On Distinguishing Political Attacks from Academic Criticism

Commentary, Culture Wars, Universities, Philip Carl Salzman

When discussing academic freedom with university administrators, there arises the question of how to distinguish political attacks from academic criticism. Certainly, there is no simple answer to this question, and the practical use of such a distinction would likely draw resistance from those who wish to impose their political views.

Yet universities often make such distinctions, policing various kinds of speech, such as pronoun use, the use of terms claimed to be offensive, and sayings said to disadvantage minorities. For example, “Intentionally misgendering someone by refusing to use the correct pronouns or name is a violation of the Columbia [University] nondiscrimination policy.” So, if you get “xe/xem,” “ze/hir,” “per/pers,” or “ey/em” wrong, Columbia officials must determine whether it was “intentional” or not. And this is straight-forward compared to establishing what statements are offensive, such as “America is the land of opportunity,” “All lives matter,” and “There are right and wrong answers to mathematical exercises,” which have been banned in some universities.

As political attacks undermine collegiality, community, and academic freedom, it is important to constrain political attacks. But how can we tell what is a political attack? I would suggest we use three clear criteria as the framework for distinguishing political attacks from legitimate academic criticism:

First, academic criticism challenges ideas, arguments, evidence, and conclusions. Political attacks are directed at individuals—that is, they are ad hominem attacks. Ad hominem attacks are indicated by labelling a person with disparaging terms (e.g., transphobe, bigot, racist, sexist, etc.).

Second, the justification for a political attack is that it is a defense of an identity against assertions that make those with that identity “feel unsafe” or that they are “denied their existence.” In contrast, the justification for an academic criticism is that the case presented is unsubstantiated, poorly argued, or illogical, or that the conclusions do not follow—in short, the criticism is that the case presented is untrue.

Third, academic criticism is limited to attempting to refute the academic presentation. In contrast, a political attack demands punishment for the individual attacked, from an official rebuke, to a removal from teaching, to the termination of a contract or firing.

I understand that each individual case is complex, and that dealing with these matters is unpleasant and potentially difficult. But can we really have an academic community when some members feel free to viciously perpetrate political attacks on students, professors, staff members, and administrators? Cancel culture does not only include the ultimate decisions by administrators, but also the public attacks on the views and on the personal integrity of members of the community. Academic freedom is impossible with political attacks given free rein, and, without academic freedom, there can be no real university.