The ‘shameless hatred’ behind attacks on gender, academia

The inaugural lecture mounted on 18 September by Alt New College began with Russian studies scholar Masha Gessen asking Judith Butler, the American gender studies philosopher and distinguished professor in the Graduate School at the University of California, to recount how, six years ago in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a threatening crowd burnt a large photo of Butler in effigy.

Butler is the author of dozens of books, including those on religion in the public sphere and the philosopher GWF Hegel. Books on gender include Undoing Gendew er (2004) and the forthcoming Who’s Afraid of Gender?

Together with Gessen, distinguished professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York as well as distinguished writer in residence at Bard College, Butler was a guest speaker in the inaugural lecture of Alt New College.

The institute is billed as an “online institute for academic freedom” that was set up in the wake of what the institute website terms the “hostile takeover” of the college driven by Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis. The lecture topic was on the “authoritarian assault on gender studies”.

Responding to Gessen’s opening question, Butler said that when leaving the Brazil conference security officers provided protection from the angry crowd. The ‘offence’, Butler soon realised, had nothing to do with the talk just delivered on democracy in then president Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Rather, the ‘offence’ that made it unsafe for Butler to walk the streets alone was that Butler was “responsible for gender ideology”.

Later, at the airport, when Butler and Wendy Brown (Butler’s partner and Berkeley political science professor) were leaving the country, a woman “came at me with a big metal trolley”, Butler said. “Luckily for me, a young man with a backpack, whose name I don’t even know, intervened and stopped her,” Butler said, recounting how they made their way to a secure area.

The woman called Butler a “paedophile”.

Stunned, Butler, who, with Brown, has a grown son, wondered why this woman would make such a judgment. This absurdity gave way to more scholarly questions: “What is this anti-gender ideology movement? What do they want? What do they fear? How are they organised?”

Butler’s research into these questions linked attacks on gender studies in Latin America, Eastern and Central Europe, and Canada and the United States, epitomised by DeSantis’ remaking of New College in Sarasota – the only liberal arts college in Florida’s public system – along conservative, evangelical lines.

Threats to academic freedom

Alt New College is a collective effort of students who have remained at the college, those students who accepted Hampshire College’s offer to finish their studies at the college in Western Massachusetts, New College alumni, Pen America, the Open Society University Network (OSUN) and Bard College.

A year ago, together with the American Council on Education, PEN published Making the case for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in a challenging political environment, which both anatomised the threats to academic freedom in, chiefly, Republican-controlled states, and provided a handbook for college and university administrators to defend academic freedom and the autonomy of their institutions.

Founded by George Soros, OSUN is a global network of educational institutions including Bard and the Central European University (which in 2017 was forced by President Viktor Orbán to leave Hungary) that integrates the social sciences, humanities and science in the service of civic engagement.

Bard houses OSUN’s offices on its main campus 100 miles north of New York City and is linked to OSUN through a number of programmes in various countries; the 163-year-old liberal arts college will give credits for the online OSUN courses that New College’s students and those in its diaspora take online.

DeSantis’ attack has been spearheaded by Christopher Rufo, one of the six trustees the governor appointed to the New College board last January. The conservative firebrand, who turned critical race theory into a cudgel with which to beat the Democrats at the state level in the 2020 elections, has cheered on the efforts to dismantle gender studies at New College.

“It is clear that DeSantis’ policies are part of a broader Republican effort to gut academic freedom in public and even private institutions, not just on the secondary level but in higher education too,” said Jonathan Becker, vice-chancellor of OSUN and Bard’s executive vice-president and vice-president for academic affairs, who will be part of a panel discussion on “Colleges and universities as civic actors” on 30 October.

“Republican leaders emulate each other and authoritarians overseas in places like Hungary and Russia. The losers are students, faculty and, more broadly, the dissemination of knowledge,” Becker said.

A ‘kind of wild ideation’

During the inaugural podcast Butler and Gessen agreed that it is likely that almost none of the politicians and members of the crowds that have demonstrated against gender studies or Queer Theory have, in fact, read anything about them.

Rather, as Butler put it: “There is a kind of wild ideation about what gender studies was or what the word gender actually means.” The people who attack them, they say, were “terrified that their ideas [about] the natural, normal family – exclusively heterosexual, patriarchal – was being destabilised by something called ‘Gender’.

“They hadn’t been bothered to know about the field …They accepted a kind of phantasm of what ‘gender’ is and how destructive it could be from church authorities and other kinds of right-wing institutions. And, as a result, it led to a certain kind of frenzy bolstered by the Bolsonaro regime at the time.”

In Russia’s case, Gessen, who is the author of The Future is History: How totalitarianism reclaimed Russia (2017), said its “victim position” is, in part, fuelled by opposition to this idea of gender ideology.

“The West is trying to force its ideas on us, is trying to force our families to live in ways that they’re not accustomed to, is trying to basically dislocate every single one of us in every family,” Gessen said, summarising the Russian claims.

No doubt because of time limitations, Gessen did not draw attention to the Fox News-like broadcasts by Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan.

Catalogued by Julia Davis on Russia Media Monitor the broadcasts move effortlessly from excoriating the West for its military support of Ukraine and calling for extirpation of every single Ukrainian to denouncing the bogey-man of the West, seeking to impose gay and lesbian rights on Russia, and the dangers of gender theory.

No discussion of Russia today can avoid its war on Ukraine. Butler connected the dots between Russia’s war and modern understandings of gender in much the same way that Metropolitan Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Putin’s other acolytes do, though, of course, with the exact opposite critical intent.

“If Ukraine becomes part of the EU,” Russia’s autocratic leaders fear, “that will bring in the gender imperative, new gender policies that will enfranchise homosexuals, or whatever he [Vladimir Putin] calls them. There’s going to be this flood of gay and lesbian, feminist agendas. And it will destroy the spiritual core of Russia itself,” Butler said, citing Putin’s 2015 writings.

Then, with a half-turn of the rhetorical screw, Butler asked: “But what is this flood?”

As Hungary’s opposition to the clauses in European Union contracts that ban discrimination show, it is not opposition to laws that protect people from discrimination. Rather, ventriloquizing autocratic regimes, they say: “We want to be free to discriminate because the freedom to discriminate against gay, lesbian and trans people is important to our national identity,” as is keeping migrants out.

Russian ressentiments

In the second part of the podcast, Butler asked Gessen if Putin and Trump represent a new kind of totalitarianism.

Drawing on a deep knowledge of the country in which Gessen lived until a young teenager, Gessen said that while Russia was particularly unlucky to have ended up with Putin, anyone who occupied his position would have similar ressentiments and would have acted on them.

Gessen did not have time to explain that many of these resentments were born out of the economic chaos of the last years of President Boris Yeltsin’s time in office when, among other things, the values of pensions collapsed. With Trump, Gessen averred, the United States was equally unlucky.

Butler’s follow-up brought DeSantis and his attack on academic freedom back into the discussion.

How, Butler asked, does the attack on strong academic institutions, lesbian, gay and trans people, racial minorities, and the teaching of slavery come together in “this shameless hatred” embodied by a “certain idea of masculinity that knows no bounds, that has no restrictions, that does what it wants, that hates as it wishes?”

Gessen’s answer picked up on the last part of Butler's question: how is it that this is “weirdly admired by people who feel relatively powerless in their lives”, who say: “Look at what this guy is willing to say, what this guy’s willing to do?”

Gessen began by reminding the viewers that one of the things that distinguished the Nazis was their willingness to “throw off the pretence, the hypocrisy of civilised politics”, a performative style aped by Trump and acolytes like DeSantis. This politics became an “invitation to perform aggression, to perform hatred, to engage in your worst impulses”, which defines “a certain kind of masculinity”.

Reversing social change

A question by Catherine ‘Libby’ Harrity, a former New College of Florida student and activist, who introduced Butler and Gessen at the start, brought the discussion back to DeSantis’ Florida and gave Gessen the opportunity to underscore the fact that the remaking of Florida’s postsecondary legal landscape and the destruction of New College’s liberal arts tradition have unrolled even faster than did similar events in Putin’s Russia.

“In Russia we saw attacks on LGBT people, followed by attacks on the media, followed by attacks on higher education. Actually, this unfolded slower in Russia than it is unfolding in Florida.

“I think that in particular, targeting LGBT people in this day and age has a lot to do with signalling to the people of the state – or in the case of Russia, the people of the country – that social change will be reversed; that what they [those opposed to change] have experienced, what has made them uncomfortable, has made them scared, can all be made to go away,” said Gessen.

“If you want to get the message out that if you want to go back to an imaginary past when you didn’t have to deal with any of this, where men were men and women were women, and everybody felt safe and secure, then we’re going to make that happen for you by making LGBT people go away.”

Conservative activism

All through their discussion Butler and Gessen either explicitly or implicitly dealt with the charge made by DeSantis, Rufo and a host of other right-wing critics of American higher education that professors who teach Queer Theory, black studies, critical race theory or about gender are indoctrinating their students – no matter that, as Butler said, every gender studies class they’ve been in was the site of open debate, not least of all about the analyst’s methodology.

Towards the end of the discussion, Butler addressed the New College trustees’ claim that “activism does not have a place in higher education” and who then used that excuse to dismantle gender studies, for example.

“Dismantling gender studies programmes, or dismantling programmes that teach about black history or the history of race in the United States or elsewhere, that dismantling is activist, that's conservative activism,” Butler said.

“They can say that we’re doing activism, but they’re doing activism through censorship and dismantling and, as you [Harrity] say, through, in some cases, setting up situations where you can be prosecuted for even speaking about certain issues, or insisting on teaching certain issues. So we shouldn’t think that activism is out of this picture.”

Harrity did not go into details, but mentioned almost being arrested, presumably for protesting DeSantis’s makeover of New College, and was forced out of the state of Florida; Harrity is now a junior at Hampshire College.

“Every time they say that it is really important to relocate where the activism is,” Butler said.

“In gender studies, classes on race and slavery, none of us are saying, you [the student] must take this position, you must now work for this organisation, you must pass this class, you must help a single political point of view. No, we don't teach like that. Teaching is about opening up complex issues and hearing various people's points of view, asking them to give evidence for the points of views that they defend,” Butler said.

Butler’s defence of New College and academic freedom ended by taking on the attack on critical race theory.

“What is it they oppose in critical race theory? Well, the fact is, they don't even know what critical race theory is. They assume it means that white people are bad or that slavery pervades US history …

“Nobody even stops to think about [the fact that it] is a legal doctrine. How did it originate? For what purposes in the law? How is it different from black history? What are the various points of view within law and outside of law on Black Studies in which we could situate critical race theory?” Butler asked.

Florida’s ban on the teaching of critical race theory in its public colleges and universities amounts to nothing less than “an argument against reading any books of that kind, no reading of that kind,” Butler said.

“This means that what are circulating are not judgments based on any kind of documentation, but forms of censorship and persecution that are deeply anti-intellectual, that want to shut down our minds and yours.”