Friday, February 14, 2014

"How Can BU Call Itself a University?"

You thought "trigger warnings" 
were a slippery slope?
How do you feel about outright censorship
of what can be said in class?

(A Postscript to the Previous Blog Page)

A postscript to the posting on the previous blog page. Only hours after the posting went up, I received an email (at the G-mail account I have shifted my correspondence into to avoid having my Dean read, criticize, and/or distribute to other university administrators copies of emails I write and receive—as he has done in the past) enthusiastically responding to what I had written, and commenting specifically on the three-paragraph section near the end of the posting where I describe the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional shortcomings of contemporary film study and criticism. I reprint those three paragraphs here for convenience of reference. In them, I offer advice to a reader on how to tell good film criticism from bad: 

The best advice I can give you is to beware of the two prevalent critical roads to hell: one characterized by terminological obfuscation and mystification, and the other by a series of mechanical simplifications that translate the work into cultural, historical, sociological, and ideological categories and systems. They may sound like opposites, but they’re really the same thing insofar as, in both cases, the critic explains away the fundamental mystery, complexity, and elusiveness of a work of art—either by turning it into terminological incense and blue-smoke-and-mirrors, or by reducing it to a series of abstract, superpersonal cultural, social, ideological patterns, structures, schemes, and systems. In my experience, both ways of proceeding can be incredibly seductive to a student, since they both seem to do the impossible: They make intrinsically difficult things easy to understand by translating them into easy-to-understand (terminological or formal) formulas. The only problem is that the work of art is lost in the translation.

Another extremely common and fashionable critical fallacy is to treat art as if it dealt with social and cultural externals—the outsides of life—systems of power relations; social and economic issues; questions of race, class, and gender; ideological, political, and social systems of relationship; etc. Generalizations about history, culture, and society become the meaning of art. This treatment of art can be incredibly appealing to a student because it gives works of art a stunning degree of power in society. The problem is that it’s not true. In fact, it’s so ridiculous it’s laughable. These professors don't understand the first thing about art. Art has no power of that sort. The power-obsessed, power-hungry critics (many of them in gender and multicultural studies, all the more unfortunately) are utopians. They want to change human nature; they want to abolish fundamental sexual, emotional, and cognitive differences between men and women; they want to reform the world. They think their kind of art (and their kind of criticism) can change those things--that it can change gender values and the nature of society. They are worse than wrong. They are in denial--in denial of fundamental truths about human nature and culture. They think their kind of art (and their kind of criticism) can change the world. They want art to fight a gender war and lead a multiculural crusade. But art makes nothing happen. And it is about insides not outsides. In fact, it understands the unimportance and irrelevance of power as a definition of human relationship. It creates and celebrates heightened imaginative states; it cultivates feelings; it builds consciousness. It does not change the world. Sorry, guys: Works of art can neither oppress nor liberate the masses. Neither art nor criticism has that kind of power—nor should you want them to have it—unless you’re Hitler or Stalin.

If you want a positive statement of what art is, of what these writers should be grappling with, should be tracing and describing, the best I can do is to tell you to ask yourself whether they are spinning their wheels espousing politically and ideologically progressive positions (the utopian view)—or are describing the situation of being a human being as you and everyone around you actually experiences it. Are they grappling with the excitements—and also with the limits, the stupidity, the wastage, the foolishness, the whole messy, confusing, sad tragedy and comedy—of life as it is actually lived and felt, and as it will always and forever be lived and felt; or are they functioning as visionaries who want to condemn and deny what life really is and turn it into something else—something actually less interesting and more formulaic, something more politically correct and boring? Do they use works of art to affirm the power of historical, economic, sociological, and ideological forces over us (how awful this would be if it were true, but fortunately it is one of those ideas that is so stupid only a professor could believe it)—or do they understand the power of the human soul to break free of these structures, to drop beneath them, to imagine its way out of them? Do they write about culture and society as if they were the ultimate reality, or about the indomitability of the individual imagination, the glory and tragedy of individual consciousness, the painful beauty of suffering and self-sacrifice, the ineluctability of loss and death, and the importance of the interior life as the source of all of the most important meanings and values? If the critic you are reading is doing the first thing and not the second, slam the book shut and run the other way, intellectually speaking, as fast as you can. They don’t acknowledge that you have a soul—the capacity imaginatively and spiritually to swerve away from any and all deterministic material conditions—and that that fact is the most important thing about you. (They wouldn’t even understand what the preceding sentence means. And if they did, they'd object to the understanding of life that it embodies.)

The writer of the email to me told me that I owed it to my students to distribute my comments in class. She recommended that I print out the section I have reprinted above and hand it out in class for study and discussion. In the course of a much longer message, she wrote:

“Saying what needs to be said. Bravo! Your blog post should not be for the eyes of [blog readers only] … What about giving it out [in class] as a handout? It is so well written and articulated that it [would be an] invaluable educational aide.” --[name withheld to protect the writer’s identity]

I referred my correspondent to the paragraph that follows those three paragraphs in the blog posting describing Boston University’s avowed and admitted practice of monitoring and controlling what faculty members publish and tell students in class. I reprint it here:

For anyone who is interested, the preceding three paragraphs criticizing prevalent critical approaches to film are the kind of ideas I was formally told (in several cases, in writing) by the Boston University Legal Department, the Boston University Provost, the Dean of the College of Communication, the Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, or the Director of Film Studies that I was not allowed to tell my students in class ("too controversial") or to publish on my faculty web site ("casting the department in a false light"). These were not casual, idle, or passing threats. In terms of the first prohibition--on what I was and was not allowed to say to my students in class--specific students were deputed (without my knowledge of course) to spy on me and file "reports" with my Dean about anything I said in class that might be considered "controversial," so that I could be called on the carpet for having said it--with my pay and evaluations negatively affected of course. (As I note this spying policy was adopted and carried out in secret, without my being warned that such reports were actively being solicited and filed about my classes.) My views on race, class, gender, ideology, art, and criticism were politically "incorrect," and political incorrectness is not only prohibited but punished at BU--with the full knowledge and approval of the university Legal Department. In terms of the second prohibition--the one censoring what I was allowed to publish on my official university web site, which in the end completely withdrew my right to have a faculty web site at all at Boston University, I was explicitly told that if I didn't agree to the complete censorship and withdrawal of everything that I had posted on the site, the university would take two specific actions to destroy me professionally and financially. The first was that BU administrators would make a public posting on the university web site designed to undermine my reputation and standing (destroying me professionally); and the second was that university lawyers would be brought in to tie me up in legal maneuvers that would bankrupt me financially if I chose to fight them and resist the censorship policy. For detailed descriptions of the lengths to which these particular Boston University administrators and others were willing to go to stop me from saying or publishing these sorts of ideas and financially and bureaucratically punishing me for having said them, see the introductions to three other earlier blog pages (available in the side menu): "Censorship, Punishment, Abuse, Threats--Being Banned in Boston," "Making a Living or Making a Life--The Purpose of an Education," and "Losing Consciousness--Losing Invaluable Ways of Understanding." (The introductions to the first and third pages in this list have the most detailed descriptions of some of the techniques of torture Boston University administrators have come up with to enforce their censorship policies against me and my ideas.) A fourth blog page, posted in November 2013 and titled "The Thought Police," also contains a narrative account of the actions of BU administrators to attempt to control and suppress my publications and punish me, financially and bureaucratically, for having expressed the opinions I had.

For the information of the current blog reader: The preceding note only alludes to part of the censorship situation at Boston University. College of Communication Dean Tom Fiedler has extended the monitoring, control, and censorship policy to include attempting to control the content of emails I write to students. [See "How Marketing and Branding Considerations Limit What Teachers Can Tell Their Students--Or Suggest They Read," available in the side menu, under March 2013.] And Film and Television Department Chairman Paul Schneider has further extended the monitoring, control, and censorship policy to include interviews I do with the media, telling me that I am not supposed to talk about certain things when I give interviews.

I might also add that in a conversation several months ago Chairman Schneider also explicitly told me, in direct answer to a question I asked him in person in his office about why I still continued to be punished financially and bureaucratically, that the reason was because, among other things, I had criticized the tabloid journalistic values of the Dean of the College of Communication (Tom Fiedler) in these blog postings. He quoted something I had said about my Dean's ethical conduct (for the reader of this blog: it was an excerpt from "Part 2: Ten years of Administrative Retaliation for Speaking Up to Defend the Freedom of Academic Expression Inside and Outside the Classroom," available as the second entry in the side menu on this page), criticizing what I had written, and telling me that, given what I had said there and elsewhere, the university had every right to punish me and take other actions against me. Like many other BU administrators, he clearly had no problem with that. It all made perfect sense to him. Mind you, in this interaction, he was not speaking to me as a bureaucrat or functionary; he was speaking to me man-to-man, sincerely and caringly, telling me why, in his view, I had created all of my own problems with what he called my "offensive" and "objectionable" statements (his description of them). It was obvious to him that I had brought the financial and bureaucratic punishments I was receiving on myself! If you criticized a senior university administrator, you deserved having your pay cut. That was to be expected. That's the way business worked. (My Chairman, like my Dean, does not have an academic but a business background; and he still pulls in a major salary working as a businessman, on top of his job as Chair.) It was perfectly clear to him what I had done wrong, was being punished for, and fully deserved being punished for. You are not supposed to criticize your boss, his values, or his actions. That's the way business works; that's the way the Department and the College work. That's the way they will always work. And that's the way they should work. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Frankly, I was stunned by his statement (and by his candor). He was admitting what I would have charged against him and my Dean all along. Here I was, doing my job as a professor and ethical commentator, with principles and the highest ethical standards, doing my duty as a responsible, ethical human beingcourageously speaking out about ethical issues and violations as I saw them; but that was precisely what was unacceptable to Chairman Schneider and Dean Fiedler, and he was admitting it. That was why I was being punishedbecause I had made ethical statements criticizing my Dean's conduct (and of course raising ethical objections to a hundred other events and actions and policies). But my Chairman saw it the opposite way. Ethical statements, ethical stands were not to be tolerated. I had crossed some invisible line when I began making moral judgments. They were forbidden at BU. Given that fact, it was plain as day to my Chairman, perfectly obvious in fact, that I deserved the response I was getting. What other response could I possibly have expected? He was baffled that I couldn't see it his way, because it's the BU way. It pervades the institution from top to bottom. Faculty are not supposed to speak out; they are not supposed to take principled stands; they are not supposed to make ethical statements or observations. Faculty are supposed to keep their mouths shut when they see problems. In his mind (completely sincerely and earnestly, mind you) if you make an ethical statement, if you take an ethical stand, if you point out an ethical issue--you had better be prepared to have your evaluations lowered and your pay cut by your Dean. That's the way things work. Why couldn't I see that? It was all so obvious to him. [See "Frightening Advice--The Need for Ethical Speech," available in the right-hand menu under March 2014 for an account of this and related events.]

And to make the institutional situation worse (if it can be made worse), the highest levels of the Boston University administration, Provost Jean Morrison and President Robert Brown, know that this is the attitude of middle management (since they condone it by allowing it with their silence) and they know these punishments are being administered (since I have pointed them out to both of them in numerous memos), but they play "hear no evil, see no evil," turning a blind eye to the whole punishment-for-speaking-up system. That should tell you all you need to know about their own levels of ethical awareness and concern. 

[For the interested blog reader, there is more than you -- or I ! -- want to know about the preceding university actions, policies, and attitudes on earlier blog pages. See the side menu for more information. It's not a pretty picture, but it is the world I and many other Boston University faculty members, including many who are no longer at BU because they have quit in disgust or been forced out against their will in the past three decades, have lived in for many years. (So much for the value of tenure at Boston University; your life can be made so awful by the administrators over you that you can be forced out even if you have it.) Needless to say, the institutional suck-ups, sycophants, organization men, and time-servers have not felt the sting of having their words and ideas monitored, controlled, and censored, because they have not said or written anything the administration has disagreed with and disapproved of. Administrative control has been reserved for faculty members who have ideas. Who have minds of their own and dare to speak them. People like me and others who have been forced to quit. Shame on them. Shame on me.]

My email correspondent did not seem to be aware of the preceding facts or the larger bureaucratic history and context of my situation, which I explained to her as succinctly as I could in my reply. I then proceeded to tell her why I could not take her advice, however appreciated, and distribute the material in class to my students as she had suggested. I was still forbidden to hold "controversial" discussions with my students by the explicit direction of my Dean and the Boston University legal department, both of which had met with me and told me that I was not allowed to express certain ideas that might be "upsetting" or "disturbing" in class. Given the preceding facts, here then is an excerpt from my reply to my correspondent today: 

[I’m not allowed to] distribute it in class. I post things on the blog because that is a personal, private space (the lawyers tell me) that the university can't claim to control or police. [Re-read] the paragraph that follows the posting on the blog. Believe it or not, this policy [i.e. Boston University’s censorship policy and assertion of its right to control faculty speech] is still in effect and has never been revoked or rescinded. I am still operating under the force of this policy! "The horror, the horror," as Conrad put it. — Ray Carney

Her reply to that message was brief:

How can BU call itself a university and espouse those kinds of ideas?

A good question. An excellent question. One I have been asking in public and private for almost ten years. One I have never received an answer to. I hereby refer my correspondent’s question to Boston University President Robert Brown and Provost Jean Morrison. How indeed can Boston University call itself a university and espouse those kinds of ideas? How can Boston University call itself a university and treat faculty members this way? — Ray Carney