George Ciccariello-Maher, formerly an Associate Professor of Politics & Global Studies at Drexel University, was effectively forced out of his position after describing the Las Vegas massacre as a product of a ‘white supremacist patriarchy’ which must be dismantled. In truth, this is actually a fairly standard narrative among progressives in response to mass shootings or political violence (e.g. here, here). However, Dr. Ciccariello-Maher and his university found themselves facing a particularly harsh campaign of harassment, intimidation and coercion in the wake of these comments – in part because this was not their first run-in with the right-wing media outrage machine.
The ‘Drexel Shaft’
George was first thrust into the national spotlight for comments he made on Twitter in December 2016:
In response to a State Farm advertisement featuring an interracial couple, many far-right online personalities took to social media to lament the ‘white genocide’ they believe is being brought about through immigration, interracial unions, multiculturalism and ‘radical’ civil rights activism. Bemused that people were so distraught over such a banal attempt at corporate “wokeness,” Ciccariello-Maher tweeted to them that all he wanted for Christmas was #WhiteGenocide.
These comments were deliberately taken out of context in right-aligned media, where it was implied that rather than merely trolling the racial anxieties of alt-right sympathizers, he sincerely supported carrying out (violent) genocide against whites — sparking major backlash against himself and the institutions he was affiliated with (GCM is, himself, a white man). At that time, Drexel University sharply condemned his remarks but insisted that no action can or should be taken against Dr. Ciccariello-Maher because his comments constituted protected free speech.
However, George found himself in the crosshairs of the right just a few months later, after declaring on social media that he almost wanted to vomit upon seeing a customer give their first-class seat to a uniformed soldier during a flight he was on. Right-leaning pundits, who began following his social media after the #WhiteGenocide scandal, once again blew up his comments — arguing that Dr. Ciccarillo-Maher hated America, despised its men in uniform, and that the sentiments he expressed were typical of what students were exposed to in the classroom – not just in his courses, but in colleges across the country.
As the threats and complaints once again rolled in, Dr. Ciccariello-Maher appeared on Fox News and insisted that this time his comments were not satirical: he was nauseated, he explained, by what he perceived as people “blindly” supporting wars abroad for the sake of supporting the troops – and also by the “smug and self-congratulatory” demeanor of the passenger who offered his seat. He argued that if people really wanted to “support the troops” they should work on providing better healthcare and services to veterans, and avoiding needless conflict abroad.
Although soldiers also regularly express discomfort with the kinds of symbolic gestures and platitudes Dr. Ciccariello-Maher was disparaging, and themselves emphasize that there are more effective ways to “support the troops,” this doubling-down by the embattled professor further fueled the public outcry – prompting three Pennsylvania state senators to call for his termination. Drexel University, once again, distanced itself from his remarks but refrained from punitive action.
However, Drexel provost Brian Blake nonetheless emphasized to Dr. Ciccariello-Maher that the outrage over his statements had been causing harm to the university, including loss of major donations and students who were choosing to avoid the school on the basis of the scandals. The provost went on to emphasize Drexel’s commitment to academic freedom for its faculty, staff and students – and its position that what members of the university do in their private time, as private citizens, is their own business. However, he argued, professors must also recognize how their affiliation with the university can cause create profound ramifications for others in the Drexel community. To his mind, this created a special obligation for professors to exercise their rights with a certain degree of thoughtfulness and prudence – especially in the public sphere.
Yet, midway through the Fall 2017 semester, Dr. Ciccariello-Maher found himself in a maelstrom over his comments on the Las Vegas Massacre. He refused to cede any ground: In an interview on Democracy Now! following the massacre in Sutherland Springs, less than a month after the Las Vegas shooting, Ciccariello-Maher doubled-down on his claim that a sense of frustrated entitlement among white men seemed to lie at the heart of most national tragedies.
However, during that interview George also confirmed that while he was allowed to finish out his Fall 2017 course commitments via online instruction, he was not allowed on the Drexel campus at all for the foreseeable future. Beginning Spring 2018, he was slated for indefinite administrative leave — ostensibly for the sake of his own safety, and the safety of Drexel faculty, staff and students.
Benched from instruction and barred from campus indefinitely — while under surveillance by a right-wing media apparatus that seemed committed to distorting and amplifying potentially anything he said into yet another scandal for himself and his department — Dr. Ciccariello-Maher eventually came to feel that he had no choice except to resign. He could not continue on as a professor at Drexel, practically speaking, unless he cut out or severely censored his social media, public engagement, and activism – at least not without subjecting himself, his loved ones, students and colleagues to unending scrutiny, harassment and intimidation from right-affiliated groups.
Following his departure from Drexel he has accepted an unpaid temporary research appointment at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics based out of NYU. His future remains unclear.
(Non) Crime & (Non) Punishment
Some facets of this case are gray. For instance, there is room for discussion about whether George did all he could have, shy of violating his conscience, to protect his colleagues and students at Drexel from the negative externalities of his engagement. One could question the merits of some of Dr. Ciccariello-Maher’s positions and the methods he used to convey them. However, we should all be able to agree that happened to George was wrong. Indeed, even conservatives at the National Review found themselves disturbed by the precedent set here:
An angry mob, egged on by political special interest groups, pressured university administrators into removing a tenure-track professor who – by Drexel’s own repeated admissions — had committed no obvious breach of the intellectual and ethical codes governing the institution. There was no due process, just an indefinite expulsion from Drexel’s intellectual community – an action which the administration insisted was not a punishment – imposed against George’s protests, but allegedly with his best-interests in mind.
More troubling: the sentiments that Dr. Ciccariello-Maher expressed disparaging nationalism and Trump, on dismantling systems of oppression including white supremacy and patriarchy, on the relationships between these systems of oppression and political violence — from war abroad to massacres in the United States – these are widely held and commonly expressed among progressive scholars (albeit often couched in more careful language). That is, what happened to George can happen to any of us who conduct social research, comment on social issues, or aspire to social activism.
A House Divided Against Itself
In a Facebook post following his resignation, Dr. Ciccariello-Maher urged professors to rally together defending freedom of expression and freedom of conscience in the academy – especially for those who are not are not protected by tenure. Although Dr. Ciccariello-Maher has himself been an unreliable advocate for these causes in the past, he is absolutely right in underscoring their importance – especially for those of us on the left.
As Jonathan Haidt and I pointed out in a recent Atlantic column, while right-aligned trolls like Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, or Milo Yiannapolis have tried to co-opt the causes of freedom of conscience and free expression – in reality it is progressives, and especially those from disadvantaged, marginalized or otherwise vulnerable groups who suffer the most when these freedoms and protections are undermined on campus.
Many of the institutional policies and norms currently under threat were established in the first place following the McCarthy inquisitions and the Civil Rights movement – explicitly to protect minorities and those on the left from persecution, to allow us to challenge what we understood to be incorrect or unjust, to empower us to develop new modalities of thought and expression, and to ensure we were supported in these endeavors by our universities. It is therefore of paramount importance, especially for those of us on the left, that freedom of speech and conscience protections be preserved against the illiberal forces that threaten them today.
Unfortunately, rather than rallying together against the renewed menace from right-aligned media, politicians and special interests and even hate groups on campus – a misguided contingent of the left has increasingly sought to dismantle protections of conscience and expression designed to protect us from the right – in the name of vulnerable populations no less! In a pyrrhic bid to cleanse universities of insufficiently progressive thought, they are doing the handiwork of their professed rivals: undermining their own institutions and research, inculcating a culture of fear, conformity and suppression on campus (even targeting fellow progressives), and empowering university administrators to remove professors without due process in order to placate mobs.
In the resultant environment, any social researcher can end up sharing George Ciccariello-Maher’s fate. After all, if we’re doing our jobs right, we’ll typically be challenging, provoking, or even offending someone with our work – and be challenged, provoked, or even offended ourselves in turn. In a world where these kinds of exchanges are taken off the table, then the academy will have truly outlived its raison d’etre.