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has trinity college gone too far?

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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 Medium.com 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

regnerus’ three mistakes

I was having a conversation a little while ago about scandals in sociology and the topic of of Regnerus’s article came up. That was the article in 2012 that claimed that children of same sex parents had bad life outcomes. My conversation partner suggested that Regnerus’ mistake was in asking the question. I don’t think so.  Asking if there are differences by family type is legitimate and we should be ready to accept less than flattering answers. I also don’t think it is inherently wrong to have biases in research. If he has a favorite answer, then so be it. Long as he doesn’t tinker with the data to get his favorite answer. Nor is problematic to have research sponsors. People with political goals are not barred from research.

What were Regnerus’ mistakes, in my view? He made three:

  1. Making big claims with delicate data. Instead of investing the time to properly locate same sex families and make a good sample, he instead relied on what respondents remembered about family life. Furthermore, scholars who have analyzed the Regnerus data have found that the results may be due to mis-coding cases and data handling errors. In other words, family structures are hard to measure and code properly. And with a small number of cases, small errors can have big effects on the final. This is not the kind of data on which you make big, bold claims.
  2. Politically, Regnerus missed the wave. The big story in American politics is that LBGT equality is arriving.  Polling shows that support for legal same-sex marriage has surpassed 60%. If you’re fighting the new mainstream, you had better be prepared.
  3. Tactically, by rushing the paper through peer review with a friendly editor, it has the appearance of being a hack job. If the paper had been vetted at conferences and undergone a more traditional peer review, then it would have improved.

The issue is that Regnerus was doing something rather ambitious. He was trying to overturn an established research finding, and one with major policy implications. While I don’t agree with his politics, he certainly has a right to do this. At the same time, you don’t take on such a task without seriously thinking things all the way through. That is probably the most basic lesson of all. You should strive toward virtue in your research, especially if you are swimming against the tide.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 29, 2017 at 4:30 am

tommy curry needs free speech. keeanga-yamahtta taylor needs free speech. alice goffman needs free speech. charles murray needs free speech. they all need free speech.

Last week, Johnny Williams, a professor at Trinity College triggered a nation wide controversy when his statements about White supremacy made national news. The issue isn’t the statement itself, but how it fit into a wider pattern of outrage and threat. Trinity shut down in response to death threats. And it is not the first college to have problems related to campus speech. Charles Murray’s opponents injured a faculty member at Middlebury during a protest. Princeton Professor Keenga-Yamahtta Taylor had to cancel talks in response to death threats after she lambasted Donald Trump.

These events have shown that the culture around faculty speech has devolved. College professors have always been lightning rods of controversy as their job is to explore ideas, even if they are unpopular. The history book books frequently recount how controversial professors have lost jobs over their ideas, such as when the  eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell lost an appointment at the City College of New York in 1940 or, when DePaul University denied tenure for Norman Finklestein in 2007. If you push unpopular ideas, be prepared.

But things may be getting worse for two reasons. First, the campus left is now in a place where there is a visceral and automatic push back against some speakers. It may be opposition to the trash talkers of the right, like Anne Coulter, or the right’s public intellectuals, like Charles Murray. But it even extends to people who might granted a stay, such as sociologist Alice Goffman, whose appointment as a visiting scholar at Pomona was protested.  In some cases, the campus left is so reflexive and angry that it targets people who are clearly on their side, such as the confrontation between enraged activists at Yale and sociologist Nicholar Christakis over a relatively mild email about how to handle racially insensitive Halloween costumes.

Second, the Fox News Right has made a hobby of taking statements, some innocent and some not, made by faculty and manufacturing national outrage. This includes the outrage over Johnny Williams at Trinity, the dust up over philosopher Tommy Curry’s discussion of nationalist politics and the 2015 rancor over Saida Grundy’s tweets.

Together, the campus left and the Fox News Rights have created a situation where we have a constant stream of outrage and anger, which has all kinds of negative consequences. Individual faculty members must disentangle themselves from nasty waves of publicity. Talks are cancelled and, in some cases, people are injured. This puts a price on free speech.

What to do? First, if you are an academic, express your disagreement in civilized ways. If Charles Murray comes to campus, offer your own talk. Write a blog post. Do not immediately jump to the conclusion that the talk must be stopped. Let it happen. Second, if you are an administrator, show tolerance and protection of speech. Assert that professors deserve the right to pursue unpopular ideas. If threats come in, go through with the talk. Find a way to do things safely. If a professor says something that is genuinely hateful and offensive, slow down and think carefully about what to do. People have a right to bad ideas and that applies to professors. Third, if you are a member of the public, switch emotions. Don’t let third parties, on the left or right, score cheap political points. Just say, “Ok, some professor said something dumb” and then watch sports instead. Do not waste your attention on cheap campus controversy.

Free speech is one of the most precious things in the world. People died to make it happen. Let’s not cheapen it. If you’re a professor, it’s your job to save it.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2017 at 2:51 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

the ironic cowardice of hypatia’s editorial board

A few decades ago, the scholarly and scientific study of gender was considered taboo. But, starting in the 1970s, various movements popped up in academia to change the situation. In philosophy, one outcome of this movement was the journal Hypatia, which was established in the mid-1980s to provide a place for academic philosophers to discuss philosophical issues arising from feminist perspectives.

As many of you know, Hypatia is currently enmeshed in a controversy. Rebecca Tuvel, of Rhodes College, published an article asking if the arguments made in favor of transgenderism could be applied to race. This argument may be right, or it may wrong. In any case, it is certainly a valid philosophical question. If you read through the article, it appears to be a rather conventional article.

But a lot of people didn’t see it that way.  Not surprisingly, there was an online petition asking that the paper be retracted. And of course, a lot of people noted that the complaints often bore little relation to the article. The surprising part was the response of some editorial board members. They actually apologized to the online mob! From Hypatia’s Facebook site:

We, the members of Hypatia’s Board of Associate Editors, extend our profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.

Spineless.  What harms? Read through it to see the slings and arrows of outrageous scholarship that Professor Tuvel threw upon her colleagues: “…descriptions of trans lives that perpetuate harmful assumptions and (not coincidentally) ignore important scholarship by trans philosophers” and “the use of methodologies which take up important social and political phenomena in dehistoricized and decontextualized ways.” In a journal that values free speech, the response would be a simple, “thank you for the feedback, please submit all replies and rebuttals to our managing editor.”

Here’s the ironic part. Hypatia of Alexandria was a prominent mathematician and philosopher of late antiquity who was killed  during a wave of political unrest by a lynch mob led by a religious zealot. Her death was horrible:

A mob of Christians gathered, led by a reader (i.e., a minor cleric) named Peter, whom Scholasticus calls a fanatic. They kidnapped Hypatia on her way home and took her to the “Church called Caesareum. They then completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.” Socrates Scholasticus was interpreted as saying that, while she was still alive, Hypatia’s flesh was torn off ὀστράκοις, which literally means “with or by oyster shells, potsherds or roof tiles.”

Well, I’ll give the editors of Hypatia this much credit. They may lack in courage, but they compensate with truth in advertising.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2017 at 12:03 am

fdr and the unjust incarceration of japanese americans

Another reason to hate the 32nd president. On his Facebook account, historian David Beito posted this excerpt about how FDR ignored the FBI’s recommendation that Japanese Americans be left alone:

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “argued against calls for the evacuation of the 110,000 Japanese-Americans (70,000 of them U.S. citizens by birth) living on the West Coast:

‘The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data. Public hysteria and, in some instances, the comments of the press and radio announcers have resulted in a tremendous amount of pressure being brought to bear on Governor [Culbert] Olson [of California] and Earl Warren, Attorney-General of the State, and on the military authorities.’

Roosevelt disregarded Hoover’s advice. He listened instead to alarmist voices from California, among them that of the general commanding West Defense Command, John L. De Witt, who insisted that, despite their peaceable appearance, Japanese-Americans were ‘organized and ready for concerted action.’ De Witt drew sinister conclusions from his own lack of evidence. ‘The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date,’ he perversely argued, ‘is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.’ The president was surprisingly impressed by De Witt’s lack of logic. On February 19 he signed Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the mass internment of Japanese-Ameri­cans on the West Coast, who were branded as disloyal and deprived of their liberty without trial or right of redress.”

Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 74

Wow, when J. Edgar Hoover accuses you of making it all up, you are really on the wrong side of history. What I find interesting about this excerpt is how DeWitt’s reasoning  belies the paranoia and illogic of bias. When people aren’t doing anything, that is evidence they are up to something!!!

Chinese workers, Japanese farmers, Mexican laborers, Syrian refugees – the story is the same every time. Guilty until proven innocent. The less they do, the more dangerous they are. It behooves us to remember historical episodes like this the next time political leaders demand that some group be punished.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 4, 2017 at 12:49 am

don’t make ethnography anonymous – new article by jerolmack and murphy

In Sociological Research and Methods, Colin Jerolmack and Alexandra K. Murphy ask if we should use people’s names in quantitative research. We’ve discussed this idea before and now you can read the final article. The abstract:

Masking, the practice of hiding or distorting identifying information about people, places, and organizations, is usually considered a requisite feature of ethnographic research and writing. This is justified both as an ethical obligation to one’s subjects and as a scientifically neutral position (as readers are enjoined to treat a case’s idiosyncrasies as sociologically insignificant). We question both justifications, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas and obstacles to constructing cumulative social science that can arise through masking. Regarding ethics, we show, on the one hand, how masking may give subjects a false sense of security because it implies a promise of confidentiality that it often cannot guarantee and, on the other hand, how naming may sometimes be what subjects want and expect. Regarding scientific tradeoffs, we argue that masking can reify ethnographic authority, exaggerate the universality of the case (e.g., “Middletown”), and inhibit replicability (or“revisits”) and sociological comparison. While some degree of masking is ethically and practically warranted in many cases and the value of disclosure varies across ethnographies, we conclude that masking should no longer be the default  option that ethnographers unquestioningly choose.

Check it out!!!

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Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2017 at 12:01 am

super secret ethnography

Thomas J. Roulet, Michael J. Gill, Sebastien Stenger and David James Gill have a new article in Organizational Research Methods about the possible value of covert field work.The abstract:

In this article, we provide a nuanced perspective on the benefits and costs of covert research. In particular, we illustrate the value of such an approach by focusing on covert participant observation. We posit that all observational studies sit along a continuum of consent, with few research projects being either fully overt or fully covert due to practical constraints and the ambiguous nature of consent itself. With reference to illustrative examples, we demonstrate that the study of deviant behaviors, secretive organizations and socially important topics is often only possible through substantially covert participant observation. To support further consideration of this method, we discuss different ethical perspectives and explore techniques to address the practical challenges of
covert participant observation, including; gaining access, collecting data surreptitiously, reducing harm to participants, leaving the site of study and addressing ethical issues.

The article is very thorough in terms of reviewing the relevant issue. This is especially important for org studies people as ethnographers often sign up as employees of firms to study them and they don’t tell the other workers. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 27, 2017 at 4:35 am