has trinity college gone too far?

Last week, Trinity College announced the suspension of Johnny Williams, an associate professor of sociology. According to Inside Higher Education:

Williams last week shared an article from Medium called “Let Them Fucking Die.” The piece argues that “indifference to their well-being is the only thing that terrifies” bigots, and so people of color should “Let. Them. Fucking. Die” if they’re ever in peril. The Medium piece linked to another Fusion piece about Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was shot earlier this month in Alexandria, Va. It says Scalise has previously opposed extending protections to LGBTQ people and reportedly once spoke at a meeting of white supremacists, while one of the black law enforcement officers who rescued him is a married lesbian.

In sharing the Medium piece, Williams used the “Let them fucking die” comment as a hashtag, and wrote that it is “past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.”

That post and a similar one prompted critical reports on conservative websites suggesting Williams was advocating violence against white people.

Let’s assume that the Inside Higher Education article presents a correct summary of what Williams posted. If that is the case, then Williams was clearly saying that people should end “the vector of their destructive mythology” and “their white supremacy system.” The quote itself does not advocate violence against individuals. What about the essay? Here’s the link. Read it yourself.

Here is what you find in the essay. The essay asks “why should oppressed people help those who oppress them?” The author concludes that the oppressed do not have an obligation to help those who oppress them even if they are in mortal danger. Thus, “Let them die.” If you think I got it wrong, please use the comments (but I will delete crazy comments).

Before you get in a tizzy, the Medium essay actually reaches the same conclusion that common law reaches on the duty to rescue (albeit from a way, way different starting point). In many cases, a person does not have a legally enforceable obligation to save another person. Perhaps the real scandal was that “Son of Baldwin” raised this point in the context of the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, who was saved by police officer Crystal Griner. In that case, the Medium is on the wrong side. Office Griner has an obligation to render aid and enforce the law, even those who brag of their White nationalist bona fides.

This brings me back to Trinity College. Here’s my take. Given what we know about this case, Williams was not advocating violence against others. Even if we uncharitably interpret his words (“Let Them Die”), he’s actually advocating what is actually a well established legal right not to render aid to those in danger. Just because he posited it in an angry and racially charged way doesn’t make it any less true.

Let’s turn to a trickier issue – Trinity’s response. As a college professor, Williams is held to a higher standard than most people – especially on the issue of race and racial violence. At the very least, Professor Williams is expected to express his ideas in ways that are not inflammatory and promote intellectual progress. It is not clear whether college professors are expected to be morally superior than others (e.g., maybe he should help those in danger, including bigots). If so, this seems like a hard standard to enforce consistently. It is also not clear what obligations college professors have when it comes to private Facebook accounts.

In the end, I feel as is Professor Williams showed a real lack of judgment, not endangered anyone directly. Trinity College should show proportionality in its response. As a representative of the university, he’s got to be aware that his words carry weight and things like this can happen. He also has to be aware that his actions reflect on his institution. That doesn’t mean he should with hold critique. The opposite is true. Racism is real and it needs to be called out.

What it does mean is that when you say something, you have to be ready to defend it. And in this case, that didn’t happen. In the end, Trinity should be worried less about what the legion of Internet trolls says and more about using this as an opportunity to dig a deeper foundation for free speech, even for college professors who let their emotions get the best of them.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 4, 2017 at 4:00 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. The lengths people (left or right) are willing to go for attention.



    July 4, 2017 at 12:26 pm

  2. If Williams were a physician, not a college professor, would a medical practice (a hospital? a publicly funded teaching hospital?) be reasonable in inferring that his unmeasured rhetoric could introduce plausible doubt that a patient(resident) would receive the best care(supervision) Williams could give? Could a college, likewise, reasonably worry that, based on his statements, Williams might not be willing or able to create an optimal learning environment or treat his students impartially? Or must the hiring organization wait until it has evidence of an employee having already committed some concretely faulty execution of her/his professional responsibilities before it may censure?

    In other words, when is it reasonable for an employer to make inferences about professional competence based on an employee’s speech? Asking for a friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    Aaron Silverman

    July 4, 2017 at 4:21 pm

  3. It seems like a fire-able offense for an associate (presumably tenured) professor should be more than just saying something inflammatory or stupid. Tenure brings with it protection of speech greater than what ordinary employees get. At least in my understanding, it has to be demonstrable that Williams had a dramatic negative impact on the learning environment at the university, committed a crime, or in this case, provoked actual racial violence. And it doesn’t seem like they have that kind of evidence.
    Kent State has continued to employ this tenured professor (see link) even though he’s made all manner of inflammatory statements, so I don’t see what justifies Williams’ firing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Testing the limits of tenure

    July 4, 2017 at 4:48 pm

  4. It is reasonable for an employer to make inferences about an employee’s competence based on that employee’s speech when the speech involves comments on that employee’s area of core competence. By that standard, Williams’s comments are entirely irrelevant to his competence, since his employment duties do not include life-saving. Any number of Chronicle of Higher Ed articles in which faculty ridicule their students seem eminently more relevant, but I am sure most faculty would not appreciate a standard in which anonymous, generalized ridicule or disdain for students was cause for institutional sanction.

    I know a lot of people find Williams’s comments offensive and inflammatory. But I would point out that we live in a country in which police actively injure Black people on a routine basis and refuse to render the first aid which might prevent those they have injured from dying. In such a world, the conversation Williams was engaging in seems like a reasonable one, even if many of us might not come to the same conclusion as he does.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 4, 2017 at 8:25 pm

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I see a tension here. On the one hand, we expect professors to be “experts” at speech in comparison to ordinary people. So we expect more from them. On the other hand, I feel that employment – especially tenured employment – should be a little more resistant. The occasional stupid comment should not be any grounds for dismissal or investigation. If Williams, or any other professor, is publishing and doing well in teaching, then he should be safe in his position.

    Liked by 2 people


    July 5, 2017 at 3:08 am

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