When students use “dog whistles,” they attack free speech


Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

Graphic by Carrie Clowers ’18

Leonard Cohen died a day before Donald Trump was elected in November 2016. When my Introduction to Anthropology class met the day after the election, I played Cohen’s song “Anthem,” in which he sings:

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)

That’s how the light gets in

Playing the song was a tribute to Cohen, but it may have resonated with students mourning the loss of progressive ideals. 

Some might wonder why we were mourning the outcome of the election in an anthropology class. Over-eager conservative bloggers searching for liberal bias in higher education would have pounced on this as yet another egregious example deserving their condemnation.

If they sat through the entire class that day, they may have realized that we were in the unit on religion and that we were discussing the way some religious traditions make sense of misfortune. Cohen’s imagery of a crack in everything, of the world as damaged, taped into the mood of that day, harnessing it to help students gain a visceral understanding of one kind of religious tradition that does not demand absolute faith, but that nevertheless perceives rays of hope shining the crack.

A week or two after the election, the conservative organization Turning Point USA launched a website called the Professor Watchlist, providing names, offenses, addresses, university affiliations, and photographs of hundreds of professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Unfortunately, students do not always understand the far reaching consequences of reporting professors to the Watchlist. 

What responsibility do conservative activists have when their “reporting” triggers harassment or the threat of violence?

This semester, in my class on the Anthropology of Japan, we read Norma Field’s “In the Realm of a Dying Emperor,” which documents the months of “self-restraint” when the Emperor of Japan lay on his deathbed in 1988-89, a time during which festivals were cancelled and entertainment businesses shut down early. It was during this period of self-restraint, when three brave individuals, including mayor Motoshima of Nagasaki, refused to let the Emperor die without raising the issue of his unacknowledged responsibility for the Second World War.  

Mayor Motoshima’s statement was startling coming from him, for he belonged to the conservative establishment and because the  mayors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had never spoken so pointedly about Japan’s war responsibility. His statement was also significant because of its timing, during the period of self-restraint.

While the mayor received many letters of support, he also received calls for to retract his statement. His refusal resulted in conservative protests and death threats. Eventually these threats were realized. The mayor was shot by a member of the Spiritual Justice School, a small ultranationalist group.

Most of us in the United States would be appalled at this violent act against the mayor, who we would hold up as a hero, exercising his right of free speech. The  mayor’s statement “came as a shaft of light through dark clouds,” wrote an 82 year old resident  to the mayor. He and others put a crack in the taboo that had repressed criticism of the Emperor for so long.  

Conservatives in academic settings might suggest that the situations they confront are similar. They assume a hopelessly biased liberal professoriate suppressing real debate in the classroom, and they fashion themselves as heroic free speech activists. I wonder, however, whether their actions align them more closely with those who harassed him and inspired the assassination attempt. 

Their superficially benign statements on conservative websites and blogs act as dog whistles, prompting packs of anonymous others to direct threatening or harassing messages to the target. Conservative bloggers take no responsibility for the threats and harassment that predictably follow their own “free speech.”  Nor do they take responsibility for the dark clouds that settle, the suppression of speech, for those who fear this harassment.

Two weeks ago, a Mount Holyoke student described in innocuous terms on a conservative blog the supposed bias of an Amherst professor’s course based only on a course description. The professor was identified, and the post included a link to her faculty profile, photograph, email and office telephone number. Within days, this professor’s inbox was filled with ugly accusations. Perhaps that was not the intention of the blogger — I am sure she would condemn those who harass others rather than engage in real debate. But what responsibility do we have when we engage in social media activism that so easily transforms debate into accusation? 

"Sadly, some liberal activists are also capable of using dog whistles. Just last week, Dave Ratner, a small business owner based in Agawam, MA, was criticized for attending a ceremony in the White House at which President Trump eased rules for small businesses. Liberal activists quickly organized boycotts of Ratner’s businesses, assuming his intent was linked to Trump's attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. In fact, Ratner had for years advocated for policies that would help small local businesses compete with corporate giants. Once again, superficial reporting quickly led to harassment and threats."

It is easy to celebrate free speech, and the idea that rational argumentation can lead to mutual understanding. It is at the foundation of our understanding of democratic societies. Professors of all political persuasions want to foster their students’ ability to think critically and creatively. But how free can our speech be when there is a third person present, pointing a gun at us? 

The internet and social media can empower students who feel silenced by their professors. But just as professors must strive not to abuse their power, students should do the same. The mayor of Nagasaki’s statement “came as a shaft of light through dark clouds.” He used free speech to criticize those who failed to take responsibility for war crimes. Some speech, however, can draw more clouds, blocking out the light, occluding the atmosphere, and inspiring hate crimes to the danger of us all. 


Joshua H. Roth is a professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College.