Considering Institutional Violence
Medgate: Motte Version
I haven't seen a thread here yet on this, and even though it's a few days old I had a few comments. To start, I thought TW's article on this was the most informative one I came across, so I'll work off of it even though I don't agree with its conclusion. In fact, before I even read the article, I specifically wanted to criticize said conclusion. Link: https://tracingwoodgrains.medium.com/contra-robby-soave-on-medgate-a-word-of-caution-c50fea9e4708
If you don't already know:
The other day, Tumblr user whitehotharlots broke the news that Kieran Bhattacharya, a University of Virginia med student expelled after expressing skepticism at a seminar on microaggressions a couple of years ago, would be allowed to proceed with his legal complaint against the university. Journalist Wesley Yang subsequently drew attention to the post, after which Reason’s Robby Soave told the same story in a more formal article, one that would subsequently spread like wildfire among groups concerned about the overreach of social justice activism and ideology, free speech, cancel culture, and so forth.
There are two relevant recordings. The first is of the thing that started it all, the presentation on micro-aggressions that Bhattacharya publicly critiqued. The second is of the hearing where it was decided that Bhattacharya would be expelled. In between there was another, unrecorded event where Bhattacharya was allegedly rude. He met with his Dean and according to him he was grilled his political beliefs. Finally there are rude social media posts that may or may not have been made by Bhattacharya after being expelled. These were seen by UVA and led to Bhattacharya being banned from campus.
TW's conclusion is:
But this all raises a tricky question: If, after an unreasonable initial reprimand (as the first interaction seems to have been), you then uncover legitimate concerns, is it reasonable to enforce discipline based on them?
I do not think the university is incorrect in their claims in the final hearing. At least in that interaction, he was unnecessarily aggressive. He was rude. He made no attempts to take a compromise or to accept any conditions. He acted unprofessionally. On that panel, as they said repeatedly, it was never about the initial interaction. It was about the follow-up, and based on his behavior online and in the final hearing, in the absence of contrary evidence I think the professor on the panel was likely correct to suggest the dean who objected to his behavior was noticing a similar pattern in their meeting. Contrary to the student’s claims, I think the professors on the panel were quite clear, when he wasn’t interrupting him, about how and why his approach was unprofessional, and it had little to do with the initial interaction. They saw in front of them a man with a mission, a student who saw them as the face of “SJW indoctrination” and was determined, not to smooth things over and move on, but to fight against them, to oppose them in every particular and reject all feedback.
Before even reading this article I knew there would be people who would disagree with me on the following: that there is absolutely no moral reason that one should be nice or respectful to anyone threatening institutional violence against you. Institutional violence is any coercive measure taken by an institution that will end in violence if thoroughly resisted. Sometimes the initial measure is violent, like in the judicial system. Institutional violence, like personal violence, is not always morally wrong or right. Sometimes it's justified, as in when someone is truly guilty of an immoral crime. Sometimes being expelled from a public medical school is justified. Sometimes it isn't. Sometimes hitting someone is justified, other times it isn't. I don't want to argue the object-level of whether or not the suspension was justified in this case so much as I want to argue against the apparent norm that one should ever be nice or respectful to anyone threatening institutional violence against oneself. I argue that such a norm is totalitarian and too greatly privileges institutions over individuals, making abusiveness far too easy.
The reasoning is as follows. There are two cases when you are threatened with institutional violence: you deserve it or you don't. If you don't, that makes the perpetrators guilty of malice or negligence. If you do, some words won't make a difference. Being nice actually indicates guiltiness. Being mean is more natural if a group is trying to hurt you for no reason. The only exception is if you have no rights at all relative to this group, and if you must placate them by any means. Such is only the case if your accusers decide if you are guilty. But if your accusers decide if you are guilty, then all the accused are guilty. And this is classically totalitarian.
To be nice to your accusers is therefore a norm derived from systems lacking due process. Furthermore it is a demand on the soul, to not only do but to be as a committee desires. Taking the perspective of the institutional operator rounds this off. Imagine that you and your friends have made an accusation against a young man. You are the same people who will kick him out of medical school if he fails to defend himself from that accusation. When he appears to defend himself, he is unhappy with you. You take this not as evidence that he his innocent but that he is guilty, even though doing such a thing is paradoxical. In other words you are penalizing him for not sparing your feelings. You did not spare his feelings when you threatened his whole livelihood, but you expect him to spare your feelings, even though not sparing your feelings is evidence that your initial attack on the individual was unjustified.
It's like one of those Russian layered dolls that in this case the initial accusation was that Bhattacharya did not spare the feelings of a lecturer who was lecturing on the importance of sparing people's feelings, but who failed to spare the feelings of Bhattacharya when she privileged the feelings of "marginalized" groups.