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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Last week I wrote about a self-described transphobic speaker who was invited to my campus to give a talk titled “What is a Woman?” The speaker is an extreme rightwing political entertainer, a genre I defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt’ term “bullshit” (roughly: making claims with disregard to whether they are true or not).

I have nothing more to say about the speaker (who cancelled for reasons unrelated to my school), but one of the two outside organizations credited for funding the event offers a further opportunity for genre analysis.

The secretary for the Generals Redoubt, an alumni organization promoting continued reverence for my school’s confederate namesake, released a mass email on March 27. In terms of genre, it is a fundraising advertisement. It concludes with an overt request for money: “Please donate to The Generals Redoubt … Thank you in advance for your support.” 

Like political entertainment, advertising is a genre especially conducive for bullshit, because its defining goal is not to make truthful statements but to make profitable ones. That intention and its accompanying indifference to facts shape the email.

It begins: “The question “What Is a Woman?” has vexed society for centuries …”

As I think anyone who has taught WRIT 100 at my school will tell you, that’s an example of a funnel introduction – a technique my first-year students grow past after their first papers (the author graduated in 1964, and I know nothing about the quality of writing instruction at that time).

Is it true that this question “has vexed society for centuries”? Seems doubtful, but, being bullshit, the claim is not intended to be weighed seriously. So I won’t.

The email expands the claim, stating next that the question has “led to spirited, but civil debate” and that the “Hallmarks of those discussions have been courtesy, decorum and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints.”

Again, seems doubtful. But the opening sentences are not meant to be taken literally – they’re more akin to a speaker clearing his throat as he approaches the podium.

But they’re not rhetorically irrelevant either. The author uses them to set-up an actual claim, albeit a hyperbolic one: “Apparently, the concept of civil and courteous discourse has disappeared at Washington and Lee.”

After referring to the extreme rightwing political entertainer as a “noted commentator,” the email clams that the scheduling of the event “has sent the far-left members of The University Community into an emotional meltdown.”

Has it though? Let’s set aside that further hyperbole and instead explore the irony of the claim.

The “noted commentator” has a show on the extreme rightwing political entertainment platform the Daily Wire. One of his most recent episodes is titled “The Pride Flag Deserves our Disrespect.”

The “noted commentator” also told the Loudoun County school board in 2021:

“You’re all child abusers. You prey upon impressionable children and indoctrinate them into your insane ideological cult. A cult which has many radical views, but none so deranged as the view that boys are girls and girls are boys. By imposing this vile nonsense on students, to the point where girls are sharing locker rooms with boys, you deprive these kids of safety, and privacy, and something more fundamental too, which is truth. If education is not grounded in truth then it is worthless. Worse, it is poison. You are poison. You are predators.”

Are these examples of civil and courteous discourse?

Do they display the hallmarks of courtesy, decorum and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints?

The email continues to its most central claims: “Totally disregarding the First Amendment rights of all members of this Community, a group of students has been circulating a petition demanding Mr. Walsh be prohibited from speaking.”

I’m not sure if this is bullshit (a statement made without regard to whether it’s true). It’s possible that the author is lying (making a statement he knows is false with the intent of it being mistaken as true). Or perhaps the author is simply ignorant (making a false statement that he has mistaken as true).

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment limits the powers of the federal government. It has no bearing on a student petition addressing a private university’s administration. No community member’s First Amendment rights have been disregarded — or could be in this context.

Whether from ignorance or deceit, the author next mocks students and professors for not understanding the First Amendment: “Many of the petition’s signatories are law students (who presumably have read The First Amendment) and some law professors (who likely have taken and/or taught courses on The First Amendment).”

Though this is a factual statement (I also assume the students have read and the professors have taught the First Amendment), the implication is absurdly false: that it is the students and professors who do not understand the First Amendment.

The author does offer one correct assertion: “Circulating a petition is indisputably protected by The First Amendment.” This is true. Congress cannot pass a law prohibiting students from petitioning their university administration to disallow the speaker’s event.

But then the author highlights the depth of his confusion in the next sentence: “Demanding Mr. Walsh be banned from speaking because some students and a limited number of faculty disagree with his views or his message is not protected.” In fact, it is. Congress shall make no law abridging that freedom of speech.

Why is the author making these false claims?

That brings us to our next genre.

I mentioned Binder and Kidder in my previous blog. I’ll quote their 2022 The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today again:

“The answer to why supporting vile speech has become such a ubiquitous part of college-level conservatism is that student-led groups are operating within a larger outside channel of activism. Many national organizations on the right see the First Amendment as a valuable tool for disrupting liberal hegemony in higher education.”

Binder and Kidder continue:

“national organizations and wealthy benefactors set the tone for what types of activism are appropriate for club members, and they provide a ready-made and consistent script that right-leaning students use to defend their provocations.”

I also referenced Henry Farrell last week. He explains:

“The reason why so many campus controversies seem to follow the same script is … that they are following the same script. A conservative group invites a figure onto campus who seems guaranteed to provoke outrage, leading to protests, and likely headlines about campus illiberalism. This is not a reaction against purported wokism so much as a means of weaponizing it for the other side’s political purposes.”

The Generals Redoubt is parroting the script that Binder and Kidder outline:

“Many outside organizations encourage students on the right to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked, and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response, the front line of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs.”

I’m not sure what to call this genre. Something like “outside extremists woo students into supporting vile speech to provoke other students so outside extremists can cry wokism”?

Whatever you call the genre, it’s depressing to see it performed at my school.

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