“Fuck those assholes. Seriously. I stand with you, Kate Abramson,” Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley commented in a private Facebook thread in September. “Those assholes” referred to people defending Oxford emeritus professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne, who had argued that homosexuality was a disability, provoking outcry from many philosophers. In response, Kate Abramson, an associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University, expressed her “anger, outrage, and sheer exhaustion” in a Facebook post. She tagged Stanley, an outspoken progressive who had been vocal in last year’s national debate over free speech on college campuses.
The comment thread was kept private until Rightly Considered—a conservative philosophy blog with the tagline, “For Philosophers Who Are Right”—posted screenshots of the conversation online.
Stanley soon found himself at the center of an online firestorm. At a faculty meeting, a colleague told him that the blog had published his comment and asked if he understood “the enormity of the situation.” It was not until then, Stanley recalled in an interview with The Politic, that he grasped just how much attention his comment would attract.
Within days, Rod Dreher, blogger and Editor-in-Chief of The American Conservative, launched a series of scathing opinion pieces condemning what he termed the “hysterical nature” of Stanley’s comment and of left-wing philosophers in general. His was the first attack of many published by right-wing media outlets. Dreher argued that “radical progressive ideologues” were trying to suppress the free speech rights of those who disagreed with them.
The debate was no longer just about homosexuality—it was about free speech.
Stanley’s were not the only words screenshotted and published by Rightly Considered. Elizabeth Barnes, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia and pseudonymous blogger for Feminist Philosophers, said the blog “transposed” her words, “totally twisting [them].” Barnes’ post criticized those who think that their need to say whatever they like without pushback “trump[s] basic human kindness and compassion.”
Still, Barnes differentiated between “transposing” and “alternative facts.”
“I see it being connected, but not the same,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “Here people were taking something that had actually happened and twisting it. [But] if a philosopher says something on Facebook, it’s not like they’re saying it as a philosophy professor. It’s just Facebook.”
It was not “just Facebook” to Dreher, who published four pieces attacking Stanley: “F—ck You, A—holes, Argued the Yale Professor,” “Fun With Paranoid Philosophers,” “Jason Stanley Spirals Ever Downward,” and “Jason Stanley Epilogue.” Stanley has since deleted his Facebook account. He now tweets exclusively links, cautious not to post original thoughts on social media for fear that other users will take them as the professional statements of a Yale professor and not the personal opinions of Jason Stanley.
When asked why he criticized Stanley, Dreher presented himself as a defender of free speech, calling Stanley’s comment “a sign of barbarism” that was representative of “the rise of illiberalism in academia.”
“What happens at Yale doesn’t stay at Yale,” he told The Politic. “The whole world is watching. And what happens at Yale matters a lot more than what happens at almost any other university because Yale is the training ground for American elites…Corruptio optimi pessima, you know [corruption of the best is the worst].”
“What happens at Yale doesn’t stay at Yale,” he told The Politic. “The whole world is watching. And what happens at Yale matters a lot more than what happens at almost any other university because Yale is the training ground for American elites…Corruptio optimi pessima
Dreher went on to connect Stanley’s comment to another Yale controversy that went viral almost a year earlier. After Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent an email to students suggesting cultural sensitivity in choosing Halloween costumes, Erika Christakis, an early childhood education lecturer at Yale, sent an email pushing back.
“I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious, a little bit inappropriate or provocative, or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. Christakis’ email provoked and energized a wider debate about race at Yale. Students confronted her husband, then-Master of Silliman College Nicholas Christakis, airing their concerns and asking for an apology. Christakis was hosting Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), as a guest speaker. Lukianoff filmed the video of the confrontation between students and Christakis. The video went viral.
“The way many Yale professors sided with the social justice warriors over their own colleagues [in Fall 2015], and the way the university capitulated to the mob, was to me a confirmation of Yale’s intellectual and moral corruption by identity politics,” said Dreher. “Jason Stanley’s public behavior in the Swinburne affair was of a piece with this.”
Like the anonymous Facebook user who screenshotted Stanley’s comment, Lukianoff recorded the events in the Silliman courtyard without the explicit consent of the participants. And like the comment thread, whose privacy settings made it visible only to friends of Abramson, the original poster, the Silliman College courtyard is a semi-private space, enclosed by gates that can only be opened by a Yale ID. Though the Dreher-Stanley debacle attracted far less media attention than the courtyard incident, both boiled down to the same set of issues: free speech and the blurred line between private and public spaces.
Stanley’s experience highlights the difficulty of making this distinction.
“Liberalism requires a distinction between the public domain and the private domain,” he said, adding that the ideology asserts the individual’s right not only to free speech but also to privacy.
For this reason, Stanley said that he believes it is hypocritical to publicly condemn private sexual practices, as Swinburne did, and to accuse others of illiberalism for private comments, as Dreher did.
In 2015, Stanley coauthored an article titled, “When Free Speech Becomes a Political Weapon,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said that he continues to be deeply disturbed by the co-opting of free speech rhetoric by right-wing groups.
The question about public and private spaces is one aspect of a larger debate about free speech taking place on college campuses.
Like Dreher, professor and philosophy blogger Elizabeth Barnes said that she saw larger trends at work in online responses to campus controversies like the Halloween controversy at Yale.
“My suspicion and my impression is that there seems to be a growing tactic on certain right-wing internet news to attempt to target and out and vilify what they take to be radical left-wing professors,” she said.
One much-publicized example of this targeting, said Barnes, is Professor Watchlist, which keeps a list of professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
Whereas FIRE’s mission statement frames the organization’s goals in nonpartisan terms—“to defend and sustain individual rights at American colleges and universities” and “protect the unprotected”—Professor Watchlist highlights its distinctively right-wing agenda beneath free-speech rhetoric. More broadly, Barnes said, it promotes “the idea that somehow college campuses are indoctrination centers for liberal propaganda.”
Online debates and campus controversies are part of a larger conversation about political correctness in the U.S. Terms like “safe spaces” and “free speech” have assumed incendiary connotations.
On its website, Rightly Considered sardonically notes, “[We have] a very liberal comment policy. Each commenter speaks for his or herself. Unlike leftists, we believe in free speech and freedom of association.” But in an interview with The Politic, representatives of Rightly Considered downplayed the antagonism in statements like the above, blaming the left for the lack of discourse between left and right leaning blogs.
“We envisioned Rightly Considered as the Fox News of the philosophy blogosphere…but we have found that our leftist colleagues do not seem at all interested in collegial dialogue,” said the representatives. “They would prefer to write us off as racists, bigots, ‘neo-Nazis,’ etc.”
Likewise, Dreher bemoaned the “spirit of chaos and malice [that] reigns at Yale” and warned that “people notice these things.”
This barrage of online attacks scared Stanley. He received hate mail and threats, and he worried that the inflammatory blog posts would put his family at risk, given The American Conservative’s large readership. Stanley characterized Dreher’s series of articles as harassment and his own emotional state as one of “nervous exhaustion.”
After he was attacked for his Facebook comment, Stanley weighed the risks of responding and ultimately decided to push back. Kathryn Pogin, a Feminist Philosophers blogger and graduate student in philosophy at Northwestern University, published his response on the blog. As expected, the post drew more criticism from right-wing bloggers, including from Dreher.
When I asked Stanley for an interview, we did not meet in his office. Instead, he invited me to an exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and brought his partner and children along. He later confessed that he wanted to better understand me and my intentions before agreeing to be featured in this article because he had felt misrepresented by other media coverage.
“Whenever you engage with someone who is intentionally misrepresenting you—and I think this was a case of misrepresentation—there’s a risk of legitimizing them by responding,” said Pogin in an interview with The Politic. “[But] conversations that are placed online have a lot of power over how we perceive things—who we take to have control over conversations or who we take to be socially powerful. I think there’s a real danger in not responding to people who intentionally misrepresent you.”
I think there’s a real danger in not responding to people who intentionally misrepresent you.”
Reflecting on the events of this fall, Stanley pointed to what he considers to be the central issue.
“Up is down and down is up.”
“It appears that those who are breaking down the domain between the public and the private are, somewhat strangely, doing so by accusing those who defend private spaces of illiberalism,” he said. “Up is down and down is up.”