Milo and the University of Chicago Medievalists

There’s been a lot of coverage (in my little slice of the world) of a medievalist at the University of Chicago who has been writing quite outrageous things about Milo the Professional Bigot. There’s more to say about Milo, but lots of folks are already saying it. Here’s my thread on the context surrounding Fulton.

I am pretty much an absolutist when it comes to protecting “extramural utterances,” like tweets and blog posts, by academics. We’ve got to protect the right of academics like Fulton to compare Milo to Jesus (really!!!) without threatening their jobs. That said, it troubled me to see someone using their academic status to craft a nonsensical defense of Milo as a Christian visionary.

Julie Orlemanski, a brilliant medievalist (in English) at the University of Chicago, sent a letter on Sunday, February 19 (so post-Maher but before the pedophilia scandal went viral) criticizing a publication decision by Sightings, a University of Chicago Divinity School online publication focusing on “religion in public life from an academic perspective.” Sightings published an essay by Fulton, “Why Milo Scares Students,” praising his truth-telling and Christian virtue.

Orlemanski emphasizes that this essay is not  extramural, but is rather a university publication with a set of standards, and publishing this material there has consequences.

I re-post the letter here, in full, with permission:

Letter to Dean of the Divinity School, to the Director of the Martin E Marty Center, and to the editor of Sightings:

I am writing as a colleague in the English department disturbed by the decision to publish Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s article on Mr. Milo Yiannopoulos, as the Divinity School’s “Sightings” platform did on February 16, 2017 (now partially republished on Breitbart with the lede “An article published by the University of Chicago’s Divinity School….”) My objections are twofold. First, the piece falls short of the editorial standards laid out on the “Sightings” website; it fails to live up to the basic tenets of academic integrity that make our university a meaningful intellectual community. Second, the manner of publication shows no sensitivity to the inflammatory content of the article and the effects of this content on the university committee.

On this second point: It is a statement of fact that Mr. Yiannopoulos expresses xenophobic, racist, and transphobic ideas and carries out discursive violence by doxing (intimidating individuals by dumping personal information into the public domain) his critics as well as persons he identifies as undocumented immigrants or trans. The Anti-Defamation League refers to him as “a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, transphobic troll

Faced with publishing an article in support of Mr. Yiannopoulos, what are the responsibilities of a University of Chicago platform? 
My claim is that it – is that you – have a responsibility to the university community of current students, faculty, and alumni and to our broader political world to reflect on the likely effects of publication. There are not only two options here. This is not a stark decision between so-called “free speech” and censorship. For instance: observing the controversial and obviously offensive nature of the contents (an offensiveness thematized in the article itself), those responsible for this publication might have decided to solicit a couple of other faculty members’ responses to Mr. Yiannopoulos, or to our campus climate in the current political moment; these articles might have been framed with an editorial introduction, to aid the university community in grappling with your decision to publish the piece. Instead, as a junior faculty member who works in medieval studies at this university, I have spent more than a dozen hours since the article’s publication three days ago responding to appalled graduate students, faculty at other institutions, and faculty here. Speaking personally, I feel angry and disappointed that “Sightings” did not take up any of this intellectual, institutional, and affective labor in advance and instead left it to me and others.

I would add that I invested time last week reading the 2016 Climate Report and the recent report of the Diversity Advisory Council so as to participate in one of the “Campus Conversations” about diversity, inclusion, and equity. 

I assume you have read the report, so you know that among respondents who identify as Black, 40% perceive the overall institutional climate as racist, and among respondents who identify as transgenderqueer-agender, 41% perceive the overall institutional climate as sexist. 
These numbers show that, already, the university is not a space of free and equitable access to “speech.” If, as Provost Diermeier wrote on January 24, “The University of Chicago is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive campus that enables individuals of all backgrounds to thrive,” then “Sightings” and the Divinity School have an obligation to work to ameliorate the university’s racist and sexist climate. This may mean changing policies and practices so as better to balance commitments to antiracism and antisexism with intellectual inquiry. As it is, I find it an unpleasant irony following the “Campus Conversation” to find the university’s imprimatur on an article in support of a racist transphobe and to spend hours dealing with the fall-out from that.

My first point above – that Professor Fulton Brown’s article fails to live up to the basic tenets of academic integrity that make our university a meaningful intellectual community – seems to me straightforward. The “Sightings” mission statement asserts that you publish “rigorous analysis of, and research-based opinions about, religion in the news.” The article does not meet this standard. To justify her account of who Milo Yiannopoulos is and what he stands for, she refers her readers to articles from Breitbart. But Mr. Yiannopoulos is a senior editor at Breitbart, and Professor Fulton Brown herself is listed as an author there; the site itself (as I’m sure you’re aware) is known for far-right opinion and commentary; it is not a credible source. The logic and historical basis for her claims regarding Christianity and the university are also poor. Given the straightforwardly inflammatory content of the article, “Sightings” might have insisted on a high standard of argumentation and evidentiary support, and I am disappointed that they did not. Instead, my colleagues and I are compelled to spend our time producing “more free speech” pointing out basic failures of journalistic and intellectual discourse.

To reiterate: I am writing with a sense of profound disappointment and frustration regarding how Professor Rachel Fulton Brown’s piece was published. It is my hope that “Sightings,” the Divinity School, and the university as a whole will act differently next time, by taking action to balance commitments to antiracism and antisexism with the values of intellectual exchange.

Thank you in advance for your response.

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