google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Abortion in the Culture Wars: Some Effects of Academia's Weakness (Updated)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Abortion in the Culture Wars: Some Effects of Academia's Weakness (Updated)

The national media has spoken on a confrontation between a professor and an anti-abortion group at UCSB on March 4th.  It is not pleased with the professor. 

On March 4th, one of my colleagues at UC Santa Barbara, Feminist Studies professor Mireille Miller-Young, was walking to her office when she was approached by members of an anti-abortion group called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust (SAH).  One thing led to another:  the police report picks up the story:
She said an argument ensued about the graphic nature of these images. Miller-Young said that she [sic] situation became "passionate" and that the other students were "triggered" in a negative way by the imagery.  Miller-Young said that she and others began demanding that the images be taken down.  Miller-Young said that the demonstrators refused. At which point, Miller-Young said that she 'Just grabbed it [the sign] from the girl's hands." Asked if there had been a struggle, Miller-Young stated, "I'm stronger so I was able to take the poster."
Miller-Young said that the poster had been taken back to her office. Once in her office, a "safe space" described by Miller-Young, Miller-Young said that they were still upset by the images on the poster and had destroyed it. Miller-Young said that she was "mainly" responsible for the posters destruction becaues she was the only one with scissors.
The SAH protestors seem to have consisted mainly of two sisters, Joan Short, 21, and Thrin Short, 16.  Thrin Short began to film Prof. Miller-Young and a few students departing with her sign.  In the video, you can hear ongoing exchanges between the two groups, see the UCSB group enter South Hall and try to take the sign up the elevator, hear what must be Joan Short calling the police and narrating events to them, see the UCSB group refusing the Short sisters entry to the building elevator amidst some scuffling-- at which point the video ends.

The event got immediate campus coverage in a student paper, The Bottom Line, which ran a story and a picture of one of the anti-abortion posters. The Santa Barbara Independent covered it a week later, identifying the group as SAH and  narrating its account of the events, for by that time Prof. Miller-Young had an attorney and was being advised not to speak about the case. The conservative blog The College Fix posted an account on March 12th, showing the scratches on Thrin Short's wrists and Joan Short with her signs.  So we can be clear what we're talking about, here are the signs on UCSB's campus on March 4th:

Rush Limbaugh got into the act on the same day, spinning the story in his usual way on his Quick Hits Page under the title "Leftist Professor Goes Berserk, Attacks Pro-Lifers" (scroll down). Fox News picked it up on March 13th (the SAH account has more media links at the bottom.) On March 14th, the Short sisters appeared on Megyn Kelly's Fox news show with an augmented version of the original video.  When Ms. Kelly asked how they felt about the professor's claim that she was "triggered" by the images and that she had the "moral right" to take the signs away, Thrin Short said she was sorry that the professor was "offended in any way. But after all, she does teach or show porn to her students, so she's not really the one to talk about offending images." (Joan Short is on the left, her sister Thrin on the right.)

 On March 15th, just to make the media circus complete, Salon got involved: Mary Elizabeth Williams turned the incident into an object lesson called "Why You Should Never Engage with an Abortion Protester."    She summed up her position by saying sarcastically, "Well, thanks, Dr. Mireille Miller-Young, because now these two sisters, who might otherwise have been just a campus nuisance, have overnight become national right-wing heroines."

OK, so much for the media fun.  Let me see if there's a way of threading a path through all this.

First of all, Prof. Miller-Young was wrong to take the Short sisters' sign, as she acknowledges in the police report (page 5 of 5).  She and the students were wrong to leave the scene while taunting the Short sisters, wrong to scuffle with them, and wrong to destroy the sign upstairs of out the Short sisters' reach.  I see no reason to disagree with the reporting officer when s/he says, "I explained to Miller-Young that vandalism, battery and robbery had occurred." 

Second, the Short sisters are not isolated citizens expressing a passionately-held moral belief (though they are obviously sincere, and their type of activism takes guts).  They are part of a right-wing institutional world that makes many people feel unwelcome and unsafe, including the women of color who confronted them at UCSB on March 4th. This is an important context for what happened that day.

The Shorts were trained as activists by SAH, a group founded by Jeff White.  Mr. White, according to his website, was National Tactical Director for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, a group known for its aggressive tactics, and which is very much still in the game (Kansas example).  Mr. White continues to specialize in attention-getting public confrontation, as in this bizarre conflict with a Hollywood lighting crew in 2010.  He is apparently well-connected within conservative activist and funding networks.  Mr. White seems to have had great recruitment success within the Short family:  there is at least one more SAH Short sister, Mary Rose, who can be seen protesting in Albuquerque in November 2013, and who was protesting outside a high school in Jackson, MS in March 2012 when two SAH colleagues were arrested. 

Given their front-line position in a well-developed national anti-abortion activist network, there is no reason for the Shorts to play dumb about their intentions.  The sole point of their gruesome signs is to shock and offend people into opposing abortion.  They signs aren't "conversation starters": they freak people out, as they are meant to do. Even if you are sixteen years old, you should take responsibility for the likely impacts on actual people of what you are deliberately doing.  If you try to provoke people, you will eventually succeed, and if you work for someone like Jeff White, you have a full understanding both of what these provoked people might do and of how you can use this with the media.

The deeper issue here is that the Shorts arrived at UCSB as the institutional representatives of what for convenience I'll call Limbaugh's America--the forever angry wing of the American Right that disparages its opponents rather than debates with them.  The Shorts also represented that Right in the rhetorical strategy of their signs, which said quite plainly that pro-choice people, like some of the college students walking by, favor murdering "preborn" babies.   In this sense, the signs aren't just graphic: they are calculated insults of the moral viewpoint of the presumptively pro-choice onlooker.

UCSB student Delyla Mayers made this point clearly in her editorial in UCSB's Daily Nexus:
These groups have taken no consideration to the individuals who are directly or indirectly affected by abortion. UCSB prides itself on inclusivity and diversity, yet these groups have actively chosen to ignore the myriad people these images negatively impact. These groups have chosen to overlook these experiences, placing harmful and potentially damaging materials in front of students without so much as a warning. Student announcements are sent out every day, giving students warnings about numerous things; why aren�t such events required to do the same? I don�t think any group should be above that. It�s not the position I have a problem with, but rather the approach that is very insensitive, non-inclusive, violent and dangerous. These groups have failed to give students the right to choose to partake in such events, stripping individuals from their choice to practice self-care in topics as deep as abortion.
Prof. Miller-Young was aware that her students had the sense that the signs represented categorical hostility both to their views about abortion (if they were pro-choice, they favored killing unborn babies) and in some sense to who they are, that is, "campus liberals," and women of color.

Isn't this overreacting? No.  The Right's anti-intellectual dismissal machine has a long reach, and used anti-feminist and racial dogwhistling in this case as in so many others.

For example, in her appearance on Fox News, Thrin Short made a direct connection between Prof. Miller-Young taking offense at her signs and Prof. MIller-Young teaching pornography as an academic subject.  That same day, Rush Limbaugh had established the same equivalence.
We have hyphenated name? Check. Teaches multicultural nonsense? Check.

Attracted to perverted and worthless areas of academic emphasis? Check. Instinct to lash out violently at those who disagree with her? Check. Resorts to violence when she doesn't get her way? Check. Logical conclusion: She is a madcap leftist and she has tenure. She is teaching young skulls full of mush, inculcating them with this worthless drivel that their parents are paying through the nose for.

Now, you might say, "Rush this has always gone on."

Not to this degree, folks.

The higher education curriculum has been in the process of being corrupted by militant feminazis for I don't know how long, but it is continuing to normalize what 10 years ago were extremes.   The extremes 10 years ago are the normal today. The extremes 15 ago are the normal. A professor teaching a course in black cultural studies, pornography, and sex work on her faculty Web page?
Well Rush, actually yes: Black culture has obviously been a fountainhead of American life from its  beginning, and consuming pornography is America's national pastime not to mention an important form of popular culture, as UCSB's Constance Penley has been arguing for two decades. But in Limbaugh's America, studying Black culture or representations of African American women in pornography is all feminazism.  Mr. Limbaugh says these things regularly, they become right-wing common sense over years and decades, they get echoed by front-line people like Thrin Short--and then folks wonder why feminists or students of color get upset.

My third point is that in this context the theft of the SAH poster, though illegal, can be seen as an act of (non-violent) self-defense.  Many people, including many women and many people of color, do not feel safe in or respected by Rush Limbaugh's America. Many of the targets of the routine practice of disrespect see universities as refuges of enlightenment or at least basic rationality in a country whose media is saturated with personal attacks and hate speech.  The appearance of the SAH signs ended that fragile protection (as Ms. Mayers noted above).

On Fox, Megyn Kelly displayed disbelief at Prof. Miller-Young's line, apparently directed at a Short sister, "I may be a thief, but you're a terrorist." The most relevant definition of terrorist in this case is Jean-Fran�ois Lyotard's in chapter 2 of The Postmodern Condition, where he defines terror as "eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him."  This is the effect of SAH signs, and it is the core Limbaugh / Fox News strategy--not to debate an opponent, but to discredit her in advance as a dangerous buffoon. Non-Limbaugh America, now associated by the Right with Barack Obama's electoral majority built of various communities of color, feels quite unsafe in a mediascape and political world in which their positions are held up as ridiculous.  The university has come to function as one of the few escapes, and it was something that Prof. Miller-Young, in her way, was trying to defend.  This is why the police report records her saying that her actions "were in defense of her students and her own safety." The fact that they took an illegal form, as noted above, doesn't change their meaning as self-defense. I believe, she said to the reporting officer, that I have a "personal right to go to work and not be in harm."

Fourth, where are university administrations in all this? My basic feeling is that individual professors and students wouldn't have to be inventing ad hoc forms of self-defense against the presence of groups that disrespect them if the university had a reputation for defending itself.  By defending itself I don't mean universities should ban groups like SAH or eliminating free speech zones that welcome non-students. On the contrary, universities must continue to support the kind of debate that would be ejected from everywhere else in commercial America, like its bank lobbies, office cafeterias, and shopping malls. I mean, instead, that universities must build a counter-common sense through which the general public immediately understands why a university must have things like feminist studies departments and pornography scholars--that the university studies everything important, and studies everything according to professional rules of the knowledge-seekers own making, in uncoercive dialogue with the general public.

As it is now, the university has no answer to the Right's carefully constructed anti-intellectual culture, which allows its members to interpret new knowledge as an affront, a heresy, and an assault on all that is good.  All academic knowledge is vulnerable here, from stem-cell medical research and climate-related oceanography to studies of farmworker health, white suburban poverty, and new sexualities.  The result is that after three decades of culture wars, activists trained by right-wing groups like SAH know that if anything bad happens to them on campus, they can discredit their academic opposition in the media by appealing to ad hominem  stereotypes of liberal professors.   My sense is that the general public decreasingly thinks of universities as serious places that will protect themselves, their functions, and their people, and that anyone can do political hit-and-runs with impunity.  Obviously the Right's brilliant long-term institution-building is the main source of the weak cultural position of universities, which undermines individual academics when they most need help. But high-level university silence paved the way for the Right's control of the framing of university teaching and research.

As an institution, the university needs to build a discursive and cultural framework in which its own heterodox activities can be understood.  Tactically, university officials should not get down in the weeds and debate the value of porn studies with each anti-abortion protest group. But strategically, organizations like the American Association of Universities, presidents of major colleges, and other prominent educators need to help scattered associate professors confront and overturn the Limbaughian worldview.  The AAU is happy to speak officially in what it sees as a necessary defense of Israel, as when it formally denounced the American Studies Association's alleged infringement on academic freedom via its support for boycotting Israeli academic institutions.  The AAU should do the same, on an ongoing basis, around the the academic freedom of faculty of color to teach and conduct research, in dialogue with the public, on Black culture, Black actors in porn, possible racial bias in private medical research funding, the shortage of people of color in children's stories, or anything else that society puts in front of them.

Such high-level statements should also involve something we might call campus cultural, intellectual, and personal safety for students, an issue that recent protests by Black students at the University of Michigan, UCLA Law School, and elsewhere have put back on the agenda--again.  The long-term project is to build a cultural common sense in which the university's unavoidable violation of orthodoxy is the heart of its public mission--and where its community can be safe from the harassment that Limbaugh-culture reserves for that public mission in all its forms.

More locally, my hope is that the Short sisters will drop charges against Prof. Miller-Young in exchange for some kind of  statement or restitution from her.  It might be interesting to invite Joan and Thrin Short to a Feminist Studies classroom to talk, rather than to affront with signs, the professor and the students they tangled with before.  Who knows--Thrin Short might even stop ditching high school to protest abortion.

UPDATE 3/23
On Friday, Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley announced that she was filing misdemenor charges against Prof. Miller-Young for theft from a person, vandalism, and battery.  The Santa Barbara Independent has coverage here. So does Fox News, which adds a quote from the Short sisters' father to a repeat of its earlier framing.

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