. If it is populist-nationalist, classically liberally or libertarian (left or right), or orthodox Marxist, then it is problematic. It should not be this way. But it is.

I promise this will not be a digression, but what does this word “woke” mean? The question is often asked as if the word had no actual meaning, but it does. Woke means adherence to an ideology that sees contemporary society in terms of oppressive and intersecting hierarchies, and that treats concrete individuals as personifications of abstract categories with the white cis-gendered heterosexual male automatically representing the primary oppressor class—marked by numerous unearned privileges—and therefore justifiably subject to censorship and marginalization. As I will write about in my next blog (albeit on a different topic), the importance of language to the restructuring of society the woke worldview demands lies at the heart of the double standard: the university is no longer viewed as a neutral space for the rational and rigorous interrogation of ideas whatever they are, from wherever they hail, but a political vehicle to prepare through indoctrination America’s youth for incorporation into the corporate state bureaucracy.

If there is a requirement for all faculty to mark their tweets and other social media communications with a disclaimer saying they do not speak for the university or its administration, then I may not resist that—if everybody does the same. But I am not going to conceal my employer or my position. I worked goddamned hard for my PhD and to obtain tenure at a university so I could say whatever the hell needed to be said. I didn’t accidentally chose a profession where free speech is—or should be—respected. I have things to say. I expect all faculty to be treated equally with respect to politics, which means that the administration should take no position on the content of political speech and cultural and social criticism. Again, free speech is a neutral vehicle for the expression of ideas and opinions, not an identity. (See Abandoning the Principle of Individual Liberty for the Politics of Identity.)

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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