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Anyone can make an accusation. Me, too. I accuse American higher education of fostering an epidemic of unprovable and often unfounded accusations; accusations aimed not at seeking justice but at wounding real or imagined enemies; accusations that aim to shred reputations rather than uncover truth; accusations that give the accuser a sense of power unmoored from any sense of responsibility.
Accusation has become an art form in the academy. A really successful accusation unleashes a public furor that completely bypasses the question, “Is it true?” Instead it ignites instant outrage. It sweeps away everything in its path. It has its own logical whirlpools: If it weren’t true, why would she say it? Or: Even if there is no evidence, it is the sort of thing that might have happened. An effective accusation silences the doubts of those disposed to believe it. Then it attacks anyone who declines to endorse it. Those who doubt the validity of the accusation are part of the problem. They are allies of the accused and parties after the fact to the disgusting behavior of the accused.
This art form has been perfected over the last several decades in the crucible of campus victimology. The gold standard, of course, is the accusation of racism. As actual racism in American society has faded and die-hard racists have retreated to obscure corners and sparsely attended rallies, accusations of racism have only gained power. Accusing people of “implicit racism” or “unconscious privilege” is key. These formulations have the advantage of nullifying whatever the accused might say in his own defense.
That trick has been absorbed into the many other forms of accusation that are rife on campus: accusations of sexism, bigotry towards gays, Islamophobia, classism, etc., and has been adopted as a technique as well by proponents of various causes. If someone expresses doubt in the latest alternative energy scheme, surely it is because he is a hireling of Big Energy and wants to strip-mine the planet. If someone favors control of the nation’s borders and restrictions of immigration, surely it is because she is viciously opposed to human rights.
From Campus to the World
Academics spend considerable time thinking up new accusations and trying them out on campus. An especially good accusation, however, soon graduates. It moves via social media to the larger national discussion, and soon is echoed in the culture at large. Celebrities, briefed by their publicists, adopt the accusation as the opinion du jour. Even the dopiest of politicians get hold of it.
For an accuser to succeed, he or she must be a believable victim. Once that is established, any expression of doubt about the accusation can be played as “blaming the victim.” Only someone with a heart of corundum and the moral sensitivities of skunk cabbage would blame the victim.
I accuse all of American higher education as explicitly and implicitly implicated in unleashing the epidemic of unprovable and often unfounded accusations. My evidence? How dare you. Isn’t my suffering proof enough?
But, yes, I will cite witnesses.
At the moment, Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh are center stage, and Ford’s accusation has brought to mind Anita Hill’s accusations in October 1991 against Clarence Thomas. Ford and Hill are both academics. Ford is a clinical professor of psychology at Palo Alto University. Hill is the University professor of Social Policy, Law, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University.
Palo Alto University is a relatively young institution: a private nonprofit founded in 1975 as the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, but which later expanded to include undergraduate programs in Business Psychology and “Psychology and Social Action.” Ford is listed on the PAU faculty directory under Blasey and identified as a “core faculty member” in the PGSP-Stanford doctor of psychology program, where she teaches statistics.
Brandeis University needs no introduction. It might be worth adding, however, that the Brandeis website lists three courses taught by Professor Hill:
HS 200a Social Justice and the Obama Administration
HS 273f Law and Social Justice: Gender Equity Policies and Litigation
HS 528f Law and Social Justice: Constructions of Race and Ethnicity and Their Consequences
And it describes her expertise as, “Anti-Discrimination Law and Policy (Gender and Race).”
Christine Blasey Ford has been in the public eye far too briefly to allow a rounded assessment of her intellectual contributions. She is the co-author of a statistics textbook, and has published a handful of articles such as “Acupuncture: A Promising Treatment for Depression During Pregnancy,” and “Does Gender Moderate the Relationship between Childhood Maltreatment and Adult Depression?” Blasey has also explored in various articles “post-traumatic growth,” and the benefits of yoga and meditation for depressed patients. And she has a history of political activism which is now receiving considerable attention.
Anita Hill has been in the public eye so long that she has become a kind of monument to herself. Her claims against Clarence Thomas in 1991 have defined her ever since, either as the victim-of-sexual-harassment-who-was-not-believed or as the accuser-who-couldn’t-substantiate-her-accusations. Naturally, Hill has stepped forward to explain on the op-ed page of The New York Times “How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right.” Hill’s prescription:
The 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee must demonstrate a clear understanding that sexual violence is a social reality to which elected representatives must respond. A fair, neutral and well-thought-out course is the only way to approach Dr. Blasey and Judge Kavanaugh’s forthcoming testimony.
Whether Dr. Blasey will testify remains an open question as I write this, but Professor Hill’s advice is reasonable. Our elected leaders should take sexual violence seriously and all of us favor “fair, neutral, and well-thought-out” courses—as opposed to dishonest, biased, and impulsively reckless courses.
Trial-By-Accusation in Peril?
As it happens, some think that Christine Blasey Ford’s entry into the debate over Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination via Senator Dianne Feinstein’s actions does not epitomize a “fair, neutral, and well-thought-out” approach, but the principle stands even if the application is flawed.
If Ford’s accusations fail to disqualify Judge Kavanaugh, higher education may lose some of its hard-won moral capital in trial-by-accusation.
For those who celebrate the empowerment granted by accusation, it was painful enough to see the collapse of Sabrina Erdely’s masterly account of gang rape at the University of Virginia. Rolling Stone had to retract its sensational November 2014 story “A Rape on Campus” after it emerged that the whole thing was made up. Since then the trial-by-accusation cohort has had to endure any number of “hoax crimes,” wherein supposed victims of racial incidents were found to be the perpetrators. These sorts of things undermine Accusation Studies by suggesting that doubt sometimes may be warranted.
Doubt, of course, is always warranted. That’s what we mean by “presumption of innocence.” The accuser must have something more than a story. Ultimately, the question is still, “Is it true?”
I accuse higher education of displacing the pursuit of truth and the presumption of innocence. What counts on campus all too often is the grandeur of the accusation. Accusations make the accusers feel that they are rising to a new level of courage, and that they are striking a blow not just for themselves but for all who have suffered injustice. These feelings may be—they often are—a tissue of illusions. But accusation is a power unto itself. It always has been, as testified by the history of witchcraft accusations, rumor, and calumny.
Higher education was once steadfastly opposed to the lure of mere accusation. Today Accusation is its favorite child.
Photo Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images