The following is a guest post by Tobias Barrington Wolff, Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School:
If there is one person who embodies the figure of the provocateur in American popular culture today, it is Ann Coulter. Ms. Coulter has hit on a winning formula: First, say something inflammatory with mocking, gleeful enthusiasm that is designed to provoke an emotional reaction. Second, accuse critics of having poor character when they take offense, saying they are unwilling to deal with hard truths. Third, stoke a polarizing debate in which you cast yourself as the avatar of one side’s long-standing grievances. For this formula to work, it is important that the inflammatory remark be accompanied by some serious questions of policy, making it difficult to dismiss the discussion as wholly gratuitous, and the speaker must communicate contempt and scorn, putting opponents in a defensive posture from the start. It is easy to say shocking things, but it takes skill to generate a wave of outrage and ride it to sustained notoriety. Ms. Coulter is a talent, a provocateur of the highest order.
Whether by instinct or design, Professor Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor at Penn Law School, has taken Ms. Coulter’s formula and adapted it to an academic setting. In her most recent public spectacle, Professor Wax generated outrage last August with a co-authored op-ed and solo interview in which she framed real problems experienced by groups in society as evidence of the superiority of White culture and the inferiority of non-White value systems. In the op-ed, Professor Wax and her co-author proclaim that the problem with “inner-city blacks,” and “anti-assimilation . . . Hispanic immigrants” is their supposed rejection of what the authors call 1950s bourgeois values in favor of “identity politics” and “multicultural grievance polemics” that reflect an “antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal.” In her interview, Professor Wax makes clear that it is specifically “Anglo-Protestant” values that she valorizes, saying “I do not shrink from the word ‘superior’” when praising Anglo-Protestant culture and proclaiming that “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” People who reject these views, the op-ed says, are “hypocrites” engaged in a “preening pretense of defending the downtrodden.”
Stripped of the scornful language and sententious hand-waving, Professor Wax’s argument amounts to this: White people as a group do better in society than many people of color because White people have better values; those values are the product of a superior Anglo-Protestant culture; and the problem with people of color is their failure or refusal to emulate White people and White values.
Penn Law faculty responded to Professor Wax in a number of ways last fall. Thirty-three signed a letter condemning her most inflammatory statements, and several published more extended responses. I joined four colleagues in writing an op-ed that discusses the bankruptcy of Professor Wax’s historical claims, and economists Jonathan Klick (a libertarian) and Jonah Gelbach (a liberal) wrote essays about the methodological emptiness of her empirical assertions. Professor Wax then began a media tour in which she has cast herself as an aggrieved truth-teller plagued by closed-minded colleagues. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal opinion page provided her a platform and put her forward as an exemplar of reasoned discourse amidst a throng of ignoramuses seeking to shut down debate on campus.
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Ironically, it is Professor Wax who refused to engage on the merits on campus, offering no meaningful response to the substantive analysis of her colleagues, particularly the extended methodological exegesis written by Professor Gelbach. Ironically, Professor Wax decries critics who “hurl labels” at her, yet she defends an essay in which she hurls insults like “preening” and “hypocrite” at the people with whom she disagrees. And ironically, it is Professor Wax, alone on the Penn Law faculty, who has urged the Dean to use his office to dampen expression on campus, telling him that he should pressure faculty to withdraw their letter condemning her statements. (The Dean declined to do so.)
Professor Wax has continued to operate in this mode in the media. Hence her taunts at students and faculty who voiced their affront at her op-ed and interview, suggesting they are not intellectually fit to be members of the Penn community. (“If this is the best Penn professors and grad students can do, our culture really is in trouble.”) Hence her dismissal of our students as “relatively deficient” in their ability to explore challenging ideas. And hence her declaration that the colleagues who signed the letter condemning her statements are “indolent” laggards seeking to expiate “shame” over our scholarly inadequacy.
It can be difficult to know how to react to behavior like this. That is by design. Provocateurs seek to elicit intemperate responses from their targets and then exploit those responses to generate endless, spiraling debate over the unfair treatment they receive when they present their ideas. Their power lies not in the cogency of their arguments but in their ability to unbalance their opponents. If one understands these tactics, their efficacy is blunted and it becomes easier to decide how and when to respond and when the better course is to pay no mind.
One might ask why I choose this occasion to offer a response to Professor Wax. This is hardly the first time she has aimed her rhetoric at people of color. Professor Wax has been claiming for years that the challenges faced by minority communities arise from bad values and bad character. She gave an address at Middlebury College in 2013 that garnered much attention in which she rehearsed these ideas, for example, and she published an essay in 2015 along similar lines in which she set forth a description of her own upbringing and offered it as a scolding counterexample. Whereas many Black people exhibit a victim mentality and fail to take responsibility for their own behavior, she asserts in that essay, her conservative Jewish family raised her to treat anti-Semitism as nothing more than bothersome background noise: “citing discrimination or social exclusion as an explanation, let alone an excuse, for bad behavior was simply not done,” she writes, and “anyone who tried it was regarded with contempt, labeled a loser, and dismissed.” The reactions to Professor Wax’s op-ed and interview last August were grounded in a long history.
What is different this time is Professor Wax’s assertion that the values she trumpets are specific to a superior White culture that is the product of rule by White Europeans. This is the first occasion I know of where Professor Wax has framed her arguments using this kind of White Nationalist language. Organized proponents of White Supremacy have learned that arguing for inherent racial superiority marginalizes their cause, so they now insist that their advocacy seeks to promote the superiority of White culture and White majority rule. When Professor Wax valorizes Anglo-Protestant cultural superiority, in particular, she evokes an anti-Catholic rhetoric that stretches back over a hundred years. I have no idea how Professor Wax feels about today’s White Nationalist groups. Perhaps she reviles them. But she is using their language and arguments. That is what impelled me to respond to her writings last fall and to offer an analysis of her rhetorical tactics here.
In her Wall Street Journal essay, Professor Wax decries this kind of focus on her use of language, calling it an “unanswerable” smear deployed by “the Left” to “bring discussion and debate to a stop” akin to “accusing a speaker of causing emotional injury or feelings of marginalization.” The rhetorical maneuver is an apt illustration of Professor Wax’s approach to public discourse. She claims for herself the prerogative to insult her targets — describing them as preening hypocrites, inferior, adolescent, deficient, indolent, debased, shameful, worthy of contempt, losers — but when they criticize her use of such language she accuses them of poor character for brandishing “mindless labels” and seeking to shut down debate.
Professor Wax has also invoked the principle of academic freedom in her effort to cast herself as a beleaguered conservative. Penn Law has fully protected the academic freedom of all members of our community this year, despite its many costs and externalities, and I am proud that it has done so. Academic freedom ensured Professor Wax’s ability to publish her views without fear for her job. Academic freedom enabled a large number of her colleagues to condemn her inflammatory statements and allowed seven of them to write essays and editorials critiquing her ideas. Academic freedom would have permitted Professor Wax to respond to those critiques on the merits, particularly the evaluation of her empirical claims offered by her economist colleagues. She has declined to do so, perhaps because she knows that no methodological response is possible and the attempt would further expose her analytical failings. Still, academic freedom would enable Professor Wax to abandon her persecution narrative in favor of a rigorous engagement on matters of substance.
What academic freedom does not provide, however, is a free pass entitling faculty who say inflammatory things to escape denunciation or to engage in toxic behavior without consequence. Invoking academic freedom to delegitimize sharp criticism or to claim impunity for improper conduct is a misuse of that principle.
The debate that unfolded at Penn Law School this year has never been about banishing conservative ideas. The Penn Law faculty, staff, and student body include strong, principled conservatives who are celebrated members of our community. I want progressive and moderate students at Penn to test their beliefs in serious debate with conservative faculty and peers. I want conservative students to have the opportunity to explore their ideas without getting drawn endlessly into the drama of this one individual. And I want all our students to be able to participate in the life of the law school without ever being made to feel that they have to defend their inherent worth or justify their existence as the price of that participation.
Several years ago, a student came to speak to me about another episode in which Professor Wax had made comments that, he said, had led some Black students to feel demeaned. We talked it out — the people involved decided that the issue was not worth making a fuss over — and then the student, an impressive and extraordinary young man, said this: “People sometimes accuse Black students of being overly sensitive about how race gets discussed in law school. Well, I’m a Black man who is over six feet tall, with a big frame and a deep voice. I deal with race every day of my life. I have to anticipate how people will react to me, put others at ease, and be the bigger man when people say things that are thoughtless. Now I’m a student at one of the best law schools in the country. Can’t this be the one place where I don’t have to have my defenses up? Can’t this be the one place where I never have to deal with all that?”
This essay is my answer to students — past, present and future — who ask this legitimate question. We cannot make law school a place where you never encounter the ugliness that sometimes accompanies life in a complex and flawed society. In truth, you would not want us to try. What we can do is to state our values, try our best to live those values, and make our institution a place where all students enjoy the unshakeable conviction that they belong. Equally important, we can equip students with tools that will enable them to dismantle bad arguments and decide when and how to respond to provocateurs. Professor Wax has used the privilege of her position to heap scorn on people who exhibit a dignity, courage, and perseverance she will likely never understand. Behavior like that deserves no more respect coming from a chaired and tenured professor than it does from a sensationalistic television pundit.
Tobias Barrington Wolff
Professor of Law
University of Pennsylvania Law School