Hamline University And Cancel Culture
A Specific Example of What Useful "Cancel Culture" Dialogue Could Involve
Last March I wrote a self-indulgently long post airing my grievances about the term “cancel culture” and how it’s used in an unprincipled, unproductive way that discourages good discussions rather than encouraging them.
My thesis was this: (1) any productive discussion of cancel culture needs a workable definition of it, (2) any principled discussion of cancel culture must consider the free speech interests of everyone involved, not just the “first speaker,” and (3) any useful discussion of cancel culture needs specific action items — articulable things to do or not to do in order to advance “free speech culture.”
A few people have said, in so many words, “all right, wise-ass. But what would that look like? Can you actually apply it to a real-life situation?”
Fair enough. Let’s take Hamline University.
Hamline University Punishes Teacher For Using Famous Art Offensive To Sectarians
You’ve probably seen this story now. Hamline University, a private college in Minnesota, is not overtly sectarian, though it is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Hamline has art history classes, including ones with broad surveys of world art. In one such class, an untenured lecturer surveyed the history of Islamic art during one class section. During that session, the lecturer gave a content warning for an image she was about to show, explaining it was a artistic portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, that some Muslims believe any such depiction is offensive and contrary to Islamic law, and that continuing to analyze the image was voluntary. Then she showed the image. [Note: the initial reports I saw said the lecturer was a man, I’ve corrected to reflect it was a woman.]
You can read about the artistic and historical significance of the picture in this article.
That’s not a chain of events I’d expect to create controversy — except perhaps for manufactured culture-war controversy like “how terrible it is that professors give trigger warnings.” But it did. The shit hit the fan. Students denounced the class as Islamophobic and racist. The school apologized and, apparently, decided not to renew the untenured lecturer’s contract for the next semester. The student paper printed, and then deleted as offensive, an explanation of the class from the chair of the Department of Religion.
You can read about the resulting controversy in many places: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Volokh Conspiracy, the Chronicle of Higher Education several times, this excellent substack by a history professor who herself is Muslim, or Hamline’s own student newspaper The Oracle. So far, free speech and academic freedom advocates are furious, but Hamline’s administration and students are stubbornly insisting they were right.
How do you talk about this without descending into culture war bullshit? What, in this, is “cancel culture” in a meaningful way?
Again With The Free Speech Pedantry
Let’s start, as you expect here, with a spot of pedantry about what kind of free speech issue we're discussing..
This isn’t a First Amendment issue; Hamline is a private university and isn’t bound by the First Amendment. It’s probably not a “Free Speech Rights” issue, unless the untenured lecturer had a contract that protected him or Minnesota has an unusual state law protecting speech at private universities.
It’s a Free Speech Culture issue — an issue about how society ought to respond to speech when we disapprove of it — and a Speech Decency issue — an issue about what speech is kind, decent, and moral.
Hamline Officially Punishing the Lecturer Is “Cancel Culture”
Here’s how I’ve defined “cancel culture” — it’s “when speech is met with a response that, in my opinion, is very disproportionate.”
Hamline University declining to renew the lecturer’s contract over this controversy is, in my opinion, cancel culture, which you can take to mean “censorial, unreasonable, and excessive, and unbecoming to a university.”
Nothing about Hamline University’s policies, background, affiliation, or curriculum would lead anyone to believe that its classes will adhere to the cultural rules of a sectarian component of Islam. As Professor Khalid points out, the notion that Muhammad must not be depicted visually is a tenet of conservative Islam, not of all Muslims. Hamline University is not Islamic. It’s, at most, Methodist. The class was not, apparently, marketed as being specifically for Muslim students, nor as adhering to any particular belief system. It’s apparently undisputed that the image has historic and artistic significance and is relevant to art history. I’ve heard no serious argument that the picture was not pedagogically appropriate. The lecturer carefully warned the students of what was coming, explained the significance to the dispute over whether it’s appropriate to depict Muhammad visually, and let people leave if they wanted.
Under these circumstances I’d say, without hesitation, this was cancel culture. In fact it’s completely indefensible. There is no excuse for abruptly imposing sectarian Islamic prohibitions on an art history lecturer, particularly one who took (arguably unnecessary) pains to put it in context and warn students. Hamline is private, and may also have had a contractual right to decline to renew the contract, but as a matter of Free Speech Culture — and as a matter of academic values — the response was outrageously disproportionate.
I have a specific action item for this type of cancel culture: don’t fire, discipline, or non-renew teachers based on violating sectarian religious rules unless the teachers and students know up front they’re under those rules.
Hamline’s Communications About The Incident Are “Cancel Culture”
I am reluctant to call it “cancel culture” when institutions criticize speech — even universities. I believe that institutions — and the individuals leading them — also have free speech interests in conveying their values. Of course, just as an individual’s speech can be “cancel culture” (say, by demanding someone be fired), so can an institution’s.
Here, Hamline’s speech about this incident — both initially and defensively after criticism — is pretty grim.
“Associate Vice President for Inclusive Excellence” David Everett — whose title I am unable to read without rolling my eyes — wrote a letter decrying the lecture as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” The university’s president sent an email saying that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”
The University’s president, in the wake of criticism, continued to downplay free expression and academic freedom to focus on not giving offense:
“We have learned, over many years, that knowledge can be shared in a multitude of responsible, thoughtful and respectful ways. Our response to the classroom event does not disregard or minimize the importance of academic freedom. It does state that respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm,” Fayneese Miller, the university’s president, and David Everett, associate vice president for inclusive excellence, wrote in a letter to the campus on Dec. 9, which was confirmed as reflecting the university’s position.
“It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom. Many disciplines have embedded within them difficult and controversial theories and material, but as with virtually all subjects, they can be discussed without causing harm. Academic freedom is very important, but it does not have to come at the expense of care and decency toward others,” they added.
This entire response was cancel culture, in my view, because it was a wildly disproportionate response to criticized speech. It did not engage the pedagogical role of the art or the fact that the taboo against showing it is sectarian; it hand-waved those issues away. It condemned a teacher who had painstakingly given a content warning in advance that put in pedagogical context the sectarian belief about depicting Muhammed. It suggested a code of classroom civility but in a completely vague and ambiguous way and implying that such a code would necessarily forbid showing the picture in question at all. Because it occurred in the context of reporting that Hamline had declined to renew the lecturer’s contract, it had the effect of endorsing that as an appropriate outcome, even if it didn’t say so explicitly.
And it said this:
respect, decency, and appreciation of religious and other differences should supersede when we know that what we teach will cause harm
This is nonsense, particularly from an academic. “Teaching” implies legitimate pedagogical purpose. This is not a case of a professor emailing unsolicited Piss Christ images to Catholic students or leaping out of the bushes to shove depictions of Muhammad into Muslims’ faces. It’s art, in an art class, preceded by a discussion of the significance. This broad statement of purpose is ambiguous, unworkable, and therefore very censorious.
Do Hamline and its administrators have a free speech interest in conveying their values, if, in fact, these are their actual values? Yes. But this response, even just the speech, was wildly disproportionate to what happened, effectively throwing the lecturer under the bus. Shame.
What’s the actionable item? Unless you are a sectarian institution, don’t condemn pedagogically appropriate and on-point teaching to soothe sectarian demands, and don’t issue vague, ambiguous, and unworkable speech “standards.” And don’t say avoiding offense should supersede teaching.
Hamline’s Student Newspaper Engaged In “Cancel Culture”
Hamline’s student newspaper, the Oracle, initially published a statement from the chair of the Department of Religion defending the lecturer. Then, when students took offense, they deleted the statement. The statement said, in part:
The professor gave students both written and verbal notifications that the image would be shown. I don’t know the nature of the conversations that followed, so I am only reflecting on one key question—Is the showing of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an academic context necessarily an instance of Islamophobia, as has been claimed by some members of the administration?” he wrote.
“I believe that, in the context of an art history classroom, showing an Islamic representation of the Prophet Muhammad, a painting that was done to honor Muhammad and depict an important historical moment, is not an example of Islamophobia. Labeling it this way is not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate,” Berkson added.
Later the Oracle published a justification for its actions:
The Oracle is Hamline’s independent, student-run newspaper. One of our core tenets, to minimize harm, exists for us to hold ourselves accountable for the way our news affects the lives of individual students, and the Hamline community and student body as a whole. Those in our community have expressed that a letter we published has caused them harm. We have decided, as an editorial board, to take it down.
In no way are any of us on this staff or on the Editorial Board experts about journalism or trauma. We are, however, dedicated to actively supporting, platforming and listening to the experiences and voices of members of our community.
And so on like that.
This is cancel culture. The parts of the deleted statement that survive are polite, rational, and address specific issues. There’s no indication it was obscene or abusive. The Oracle could have printed a rebuttal. Instead it deleted it. The Oracle’s position seems to be not only is it harmfully offensive to show a depiction of Muhammad in the classroom, it’s harmfully offense to offer an argument about why you should be able to do so, and such a statement cannot be in the student newspaper.
That’s embarrassing. If I didn’t read it myself I would have assumed it was a mean-spirited, excessive satire of college students from some far-right site. It might be defensible in a sectarian Muslim newspaper. For the general-purpose student newspaper of a non-sectarian school, it’s anti-intellectual, anti-academic, censorial, and frankly loathsome. The people running the Oracle who made this decision shouldn’t be taken seriously as journalists or scholars and shouldn’t get jobs in journalism.
Because it’s a wildly disproportionate response to criticized speech — a statement that no defense of speech I don’t like, however civilly put, can be tolerated — it’s absolutely cancel culture. The Oracle has free speech interests in creating an editorial stance, including a wildly censorial and doggedly unserious one, but we all have a free speech interest in calling them out.
Here’s the action item: student newspapers at non-sectarian schools should not delete defenses of speech because some people think it’s offensive to disagree about whether the speech is offensive.
Edited to add: The Oracle subsequently re-posted the letter, which you can see here. That’s a good thing, and we should create space for people who made bad decisions to remedy them. However, the text of the letter shows how outrageous the decision was in the first place.
Hamline’s Students Engaged In “Cancel Culture”
Again, I am loath to call speech cancel culture. That’s shoving free speech up its own ass. But some speech can be.
There were ways for students to respond to this lecture that would not be “cancel culture” and I would not think deserve condemnation — though in this culture-war climate they still would have been controversial. Saying “as a Muslim I find visual depictions of the Prophet offensive and blasphemous,” is not cancel culture. Saying “here is why I don’t agree this is pedagogically appropriate” is not cancel culture. Saying “here are the better steps that should have been taken to warn and provide alternatives to Muslim students” would not be cancel culture. Even questioning the entire structure of education — whether it’s appropriate to teach things that give offense - isn’t cancel culture. Those things are proportional, even if I disagree with them. They engage with the issues and offer the speaker’s views on them. They just don’t treat the first speaker as sacrosanct.
Demanding that the lecturer be fired, not renewed, or disciplined is wildly disproportionate, in my view, and it’s fair to call it “cancel culture.” Demanding that a non-sectarian university discipline teachers if they violate religious sectarian taboos and norms — whether it’s not depicting a subject-relevant image of Muhammad, not spelling out the full name of G-d, or not studying blasphemous discussions or depictions of Mary — is extremely disproportionate and censorial.
There are sectarian universities in America that abide by sectarian religious codes. I’m not sure if there are Islamic sectarian universities in America but they exist across the world. If you want to impose religious sectarianism on people, go to a sectarian school, or be thought of as a censor.
The Hamline students seem completely unashamed of this wildly inappropriate stance.
Aram Wedatalla, a Hamline senior and the president of Muslim Student Association (MSA), was in the class at the time the photos were shared.
“I’m like, ‘this can’t be real,’” Wedatalla told the Oracle. “As a Muslim, and a Black person, I don’t feel like I belong, and I don’t think I’ll ever belong in a community where they don’t value me as a member, and they don’t show the same respect that I show them.”
Deangela Huddleston, a Hamline senior and MSA member, also shared her thoughts with the Oracle.
“Hamline teaches us it doesn’t matter the intent, the impact is what matters,” Huddleston said.
I don’t think demanding imposition of sectarian religious rules on an art history class is respectful, actually. I think it’s entitled, censorial, and abusive.
How about throwing around the word “Islamophobia?” Is that “cancel culture?”
On balance I don’t think so. I think it’s censorial, entitled, and ignorant. But I don’t think such an accusation, particularly when the (extremely unconvincing) basis is articulated, is wildly disproportionate. It’s speech. I may hold it in contempt — I’ve never liked people who insist on imposing their religious values on others — but I think it’s part of a rough dialogue.
Action item: students, don’t demand that teachers be fired or disciplined for violating your sectarian religious beliefs in class.
What About Speech Decency?
I’ve talked about Free Speech Rights (probably not relevant) and Free Speech Culture. What about Speech Decency? That’s the value of judging whether speech is kind, moral, and decent.
I think the criticism of the lecturer is indecent, actually. The lecturer showed sensitivity, gave a content warning, explained the pedagogical context, and then taught famous, historically and artistically significant art in a fucking art class. The people piling on him — the entitled students, the let’s-not-call-them-student-journalists, and the woefully philosophically unsuited administrators were indecent about it.
Cancel Culture and Culture Wars
Tucker Carlson couldn’t have invented a better set of facts to push a college-students-are-fascists, colleges-are-ineffectual-and-censorial, Sharia-law-is-coming culture war study. Ben Shapiro couldn’t have knitted a better bloody shirt to wave to inspire hatred and mistrust of American Muslims. This is a huge culture war victory for the anti-progressive Right.
A lot of dumping on colleges and college students is culture war nonsense. But sometimes people deserve to be dumped on, because they’ve done contemptible things. “Cancel culture” is widely overused in unprincipled ways, but sometimes I think reasonable people can agree the label applies easily and cleanly. This is such a case. For shame, Hamline administrators and students and “journalists.” I question whether you’re suited to be there.