January 18, 2023
Perhaps you read Taking-Offense with malice toward none and charity for all. That’s you, isn’t it, you who wish to cause no unpleasantness to anyone, and in that Lincolnian spirit seek enlightenment on how to avoid offending all whom you encounter? If only I could help. If only anyone could help.
Of the few things I’m certain, here is one: Unless you take a vow of silence, possess an endowed food supply, and retreat to a solitary cell with self-repairing systems and neither Internet nor mail service, you cannot succeed in the quest to live inoffensively. Sooner or later you will discover you have said something or done something that, despite your best intentions, somebody outside your secure walls will find—or at least label—disturbing. That’s guaranteed. It’s what happens next that’s the problem.
Let’s say you’re an elementary school teacher. Maybe the first grade. One day one of your young charges oohs and aahs about her family vacation fishing trip. Without giving it a second thought, you pass around crayons and paper and ask your youngsters to draw pictures of fishes. Everyone’s a winner: you decorate your classroom walls with the twenty-odd gaudily drawn denizens of the deep. What could go wrong?
The next morning, an irate parent excoriates your boss, the school principal, for your Christianophobia. It seems you have demonstrated your hate-filled animus by disrespecting the deep beliefs of Seventh-Day Adventists, who cleave strictly to the injunction in Exodus 20:4 (as one of many versions, this one, the King James, puts it): “thou shalt not make any likeness of any thing that is in the water under the earth.” In other words, fish. By your assignment, you have offended the student, her parents, their religion, and, it ought to go without saying, you have caused great harm. The principal calls you in and says “You’re fired.”
In a nutshell, that’s the story that burst into the national glare a week ago (with differences we’ll explore) when The New York Times discovered a set of events that began last October at Hamline University, a 170-year-old “United Methodist related university,” secular in orientation, in St. Paul, Minnesota. The teacher at Hamline was Erika López Prater, an adjunct professor of art history, who last semester taught an online course on global art. One of the units dealt with Islamic art, and one of the works to be examined is “a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting,” according to University of Michigan Professor Christiane Gruber, a leading scholar of Islamic art (and former chair of Michigan’s history of art department). The painting, permanently housed at the University of Edinburgh, depicts the Angel Gabriel presenting the Prophet Mohammad with the Night of Power, the first Quranic revelation. It appears “in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, A Compendium of Chronicles,” a 14th-century work by Rashid-al-Din. (You can view it by clicking a link in the middle of the Times account or separately here.)
Although the Quran does not prohibit visual representations of Muhammad, it is widely (though not universally) held throughout the Muslim world that such depictions are religiously impermissible. Nevertheless, Professor Gruber has said, ignoring the Chronicles image in a course devoted to Islamic art “would be like not teaching Michaelangelo’s David” in a course devoted to Western masterpieces. According to the Times, the picture is “shown regularly” in classes on Muslim art throughout the United States.
Unlike the elementary school teacher in my fable above, Professor López Prater certainly understood that depicting Muhammad is anathema to significant numbers of Muslims. Her written course syllabus advised that depictions of various holy figures would be shown, including that of Muhammad, and it invited students to discuss with her any concerns about viewing such images. No student did. She reminded her students again, some minutes before placing the picture on the screen, that the image was coming, expressly inviting those who did not wish to see it to look away or log out. Then she put up the picture, where it remained for a few minutes while she discussed it.
Afterward, a student in the class, who happened to be president of the campus Muslim Student Association, complained to senior administrators. The offended student was supported by other Muslim students not enrolled in the course. They said that Professor López Prater’s conduct was an attack on Islam. The Muslim students demanded that Hamline remedy their pain by punishing the transgressor. And so it did, telling López Prater in mid-November, a month after the picture was shown, that she would not be invited back in 2023.
Fayneese S. Miller, Hamline’s president, has denied that López Prater was terminated because as an untenured adjunct she had no contractual right to continued employment. She did not “lose her job,” Miller said. She was “not let go,” nor “dismissed. . . . She has not been ‘fired.’” What then? Said Miller: “The decision not to offer her another class was made at the unit level and in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class.” This is a weak example of a “non-denial denial,” a term Ben Bradlee is said to have coined during the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage. López Prater did not lose her job? She was not let go? She was not dismissed? But an offer already made to teach in the spring semester was rescinded. Why, when I said “dismissed,” I did not mean you had to get up and leave, but do close the door on your way out. Not fired? Of course, no one has said you’ve been terminated, but do bear in mind that you will no longer have an office here or any responsibilities or a paycheck or students, or, on the good side, a course to prepare.
To this point, the debacle might have registered in future times purely as an unsettling, unfortunate, and ineptly handled minor unpleasantness. Had Hamline stopped there. Had the administration merely muttered that the course did not fit in the schedule or told some other imprecise and veiled falsehood, the flap might have faded from view and further comment. But in the weeks to come, Hamline doubled down, inflating the incident to operatic heights. Hamline’s president and its overseer of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) forthrightly, even, it seems, proudly, took credit for betraying Hamline’s academic purpose, invoking moral virtue in doing so.
First to weigh in was Hamline’s DEI head, David Everett, associate vice president for inclusive excellence. A month after the incident, he issued an email denouncing Professor López Prater’s public display of the picture as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.” (So much for Miller’s claim that López Prater’s termination “in no way reflects on her ability to adequately teach the class.”) In December, Miller co-signed with Everett an email to the university community declaring that “respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”
It is rare to come upon self-righteousness at the highest academic levels as breathtaking as these pronunciamentos. A university, they have proclaimed, must sacrifice its core academic mission to avert the mental distress of a single student whose discomfort stemmed from the exercise of the school’s central purpose for existing—and despite the instructor’s well publicized gift of the means to avoid the distress. Thus a bit of bungling has become a blight in the annals of American higher education.
How will Hamline respond when an evangelical student objects as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Christianophobic” a biology professor’s statement that contrary to whatever beliefs students may have picked up until they were blessed to study at Hamline, “evolution is a fact, not a theory”? What will Miller and Everett say if a professor in another art class has the temerity to display and discuss Michelangelo’s famous image of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, to the protests of Adventists or other fundamentalists who hold to the strictest reading of Exodus? Indeed, what would they say to the Jewish student who protests that it is antisemitic to refer to Exodus as part of the “Old Testament” rather than the “Hebrew Bible” or perhaps just “the Bible”? You can probably conjure up comparable controversies involving the word “abortion.” Or even unseemly reactions to academic discussions of race and history—oh, wait, that particular form of book banning is already well underway.
So glorious a principle as Comfort Trumps Discussion deserves to be immortalized, and I propose we call it “Hamlining.” Just as redlining has come to mean racially excluding would-be homeowners from certain neighborhoods, so hamlining should be taken to mean punishing or threatening a teacher for presenting genuine academic content to forestall accusations that an instance of fair-minded discussion is nevertheless offensive.
Yes, I know, queue up the lawyers. “Presenting?” “Genuinely”? “Fair-minded”? But the problem facing Hamline was not that a teacher tolerated an offensive discussion about a work of art or entertained an offensive work in order to disparage. Hamline’s concern was, rather, that the teacher chose to examine a legitimate work of art against the objection that doing so is offensive. In essence, then, to hamline is to extend a permanent veto power to those who wish to avoid any discussion of a topic or a method of examining it. Would presenting the inquisitional claims of Torquemada in a class on medieval or religious history disturb some students? Drop it. Would reading Mark Twain’s report of nineteenth-century racist speech habits of midwestern Americans disturb others? Excise it. Would teaching the age of the universe in a physics class unsettle still others? Hamline it.
Hamline insists that its approach to the problem was well-intentioned. Henceforth, the university will infringe on academic freedom only (we may charitably infer, but who knows?) to promote a robust inclusiveness. That’s not quite Orwellian, but it’s close: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Words turned into their opposites to support the regime. Hamline may not have said this exactly, but its statements bend far in that direction: Exclusion is Inclusion. We cannot include except by excluding. In order to welcome Johnny, we block discussion of anything that makes him uncomfortable. To show how we appreciate Janey, we banish whatever causes her unease, perhaps something Johnny wants to discuss, until we can no longer even smile at the purported pillow of Alice Roosevelt Longworth with the embroidered legend: “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
The administration’s rhetorical dissembling is excessive enough to warrant asking what was really going on? We’ll probably never know the whole story because the discussion has become, from the first, too emotionally overwrought. (Death threats have surfaced.) But it’s hard to resist the suspicion that the administration is seeking to placate an important constituency.
At a town hall meeting called by the administration in December to discuss the matter, Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said that what López Prater did was of “absolutely no benefit.” Hussein vigorously denounced López Prater for the unveiling, prompting Professor Mark Berkson, director of Hamline’s religion program, to ask a pointed question: “What does one do when the Islamic community itself is divided on an issue? Because there are many Muslim scholars and experts and art historians who do not believe that this was Islamophobic.” Hussein’s response was a series of non-sequiturs, suggesting, for example, that showing the picture was equivalent to praising pedophilia and teaching that Hitler was good. (The various accounts of the town hall meeting are silent about whether any other Muslim spokespersons were present or invited.)
Berkson, the Times reported, was politely told by the art department chair and by Everett to sit down because it was the wrong time “to raise these concerns.” (Perhaps a better time would have been after everyone interested in the subject had gone home. Professor Berkson, please turn out the lights when you leave.) Left unrefuted was Professor Berkson’s principal point that Muslims themselves are divided on the morality of the inciting incident (see here and here). Berkson’s letter to the student newspaper, aimed at clarifying the underlying claims about the drawing’s putative offensiveness, was deleted two days after it was published, though it was reprinted off campus and is available here.
An arresting counterpoint to the ban on visualizing Muhammad came to light some years ago when several Muslim groups, including CAIR, objected to a frieze showing the prophet in the U.S. Supreme Court building. Installed in 1931, the frieze was the subject of a demand in 1997 that it be removed. The Court refused, in a letter from then Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, noting that the intent was to honor, not to promote idol worship. The groups persisted, eventually seeking a fatwa against the frieze from a prominent Islamic scholar. He rejected the groups’ claims. In a 28-page opinion, he instead issued a fatwa approving the frieze, finding no religious objection to depicting Muhammad. Its inclusion was a “positive gesture,” the cleric said, and he concluded that it “deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims.” The opinion appears in, of all places, a religion journal published by Hamline University.
Other Muslim organizations have rejected Hamline’s position. The national headquarters of CAIR issued a press release repudiating Hussein and Everett’s statements that López Prater had engaged in Islamophobia. The statement pointedly noted that its statement, not Hussein’s, was the “sole official and authorized position of the organization.” Likewise, the Muslim Public Affairs Council issued a statement supporting López Prater, pointing to “the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated” and urging Hamline to “reverse its decision.”
The controversy has not yet ended. External criticism has been withering. A spokesman for PEN America, for example, said the Hamline incident is “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.” The Middle East Studies Association bluntly told Miller that Hamline had “signally failed” to uphold the academic freedom of the faculty. Although student sensitivities may reasonably be considered, the Association said,
students’ feelings should not be used as an excuse to suppress legitimate classroom inquiry or to override faculty expertise with regard to scholarship or pedagogy. Moreover, Hamline’s failure to conduct a full and fair investigation of the incident or to consult with scholars with deep knowledge in the field of Islamic art before deciding on a response to the student’s complaint is unacceptable.
Hamline’s board of trustees has apparently been feeling the heat. It recently hinted that it is reconsidering what the administration did and how it did it. If the Board does not reverse course, we’d do well to consider the words of Aram Wedatalla, the Muslim student whose outcry kicked off the fuss:
It’s never our intent to decrease freedom of speech. No, we encourage freedom of speech. But not when it’s being disrespectful or not when it’s like, affecting us as people.
Freedom of speech is fine, except when it’s affecting us as people. But what else is freedom of speech for? I have no idea what courses Ms. Wedatalla is taking this semester, but I hope she and the Muslim classmates who supported her (members of families who fled Somalia in the wake of political turmoil arising in the 1990s), have signed up for a seminar on freedom of expression that will entice them to think hard about what happens in a country with a rich tradition of trampling on it.
Afternoon Addendum: Hamline to Flatline?
Egg on my face: Not ten minutes after I posted this piece, I found amid my morning email a note from Inside HigherEd that Professor López Prater has sued Hamline for defamation and religious discrimination. I then discovered I had been too preoccupied readying this piece for posting to open this morning’s paper. Ellen Watters, chair of Hamline’s board, and President Miller, not coincidentally, have backpedaled. In a joint statement issued last night, they almost but not quite repudiated David Everett’s most defamatory statement and acknowledged the howler in Miller’s earlier failure to defend academic freedom:
Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep. In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term “Islamophobic” was therefore flawed. We strongly support academic freedom for all members of the Hamline community. We also believe that academic freedom and support for students can and should co-exist. . . . it was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students–care does not “supersede” academic freedom, the two co-exist. Faculty have the right to choose what and how they teach.
Watters and Miller promise ongoing public conversations. What’s missing is an apology. The critics are still piling on. The lawsuit continues.
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Bravo! Thanks for your insightful and eloquent exposure of obtuseness. Well done, as usual.
Alas, this is too common a story. And it is not even the most extreme case. The quotation of the enraged Muslim student included in this post still nominally acknowledges the value of “free speech” in the abstract: “It’s never our intent to decrease freedom of speech. No, we encourage freedom of speech. But not when it’s being disrespectful or not when it’s like, affecting us as people.”–and Jethro rightly excoriates the paradox of an aggrieved student “wanting cake and eat it too.” But it’s not uncommon to hear many cancel-culture enthusiasts openly reject free speech per se–that there’s no place in a just society for any commentary that offends anyone who will be offended. Or that veers away from what has sometimes been called “the correct political line.” The deeper questions that must be examined before topics such as “how free can ‘free speech’ actually be”? or “Who shall decide?”–are rather: “how and why did we get to a place where any self-appointed justice warrior can demand unilateral overthrow of the foundational principles of constructive debate?”
I, too, read the article in the New York Times, and it left me dumbfounded for a number of reasons.
First, as a former public relations consultant, I never would have been a party to such a convoluted, twisted explanation as the university gave for firing the instructor. My experience always has been that the more twisted an explanation is the less likely the audience will buy it and the harder it is to be consistent under questioning.
Second, as I read once again that an instructor lost her job because a single student objected I saw a parallel to the current situation in Florida. An instructor in a classical school lost her job because she showed a picture of the sculpture David. Three percent of the parents objected, one said it was pornographic, and the teacher and the principal are out on the street. There are similar situations across the state where single individuals object to a book, and it is banned, either because it is deemed obscene or because it makes a certain category of children, almost always white Christian males, feel bad.
There is no way I think this can be made to look justified.