Is the SJW-threath to academic freedom real, or just a right wing fantasy? A preliminary examination

WARNING: I recently did the following study over a short period of time, not knowing exactly what to do with it. I now realize it will be a long time until I'll have the time to go through it, clean up links, language and structure for any serious publication, but as it is a hotly debated topic, I decided to just dump the text as is. So take it "as is".

Over the past few years I have increasingly come across tales of how radical students with strong anti-racist and feminist views are threatening freedom of speech and academic freedom across campuses, particularly in the USA. Key terms describing how this is done are "trigger warnings" and "no platforming", and the students are often described as "Social Justice Warriors".

The criticism of this development is often right wing, but not always. It even made its way into the Norwegian journal, Prosa, a journal about nonfiction prose writing.

How problematic is this in principle?

Trigger warnings are principle is unproblematic. They are simply a warning before a text etc. that it contains this or that that might cause problems for some people that have got a post traumatic stress disorder or similar things. It is a bit weird if the US-right, that a few decades ago introduced the "explicit lyrics"-label on rap albums, would have a problem with this. It would normally not mean the removal of any text or other piece of information.

The claim is however that this is being used not to warn students with specific problems/traumatic experiences, but to shield students in general against ideas they disagree with. Is this true to any extent?

No platforming is similarly not problematic in principle. It reminds me of a discussion in Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things", when Holocaust deniers claimed it as an attack on free speech when University newspapers refused to print ads for their books and magazines. The conclusion is simple: Freedom of speech, does not imply an obligation to print. Neither does it in the case of conferences, lectures etc. imply any obligation to accept any speaker, or to let any organization use i.e. campus grounds. To do so would attack other people's, papers and organizations basic freedoms.

I think most people understand that a university has the intellectual status capable of giving some form of legitimacy to people, organizations or ideas affiliated with it. That is why i.e. the Holocaust deniers wanted their ads on campus papers in the first place. At the same time, a university has disagreement as a core value - different ideas should meet in open academic debate. But these ideas must be qualified in some way. A university is not the place for total relativism of truth. Thus few people would invite a member of the flat earth society to talk to geography students. The same would probably go for one of the few who deny the reality of plate tectonics. But in other cases different academics and students will have different opinions about what is a qualified opinion or idea in one field or another.

These questions must then of course also be put to an open debate. Is this a qualified opinion? Should this person/idea etc. be invited to this or that arrangement? And as long as we accept freedom of speech, all non-violent and legal forms of protest and action must thus also be acceptable in such a debate.

The argument here goes, of course, that some students take this way too far, and criticise opinions and ideas that are qualified and should have a place on a university (or other arenas in question). This, naturally, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

So much for in principle. What is the practice?
The evidence for this development I have seen has always been anecdotal. The few times I have spent some minutes getting other sources and examining the reality behind the claims, they have more often than not been shown to be if not complete fabrications, at least very exaggerated. On example is this case, regarding a Martin Luther King quote. Right wing media claimed students tried to have it removed for not being inclusive enough.

A closer examination, seeking out alternate sources, gives a different picture. The entrance where the quote was, was being renovated, and the quote as it stood was to be removed anyway. There was then a discussion on whether to put the same quote back up, or find another one. One (1) student, not even on the student board, argued in one (1) short interview in one article that diversity is more than race as an argument that the quote might be replaced. And this then became the whole huge story. The student board, however decided to reuse the same quote. Hardly newsworthy when you actually look at the details.

But this, of course, is also just anecdotal evidence.

One could see this as a sort of Gramscian fight over hegemony. Conservatives trying to fight what they perceive as an anti-racist and feminist hegemony on campus by establishing a counter-hegemony, where the story is turned around so that anti-racism and feminism becomes the evil forces behind attacks on academic freedom and freedom of speech.

But what is the truth? How could I go forward to try to get just a glimpse of what may be the main issue between all these tales and anecdotes? Are they simply lies and exaggerations, or are radical students really going too far? I am sure there will be ample opportunity to find examples of both - that is the problem with anecdotes - the world is so big, you can use them to prove anything. But what does the big picture say? Are some more right than others?

To try and get a preliminary answer, I decided to do a search. I used the duckduckgo search engine as an easy way to not get personalized results. I then searched the keywords "social justice warriors trigger warnings no platforming", as they seemed to be among the most central terms used in stories that try to warn us about this development.

I would then look at the ten first hits, and try to examine the stories behind them. If one hit describes more than one anecdote, I would just use the first one mentioned so that one source would not dominate what would be a small sample. If two sources mentioned the same incident, I would use only the first for the same reason. Similarly if one hit contained no testable case, I would move on and then include hit number eleven (and so on). This hopefully should get me a sample of ten anecdotes I could examine, find alternate sources to, and thus evaluate.

Such a search will of course not necessarily give us any sort of complete picture of the goings on in society as a whole, but giving the search engines algorithms are functioning relatively effectively, it will give us an opportunity to evaluate whether the aspects of these phenomena that are being discussed online are actual problems, or mere constructions.
(search made 5.1.17 at 18.15)

WARNING 2: The following will be a long and perhaps tedious examination of 24 links, whereof 10 cases. Unless you are particularly interested in details, you might want to skip to the conclusion. You can always skip back to check out any particular case.

Case one:
The first hit was a youtube video from 2014:
Here the protagonist EJ Spurrell describes "SJWs" as only blaming "straight white males" for everything, but mostly in general terms and comes with some examples, some even outlandish but few are connected to specific persons, places or situations, and the claims can as such not be validated. The first concrete claim comes half way into the video at 4.50 , where he criticizes Suey Park for "criticizing Stephen Colbert for what she perceived as a racist joke", and claims she didn't understand the satire.

Wired gives a different story, and tells us what happened after Park was given attention by the anti-SJW-crowd:

"For her, using racially insensitive language, even in satire, reinforced how often, and unfairly, minorities are stereotyped and ridiculed. The 23-year-old responded with a tweet of her own: “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.” Trend it did, and Park quickly became the subject of a lot of news stories—and the target of a doxxing attack. Ongoing threats forced Park to leave her home in Chicago.

“I really did think that there was a chance that I could die,” she says."

One can naturally disagree with Parks views on satire, however anyone believing in free speech must allow her to have them. Her actions was not a threat to free speech. The reaction from those purporting fear of "SJWs" however in this case seems to have been a real threat to free speech. Anyone should be free to launch a twitter campaign against a profiled TV personality they disagree with. Starting a campaign with threats that forces a person to move in fear of her life, however is not acceptable. In this case it seems the fear of SJWs is a larger threat than the SJWs themselves.

No case:
The second hit was a video as well:
This however was simply a video posted as an attempt to ridicule, and had no anecdotal evidence.

Case two:
Then came the wikipedia page:
The first actual case mentioned here, was the Gamergate controversy, which is hardly a single anecdote, but rather a huge amount of events. Luckily someone has already made a quantitative analysis of this debacle to see if it was actually about misogany or ethics in gaming journalism. The evidence came out clearly suggesting it was about harassing women.

Case three
The next hit was to a Facebook post

Here we have the first actual anecdote:
From the vault of "You can't make this shit up"
Sgt. Josh Collins was late for class and didn't have time to change so attended in uniform which did include his service weapon. The professor called the POLICE because they claimed a student was "uncomfortable." Reportedly the police never came as what Sgt. Collins did was not fucking illegal.

Collins had this to say "What type of over sensitive indoctrinated liberal flower petals has this generation created that they are scared of going to school with a uniformed police officer."
(Sources: The Blaze, Fox.)"

The original source however is a facebook post from the Sgt. named, who's version is taken at face value and spread over a myriad of right-wing websites like breitbart.

The university has a slightly different story:

"According to university representatives, Collins' was wearing standard SWAT fatigues, not a typical blue and black police uniform, and the student didn't know he was a police officer.
"A student in the class saw another student with a firearm, and during a class break said something to the teacher," an official statement from Loyola said. "The teacher contacted campus security to determine university policy. Campus security directed the teacher to confirm that the student with the firearm works in law enforcement. The teacher confirmed that the student worked in law enforcement and the class resumed at the end of the break."

According to Laura Kurzu, Loyola's VP for Marketing and Communications, all of this occurred during a 15 minute break in the class and was handled privately.

Loyola has since reached out to Collins to apologize for the misunderstanding after seeing how upset he was, according to Kurzu."

A student not recognizing the battle fatigues as a police uniform ad not knowing the armed student is a police officer, reacted. A seemingly simple misunderstanding that earned the officer/student an apology from the University. Nobody harmed, and at least to me - given the huge media attention on school shootings - an understandable reaction. This does not seem a particularly good example of "SJWs" attacing academic freedom.

No case:
The next hit is a discussion about Trigger Warnings on tumblr. It has a lot of generalized comments on the subjects but nothing concrete that can actually be examined:

No case:
Next hit is the site of a satirical video game:

No case:
Breitbart - the infamous alt-right-site is the next hit, but only satire, no actual concrete evidence:

Case four:
This is another facebookpost from the same user(s) as case three, but we'll allow it.

This is about a person named "Tre Melvin" and the Black Lives Matter movement. The first concrete claim refers to police statistics:

"1.…/inflammatory-and-misleading-cla…/ - this handy dandy site shows that white people make up the majority of police homicides (from 2010-2012) by about 62.4%, with black people accounting for 13.4%. The only difference is if someone sharing the colour of my skin is shot by cops, it receives little to no coverage because the victim's most likely a meth head and the cop was doing their job. If someone who is your skin colour gets shot by cops however, all prior criminal convictions (if they exist) are ignored, all video evidence is shouted down and cops are demonised as being Klansmen with badges. We don't get the candle-lit vigils or the public outcry."

The reference to Tre Melvin is to a video that is attached to the sourcec. A quick search on his name and BLM gives us hits like this:

Melvin seems to be a spoken word/poetry/social media persona, and as such directs himself at human emotions and none of the videos contain specific sources or claims other than black americans being "undervalued, underrepresented" etc. in general. One could therefore ask whether this is the sort of piece that should be picked out to counter with statistics, but nevertheless, the statistics presented can be evaluated towards more unspecific claims of blacks being undervalued.

I will therefore evaluate whether the statistics cited from the facebook post actually refute an overrepresentation of african americans being killed by police.

The source ("Crime Prevention Research Center") does not seem to be an unbiased research center, but rather a right wing site trying to present itself as something else. The Wikipedia entry of the "founder and president", gives you a general idea of the position and function of the centres activities: The article is also not signed by an author, which is strange for a reseach center.

Snopes are generally reliable however, and have checked out this claim, and all though whites in absolute numbers (being a much larger part of the polulation) naturally are killed more, "(non-Hispanic) whites comprise a roughly five times greater share of the U.S. population (62% vs. 13%)".

This is interestingly identical with the murder rate from CPRC, they therefore claim no overrepresentation of blacks whatsoever. What does the Snopes article have to say on that? There is a challenge in that "the federal government doesn't keep an accurate log of police shootings", but as they continue:

"According to Fatal Encounters, the database created by former Reno News & Review editor and journalism instructor Burghart (which tracks all deaths resulting from interactions with police), a total of 1,388 people were killed by police in 2015, 318 (23%) of them black, and 560 (40%) of them white. So roughly 23 percent of those killed by any police interaction in 2015 were black and just over 40 percent were white. According to those statistics (adjusted for racial demographics), black people had a 2.7 higher likelihood of being killed by police than whites."

Snopes conclusion thus is: "Overall, black Americans are several times more likely to be killed in police shootings than white Americans are."

(Snopes has also checked another claim put forward from the same centre, CPRC, that black officers shoot blacks unproportionally often, and found it unproven: )

On this issue, the critics of "SJWs" thus are just simply completely wrong.

No case:
The next hit is a satirical right wing Wikipedia-parody. It contains no concrete cases to evaluate.

Case five:
The next hit gives us a concrete case already in the heading:

"Social Justice Warriors Predictably Freak Out Over University Of Chicago's 'No Safe Space' Policy"

Well - do "Social Justice Warriors" " Freak Out" over "University Of Chicago's 'No Safe Space' Policy". Let's take a look at that.

What is true: The dean of students, John Ellison, sent a letter to new students where he amongst other things wrote: "Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

Giving the impression that only the radical students often coined "SJWs" reacted on this, is however not true. Personally, my problems with the quoted text is that it presupposes the understanding of the terms used by alt-right-sites and such we have seen presented amongst the earlier links, and thus presents it as a de facto attack on academic freedom. If it is, it must of course be fought, but whether it is, is strongly debated (and this piece is an attempt to find out).

After the letter, more than 150 faculty members published an open letter with a slightly different view:

"Those of us who have signed this letter have a variety of opinions about requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces. We may also disagree as to whether free speech is ever legitimately interrupted by concrete pressures of the political. That is as it should be. But let there be no mistake: such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance, and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges. To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy."

I believe this to be more the open and critical approach to a subject academia requires, than the deans letter. The claims of the original post that the reason for disagreement is that "some people are averse to diverse opinions", is thus refuted by the faculty's criticism of the dean for exactly that on these subjects.

Do students that fear opposing opinions exist. Naturally. Also do deans exist with the same problem. That is, as we stated to begin with the problem with anecdotes. In such a context this case becomes hard to evaluate as it bears within itself the very problem this article was meant to evaluate.

What we can dismiss however, is that the image the original piece promotes about the reasons why many people reacted to the letter, are at best exaggerated and misleading.

No Case:
Just another right-wing Wikipedia parody site.

No case:
Reddit discussion:

Not a discussion about any concrete cases, but rather about logical fallacies, no concrete examples of even that mentioned in the discussion (some may probably be seen in links from the discussion, but that is beyond the premise of this evaluation).

Case six:
This piece is about a performance art project in which a female african american artist visits art exibithions wearing only a neon zebra striped tight bodysuit.

The point of the piece is to ridicule some people on social media who suggest that the negative attention she recieved behind her back partially was because she was african american.

Whether this is true or not, is of course impossible to tell without doing the exact same experiment with someone non-white, so it is hard to tell. The closest we can come is that racial prejudice definitively exists also in contemporary american society, and it is well documented. As described in Daniel Kahnemans "Thinking fast and Slow" our brains may even be hard-wired for it to a certain extent. There is therefore a definitive possibility that she recieved reactions different from what a non-black woman would recieve, but there is of course no evidence as to which extent the different commenters quoted in the text were correct or not.

The weakness of the piece can however be pointed out in the fact that it simply accumulates random comments from social media to try and make a point. As we presented initially, there are so many people in this world with so many opinions, that this method can be used to prove anything. And that is the reason for the slightly more systematic approach in this piece.

The fact of the matter is thus impossible to determine, but the text at hands criticism thus also becomes no better founded than the people it attempts to criticise. To the extent that it tries to promote the view that there is little or no bias against blacks in the USA, it is blatantly wrong, as many studies has shown. Just one example for the road:

Case seven:
This right-wing blogs first concrete claim is "We had an incident two weeks ago, where some moron added points to a cross in order to make a swastika on a black student’s door. It’s horrible, we’re all torn up about it. However, the facts are that the idiot who drew the thing was most likely doing it out of stupidity, as a joke, not a hate crime."

He later claims "one student said every white person on campus needs to apologize for what happened" which he reacted against. We are again down to "one student said"-level, and this is impossible to check for me, so I will look into the first claim.

The article he himself links to says that:

"Campus police are working with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to investigate the incident as a possible hate crime."

Why he should know better than the police in this matter, he does not elaborate on. The article continues:

"African-American students make up less than 3 percent of Biola's student body. Some say that has been a challenge."

This also makes it very unlikely that it is a coincident that the swastika was posted on a black dorm by coincidence, and thus enhances the probability of a hate crime.

The fact that it is a private Christian University with traditionally conservative values also builds up under the fact that some students, like the blogs author, may be dissatisfied with the development, and reacing in ways more extreme than writing a blog post. The evangelical environments are in general criticised for not wanting to deal with issus of racism, and this concrete case is mentioned in this piece:

"The week he performed at Biola, a swastika was found on campus, triggering a public discussion that [LaDawn] Johnson felt was far too accepting of the symbol, concluding that it was just “joking around,” she said. She wishes that [rapper] Lecrae would lead the charge among the mostly white evangelical elite to change such views."

Definitive proof of what is going on inside the head of a culprit that is not caught, is of course impossible, but the realities on campus, among evangelicals and the seriousness the police are handling the case with, suggests it should not be brushed off.

No Case:
The next tho hits are about the University of Chicago letter we discussed earlier, and as stated initially, we will then skip them:

No case:
The next hit is a atheism podcast episode. (Damn these people making video and audio, which makes it so hard to skim through to find a concrete case.)

The case is an evaluation of a debate in the previous episodes between James Lindsay and Eli Bosnick on Social Justice, which stand on different sides on a social justice-debate within the american atheism movement, and tries not to be particularly biased. This evaluation of a previous debate which also seems to not have been particularly case-oriented gives us few concrete cases, but starts up with a general argument against the principle of "no platforming" - that we discussed initially. As I claimed there, one can argue this in concrete cases, but as a principle it would mean demolishing freedom of the press, and give credence to ideas that do not deserve them.

Case eight:
The next hit is a list. As decided, we will look at the first entry. The claim here is that "SJWs" got Donald Trump elected president.

"Trump spoke to a section of America that was simply fed up with the political correctness, identity politics, and liberal rhetoric that has engulfed the nation as a whole. Perhaps there is no group that encompasses said political correctness and identity politics more than social justice warriors."

This claim disregards the fact that Trump got 46% of the votes in 2016, while Mitt Romney in 2012 got 47.2%,_2016,_2012

Clinton got 48% against Obamas 51,1% in 2012. (The total electorate was bigger in 2016 so Trump got more votes than Romney, and Clinton almost as many as Obama).

The big picture thus is not one of enthusiasm for Trumps ideas, but disdain for Clinton. There is probably a polarization in the US, and a loud minority that wholeheartedly supports Trump and thus hates anything "politically correct", but this is a minority position. There are, as the article acknowledges, many reasons for Trumps win. Perhaps most important the distribution of the electoral college, and by extension Trumps ability to win key rust belt states, but that probably happened on trade and industry policy, not people being fed up by "social justice warriors". This claim actually is rather silly, but as the list goes, it was probably meant to be so.

No case:
The next is something a bit scary. An online named list over people placed in the category of so called "SJWs"... A database to be used for - well, no good I fear. This is not OK.

No case:
The next was yet another on the Chicago case:

No case:
Another hate- and agression (no micro here)-filled wiki. Looks to be some copy-paste here:

No case:
The first hit on the term that is rather positive (or perhaps a neutral text just seems like it after reading a lot of hate), but it is a "know your meme" text that offers no case.

Case nine:
This brings us to Alex Jones. Yes the crazy conspiracy kingpin, does not like social justice either. He claims that

"Safe space students at Western Washington University have issued an extensive list of demands which includes the construction of an entirely new college dedicated to “social justice” as well as the ability to fire police officers who commit microaggressions against them."

His source is this online petition:

I do not know the campus or the situation, but the demands seem unrealistic of course. But then again that may be done on purpose to focus attention on a bad situation. I will acknowledge that if this is to be taken completely seriously at face value, and is not some form of conscious provocation, it could be problematic for academic freedom even though one must acknowledge, so is students being harassed and threatened for belonging to minority groups, something that was the starting point for this action, and is also demonstrated in the comments section.

However a petition open for all signatories (not just students at the university), and gaining only 630 signatures (a lot of them fake/satirical, some registered as being from other countries) on something that had gotten national US attention, does not point to these demands having much support in the student body, on university campuses in general or the US at large. (Just this university itself has 3,799 students of color and 15,332 students in total.)

And the student group has gotten nowhere with their claims.

This example thus confirms that radical students with opinions and wishes that go contrary to academic freedom exists. It however also demonstrates that it seems to be a very minor problem.

Case ten:
Finally, after drearing through alt-right-blogs, we come to a Guardian columnist.

Her first concrete case is that "universities are under pressure to offer separate accommodation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, so that they can live without fear of “victimisation as well as homophobia, biphobia and transphobia from flatmates”.

Now this claim is underpinned solly by a link to the more conservative Daily Mail.

They write:
"At present, Birmingham University is the only institution that offers an 'LGBT housing option' for freshers who do not want to live with straight students.
Students across England are now campaigning for the same rights so they could live without fear of 'victimisation as well as homophobia, biphobia and transphobia from flatmates'."

Its first concrete case is that "Ashley Reed, a former LGBT officer of the student union, is submitting plans for separate LGBT accommodation" at the University of York.

A quick search shows us that she chose to step down as student officer due to harrasment:

That trans students on a whole has seen a rise in harassment, and "according to research by the National Union of Students, only one in five trans students feel safe on campus".

If the situation is this bad for trans students, asking for separate accommodations, actually does not seem like a very extreme demand (compare with the demands from case 8 above).

This context of hate and harassment is however missing from the stories that reached the national news, and the web search. When the Guardians "Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett" argues that "ghettoising gay people rather than challenging existing prejudices is probably not the answer", it is easy to agree. But what do we do about the students that have to live in a threatening environment until the "existing prejudices" are gone? Shall they just live in fear?

I do not know whether separate accommodations is the best solution, but it can not be considered detrimental to academic culture even to consider it, can it? This regardless demonstrates that bigotry again is the real threath - not the people trying to ward it off by the means they see realistic.

We had to go into 24 links to get our 10 cases. That means that of this small sample, a minority attempts to bring forward any concrete evidence of the phenomena they discuss. Many are simply spewing out detrimental comments about the phenomena without any documentation. Of the 10 concrete cases, one (case 8) could be considered an attempted attack on academic freedom by radical students, but it also demonstrated how very little support there was for such demands from students, including the large majority of radical ones.

The conclusion of this small preliminary study must therefore be that the overwhelming majority of talk about "Social Justice Warriors" seems to be at best exaggerated, and often completely unfounded constructions by right wing pundits whose real objective is to fight feminism and anti-racism in society. Do not fall for it.

This does of course not mean that the few attempts where left wing students do go to far should not be criticized, but one should be aware that it so far seems to be a minor problem in reality.

But this is a small study, and larger quantitative studies (like the one referenced about Gamergate) are welcomed. My hypothesis is that such a study will find similar results as the Gamergate study.

WHAT TO DO?: Based on the above, it might seem that the rhetoric around SJW's, trigger warnings etc. is a part of the right wing attempt to create a counter hegemony (in Gramsci's terms) against feminism, anti racism etc. rather than a genuine problem

All though leftists and/or honest academics can and should criticize concrete cases, of which there naturally will be some, of students and others not having thought through the consequences of some of their suggestions, it is my beliefe they should attempt to do so outside the discourse of the "SJW"-debate being run by the alt right, as not to reinforce this false world view.

Hei, Ronny.

Interessant post. Det er fint med konkrete undersøkelser.

Men er du ikke rimelig sikra å nesten utelukkende få resultater fra skrothøyre så lenge du tar med SJW i søket? Så vidt jeg veit er det stort sett høyresida som bruker det begrepet. Hva med feks:


(Jeg har ikke granska resultatene av noen av de søka foreløpig, så jeg sier ikke at det nødvendigvis er mer kjøtt på beinet der, men det burde hvertfall gi bedre spredning på ståsteder).

Ulike søkestrenger vil selvsagt kunne gi noe ulike svar, men jeg har sett begrepet brukt også utenfor skrothøyre, og det har vært nært knyttet til debatten om trigger warnings og no platforming, men gjerne i polemisk debatt ja. Og det er jo det denne saken er ment å undersøke - i hvilken grad denne opphetede debatten er fundert i noe reelt, eller om det er oppblåst og tatt ut av kontekst.

Også har jeg jo også bare gått inn og vurdert der det faktisk ligger noen konkrete saker bak. Det sorterer jo ut det som bare er rent polemisk vas.

Men andre må gjerne gjøre andre undersøkelser og se hvorvidt det gir helt andre resultater. Det vil være interessant. men jeg tror ikke jeg personlig har tid til mange slike runder. :)

More recent quantitative data supports the thesis:

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