The orderly rhythm of my life was thrown into a tsunami of sustained chaos this fall when I was attacked online by the far right. The hate began pouring through my Twitter account, my website and my Facebook page. Finally, a deluge came through two email accounts, where I got hundreds of repulsive messages every day for over a month. The vitriol was several fathoms beyond uncivil, including messages calling me a whore, a disgrace to my alma mater UT-Austin, a “Jewess,” fat, a moron and a c*nt. My email inbox was flooded with rape threats, death threats and, for those who couldn’t be bothered to commit murder themselves, invitations to kill myself. As someone who survived the suicide of a parent, the suggestions that I kill myself were especially painful. It is disorienting when one’s email inbox, that intimate, integral part of work and life, fills with the effluvium that is the worst part of human nature. A great many also found the email addresses and phone numbers of my department colleagues, my dean, the provost and president of my college, acts that escalated the intensity of the attack by alarming the people I work with and insisting that I be fired.
WAR ON HIGHER ED
The experience was upsetting, not chiefly because I feared for my personal safety or loss of my job (I am a full professor and a PSC member), but because the angry people who took the time to send me a message are part of a war on public higher education (groups like Media Matters have listed more than a dozen major funders and conservative advocacy groups targeting American campuses). The increasing attacks on faculty are part of a well-funded and orchestrated campaign by the far right. Their strategy is to use social media to discredit academics and thereby devalue higher education.
Yet the organized, political nature of the attack got lost in the melee, as everyone, particularly college administrators, asked, “What did you say?” Such a question shifts the blame away from the attackers. And it misses the fact that social media is the weapon of choice of the far-right to target faculty. By threatening academic freedom, they aim to destroy public higher education – all the while, this is happening as states like Missouri and Iowa are attempting to strip tenure from faculty at public institutions.
My remarks that so inflamed the far right were in answer to a question from a friend and colleague who asked on Twitter: For those who have lost family and friends for challenging white racism, how do you cope? Because I was estranged from my father for the last two years of his life because of his racism and my opposition to it, I responded. You need to build new worlds for yourself, I said. Then, I said that in my experience, the white nuclear family was one of the most powerful forces upholding white supremacy. It was a statement almost identical to one I’d written in my first book – White Lies: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse – about the way extremists framed the white family and how it resonates in popular culture. I went on to talk about racial wealth disparities, driven by home ownership and the intergenerational transfer of wealth within white families, something we’d just discussed in my Introduction to Sociology class. But on the mean streets of Twitter, this got cherry-picked by the far right as a call for “white genocide,” one of their favorite talking points, which ended up on FoxNews, Tucker Carlson, the UK-based Daily Mail and New York Post. For 10 years, I have had a fairly active presence on Twitter, with over 18,000 followers I was recently listed as the “14th most followed sociologist.” The main focus of my research is white supremacists online (Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights). In the past few years, I’ve also written about being a scholar in the digital era, including some about its perils. I wrote that if an attack by the right wing “hasn’t happened to someone on your campus yet, chances are it will.” By my own estimate, then, it was only a matter of time before it was my turn. The chilling effect on academic freedom from such attacks is very real. I find myself speaking out much less often now, including on the GOP tax bill, a policy that ensures the intergenerational transfer of wealth within a handful of white families, precisely the point I was attacked for making.
Those who think that not being visible on social media will save them from such attacks deceive themselves. The foot soldiers in this war on higher education are well-funded and adept at taking routine facets of academic life – a class lecture, a graduation speech – and turning it into fodder for a targeted campaign. Faculty who are women, who identify as queer, who are people of color and, of course, who reject the right’s orthodoxy are vulnerable to attack. One far-right group has started a “film your Marxist professors” Facebook group and is enlisting students to surreptitiously record instructors with their cellphones.
RESPONDING TO THE RIGHT
In my current research, I’m following the ways the far right has been emboldened through the tweet storms of the current occupant of the White House, who regularly re tweets white supremacists and gets his funding from the same billionaires fueling the far-right attacks on public higher education.
We must understand that the attacks on us are part of a systematic effort to destroy public higher education. Social media is used against faculty, and it is often the most vulnerable among us who are attacked. As a union, we must develop collective ways to support each other by making it clear that comments on social media should be protected as a form of academic freedom.
Jessie Daniels is a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center.