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SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Today's podcast features a lecture by Joshua Katz, Princeton University, who discusses his experience with cancellation in the summer of 2020. Katz is Cotsen Professor in the Humanities, professor of classics at Princeton and his scholarly interests lie in the languages, literatures, and cultures of the ancient world. Professor Katz is uncontroversial intellectual pursuits and his warm and fair-minded demeanor make the story of his attempted cancellation all the more surprising. His lecture is entitled "Cancellation and Its Discontents," and it was the Benson Center's great pleasure to provide Professor Katz with an occasion to reflect on his experience, and to discuss potential threats to the truth-seeking mission of higher education.
JOSHUA KATZ: Thank you very much, Daniel and Shilo for the invitation to speak this evening, and for the warm introduction. I regret that we must be on Zoom, but will do my best to hold everyone's attention. I'd like to start perhaps curiously by telling you a bit about one of my favorite courses, one that I am teaching this very semester. It's a freshmen seminar on the history and practice of wordplay. Freshmen seminar is at Princeton, our wonderful institution. Each offers a small group of first year undergraduates the opportunity to ease into college life by studying something serious, but off-beat in a low-pressure, nurturing environment. Normally there are 15 students. This year the cap is 12 because of the difficulties of Zoom teaching. And over the fall months, they get to know one another and their instructor especially well. Learning how to construct university-level arguments while forming personal and intellectual bonds that last in some cases well beyond graduation.
The full title of my seminar will give you the flavor of the enterprise in terms of scope, to be sure, but also attitude. "Wordplay: A Wry Plod, from Babel to Scrabble." We really do talk about Babel. There is much to say about the role of wordplay and the familiar story of the tower and the confounding of tongues in Genesis 11, both in the Hebrew original and beyond. We really do talk about Scrabble, for example, the origins of the game, strategy, competing dictionaries and controversies over newly disallowed words. And along the way we consider the formal features, aesthetic pleasures, and societal roles of language games from as wide a geographical and temporal perspective as possible. As for the other part of the subtitle, "A Wry Plod," must be perhaps the only class in the country in which students read both James Joyce and Dr. Seuss. And you may notice, though this is not that easy to take in by ear, that "A Wry Plod" is an anagram of wordplay, and a very apt anagram at that, I like to think, since, while plotting wryly is surely an oxymoron, the students and I spend much of our time together taking language apart as though it were a car engine, on the grounds that understanding how things fit together makes you not only a better linguistic engineer, but a better and more creative user of language. It turns out that if you understand the statistics of a given tongue, the relative frequencies of its sounds, its letters or other characters, its words, if you understand, for instance, just how many more letter A's than B's English writers use, and how many more letter B's then Z's, if you understand that English speakers use the sounds E and Z in more or less equal measure, but both more than the sound B. And if you understand that the most common English word is "the," which is a lot more common than he, which is in turn a whole lot more than she. If you understand such matters, then you are in an excellent position to try to outwit the language, as it were, and in a best case to produce something transcendent. The dozen "wry plodders" currently in my care are busily doing all sorts of delightful things. Taking inspiration from excellent poems, stories and novels, they are creating remarkable works of playful, verbal art to themselves. And they're also writing academic papers that take seriously such matters as the word puzzles Voltaire and Frederick the Great of Prussia set for each other over nearly 50 years of correspondence, the connection between verbal and musical games, and the use of bilingual wordplay to reinforce or conversely breakdown power structures among high schoolers.
What you were learning from all this is that I am a linguist. I love languages, and my degrees, undergraduate and graduate alike are in linguistics. But my job at Princeton is in a Department of Classics, which is not altogether a surprise, since I have also long loved the ancient world. Still, I have over the course of my career, careened back and forth between wearing a linguistic hat and wearing a classical one. Next semester, I will be teaching a course on Homer, whose poems we will read in the original Greek. By contrast, in Wordplay this semester, my students and I have considered instead the wacky alpha-to-omega fact that there exists such non-standard adaptations of Homer as the late antique versions of Nestor of Laranda and Tryphiodorus, who respectively rewrote the two great 24-book poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey so that the first book of each was missing the first letter of the alphabet, alpha. The second book of each was missing the second letter, beta, and all the way down to the 24th, which was missing the 24th, omega.
We have also read the brilliant poem Eunoia by the contemporary Canadian poet Christian Bök, which plays a similar game in English while telling tales that are broadly speaking Homeric. And we have examined the mind-bending version of the start of the Illiad by the avant-garde American poet, David Melnick, who takes the sounds of the original Greek and as though by magic converts them into auditorially similar words in English to tell more or less the same story of the Greeks' war against Troy, albeit with a decidedly homoerotic spin. It is a cliché to say that one's life is enriched by the existence of Homer, but I am happy to say it myself. I would not want to live without Homer, but now that I know Bök and Melnick, I would not want to live without them either. The wordplay class, which I'm offering for the fifth time, has received more than local attention. Time Magazine in 2015 listed it among the 11 bizarre college courses we actually want to take. And the Daily Beast in 2011 called it one of the 18 hottest college courses in the country. But while I hope all of you find what I've been telling you intriguing, you are no doubt wondering what my class has to do with cancellation. You presumably believe that I have been canceled. You may have read about the controversy from one or another perspective, and I expect you want to hear, indeed you fully deserve to hear, what I think about all this.
So why have I been talking about Babel and Scrabble, about Homer and Joyce? There are three reasons. The first is very broad. I want you to have a sense from me directly of who I am and who I have been over the course of my career. This is important because many things that have been, and are being said about me are, well, I'm not going to say that they are dishonest and outrageous. Well I mean, of course, I'm gonna say they're dishonest and outrageous. But the point is that they bear no resemblance to what was said about me until a few months ago. I have taught at Princeton for nearly 23 years. I have won the top teaching prizes from the university. I have received numerous national and international accolades for my scholarship. And my administrative competence has led me to being elected and appointed to a wide range of local, national, and international scholarly committees. I am a great believer in the power of the humanities to enlighten, comfort, and entertain. I believe that there are core works of literature and art that everyone in our society ought to know. I also believe that it is important to have a strong acquaintance with the literature, arts and ideas that lie outside of this core and outside one's own society. And I have spent my career teaching and writing on subjects, both traditional and untraditional, from Egyptian hieroglyphs to religious texts of ancient India, to classical Latin poetry, to medieval Irish law, to the Native American languages of Southern California, to 21st century experimental literature in English. I am, in other words, someone who takes a lowercase "c" catholic and lowercase "l" liberal worldview. I am a private person who has never sought the spotlight. I am not a natural political animal. I am happiest in the stacks of a good library. So that's the first reason I started today by talking about wordplay. I want you to know me. There are two others besides. That course, as I have said, attracted attention outside the confines of bucolic Princeton, New Jersey, modest, but real attention of a good kind. And other kind to that an academic, even a shy library rat like myself might hope to receive, but the national and international attention that has come my way recently is of an entirely different kind and on an entirely different scale.
Even though it has been almost wholly positive outside my immediate geographical and intellectual domain, I was not prepared for it. I don't imagine I will ever get used to the curious combination of fame and information, and I do not enjoy it. And then there's the third reason for bringing up the freshmen seminar. My students this semester are as passionate as any I have known. This despite being stretched over nine hours of time zones and having little-to-no physical knowledge of the university they are nominally attending, but I am lucky to have any students at all. To my knowledge before this fall, no colleague had ever told a student not to take a class with me. Indeed, I know that many colleagues, not to mention administrators at Princeton's residential colleges, have regularly played up my courses. This year however, at least two incoming first year students who had applied, and whom I had admitted to my seminar, were told by colleagues of mine that they should run away. Beyond this, it seems perfectly possible that some students didn't even apply after reading the many highly negative things that were said about me over the summer on the listserv for the entering class of 2024.
Whatever the case may be, things have worked out just fine. And I'll take the opportunity to say the same about the graduate seminar on comparative grammar that I'm teaching this semester, though only one graduate student in my department is in it, since nearly all the others are boycotting me, and therefore it, and so will never find out what they are missing. How on earth did all this happen? On July 4, several hundred of my Princeton colleagues, that's a significant percentage of the faculty, promulgated an open letter to the administration with a sprawling list of requests and demands in the name of anti-racism. Now anti-racism has quickly become a major buzzword, and you do not need to be a linguist to recognize that it doesn't have its attractive face value meaning, but instead promotes insidious race-based discrimination of its own kind. It is linguistically and societally perverse that racists, anti-racist and anti-anti-racists are these days all by definition racists. And that many deem impermissible to claim that one is not racist, which makes it pretty well impossible for people to use language to defend themselves against cooked up charges of racism. In any case, the Princeton letter is an embarrassment. Yes, some of the 48 requests and demands are sensible. I will be very glad if the university makes admissions fee waivers transparent, easy to use and well advertised. Other requests and demands take a side on issues that have been in the air for a while, and about which reasonable people of goodwill will disagree. Here an example would be eliminating standardized tests as a requirement for undergraduate and graduate admission, an idea for which most people with whom I have discussed the matter over the years can see arguments on both sides. But many further demands are flat out unreasonable. One that particularly irks me is of only local interest, but it shows just how blindly professors will run over a colleague who stands in their way. We demand, right, the members of the professorial mob. And I quote, "We demand that a director from an underrepresented group be appointed to a certain position." I will avoid saying which one, continuing the quotation, "When the current director's term expires on June 30, 2021."
What is essential to understand here is that when at least the primary instigators of the faculty letter wrote these words, they were well aware that they were launching an ad-hominem attack on the distinguished and wholely blameless colleague who had already been appointed to the position in question. Well, that's a matter of Princeton internal politics. Other demands are more obviously consequential to a great many people. Take for example, the ones scattered throughout that are flat out illegal, precisely because they are racist. My colleagues would give various financial rewards specifically to faculty of color, a term they don't define, ignoring the basic fact that this would be a violation of Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and still further demands, while not illegal, are widely considered immoral. The best example in this category is the creation of a new faculty committee to investigate research that the committee itself regards as racist, and then to discipline those responsible. How could anyone sign such a document? This was, and remains baffling to me. It was also apparently baffling to Conor Friedersdorf, a reporter for the Atlantic, who tried to get the signatories to explain to them, to him what they were thinking. With little success, since only a few were actually willing to stand up and defend themselves. In this environment, someone had to stand up and dissent. I could not tell you why I stood up and did so. I had no history of making waves of this kind. Indeed, to be truthful, there are many times in the past when I know I ought to have spoken out against one or another outrage, but did not, largely because it was convenient to ignore what was going on since it did not immediately affect my comfortable, day-to-day existence. That was cowardice.
For whatever reason, though, in July, I'd had enough. And I put away that cowardice and here I am, and here we are. My so-called Declaration of Independence was published in Quillette four days after the open letter, it was signed by no one but myself and I take full responsibility for it. I believed then, and I believe still now, that my tone was largely measured. I did not write a hit piece. I tried to say positive things about some of the demands and tried to keep my rhetoric short and to the point, and not belabor objections. I also went out of my way to express goodwill to the signatories, ending by writing, "If you sign the letter independently and thoughtfully, good for you." Well, many members of the Princeton community, if community it still is, read my words with no goodwill at all, and indeed in as uncharitable a way as possible, turning immediately to my vilification. Quite a number of these people had been my friends, or rather my friends with scare quotes, because what sorts of friends sign their emails to you XOXO one day, and then the next day, without saying so much as one word to you directly, loudly call in public for your head, or scheme against you on social media, or almost worst of all, pretend you don't exist? This is not a rhetorical question. Actual friends who grew up in such countries as China, Poland, and Romania have had no difficulty explaining to me the parallels to what are now called their lived experiences. They are depressed that the country to which they fled, the United States, is quickly abandoning the title "the land of the free." In any case, within days of my declaration in Quillette, the president of Princeton issued a personal denunciation. Some of my colleagues, both in the Department of Classics and outside, were quoted, and themselves published disgusting and plainly false things about me in the local student newspaper, which flaunted and has continued to flaunt its partisanship. Four colleagues in classics, flashing their official titles, published a scurrilous statement against me on the departmental homepage, making the outrageous claim that I had, "deliberately" placed colleagues, students, and alumns at serious risk. A good number of former students, many of whom owe some of their success to my teaching, advising and letters of recommendation, made clear that I was an awful human being, with some vocally suggesting that I should lose my job. And the Princeton administration announced ominously that it would be "looking into the matter further."
In this firestorm, there was some attention to the matter of the committee to investigate racist research. Some people, both at Princeton and elsewhere, went on record to explain why what I will call a star chamber was in fact a good thing. I guess I have to commend them for their candor, though it frightens the hell out of me. Still, nearly all the anti-Katz denunciation was not about my reactions to the more dangerous demands, but rather about a few words I'd written in one paragraph about a defunct student group at Princeton, the Black Justice League or BJL, which I described as having been, "a small local terrorist organization." Linguists can be as guilty of imprecision in language as everyone else. And there is no doubt, but that my language about the BJL was blunt, or maybe it was sharp. The fact that the same few words can be characterized as both blunt and sharp, which, if when we're talking about a physical tool would be an oxymoronic impossibility, goes to show just how dangerous it can be to use words at all. To allow oneself to be quoted as saying anything, it shows just how easy it is for people to be misunderstood. I understand why some people didn't like my description of the BJL, but I and others don't like many things the BJL did. And I did think about the phrase before enshrining it in print.
The original terrorists were the Jacobins, known to all for their role in the Reign of Terror. But when one uses the term terrorist now, it is rarely with reference to the French Revolution. And this should not come as a shock because language changes, it changes all the time and words can acquire senses, through metaphor and other processes that they did not have before. These changes can be contentious, no doubt about it. There will always be periods before something is fully settled when people disagree sharply over one or the other usage. For example, right now over the definition of the English words "man" and "woman," which were not seriously controversial only a few years ago, but are now a lexical and social hot potato. More to the point, we have for four years been hearing the phrase, "President Trump is a Nazi," though no one who says this believes that he is a member of the American or any other Nazi party. This is a metaphor at work. Some find it appropriate, some find it annoying, but most people shrug their shoulders and move on. One more example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who knows all too well what non-metaphorical terrorism is, tweeted the following this summer. In fact, she tweeted it on July 14, a date of some interest to Jacobins. Here's what she wrote, "The New York Times was once a great paper, not anymore. It is now held hostage" (note the metaphor) "by a small group of censorship terrorists." Note the metaphor. "Yesterday, they hounded out James Bennett, and today it is Bari Weiss who must leave, who is next?" Indeed, who is next? Well, you will all be able to hear from the amazing Bari Weiss herself a week from today, when she is giving the next lecture in this Benson Center series. But back now to the BJL, which I, not even a week before Ayaan Hirsi Ali's tweet, had labeled a terrorist organization.
The BJL was active on the Princeton campus from 2014 to 2016. During which time it went after one fellow Black student with particular vigor, verbally vilifying her in public, calling her all sorts of unsavory names and accusing her of "performing white supremacy." Other students, as well as faculty and administrators, the BJL accused without evidence of being racists and white supremacists. You will all have watched videos from the summer in which Black Lives Matter protesters went up to, or surrounded people, who were eating peaceably and demanded unpeaceably that they raise a fist in solidarity. This is the sort of thing that the BJL did. While the BJL did not resort to physical violence, by acting aggressively against those who did not agree with the group's goals, and by wantonly using epithets like racist, epithets that strike fear, even in the strongest and most upright members of society, the BJL worked actively to stifle dissent. Its members' speech may be protected by law, but they were terrorizing. Still, let's say that you believe that I was wrong to call the BJL a terrorist organization. That I was being imprecise, either by employing an inappropriate metaphor, or as some have suggested, by being hyperbolic. In that case, let me suggest that you be very careful about how you express yourself, because if you think you can escape the woke juggernaut, you are mistaken.
The curse of Babel, the curse of misunderstanding another's language, whether willfully or not, will turn on you too, and possibly just for uttering one unorthodox syllable or a wrong word, or God forbid an unfashionable idea. In the article in the Atlantic that I mentioned earlier, a fellow Princeton professor quote, "chided the author for his questions," telling him that, "It is disappointing to me, that in a fairly detailed and comprehensive letter concerning anti-racism, journalists such as yourself and others have seized on a single detail and created more discourse about it than about 97% of the rest of the letter." Okay, and it is disappointing to me that so many of my colleagues have seized on a single detail in my piece and created more discourse about it than about, well, I'm not going to do the calculation, but you get the idea. Nor is it a matter of merely ignoring context. I have an ax myself to grind when it comes to imprecise language, specifically the imprecise language of my critics. Commentator after commentator, among Princeton students and faculty, some of them just in the past few weeks on national television and in the pages of The Daily Princetonian, commentator after commentator has claimed that I called students terrorists. I did not call students terrorists. It's not just that I spoke of no one by name, I said nothing about current students. I spoke about alumni, people who had once been Princeton students and belonged then to an organization that has not existed for four years.
When a university wants to look into something negative that a professor says about alumni, nevermind something accurate about alumni, something has gone seriously wrong. And when my critics continue to claim that I said things that I did not, that shows an inexcusably cavalier attitude to truth. You may recall that a few minutes ago, I spoke of the support I have received from my words of the positive reactions to my declaration in Quillette and later in July in the lead op-ed one Monday in the Wall Street Journal, as well as here and there on radio and television. Indeed there has been an outpouring of support, and I am in the uncomfortable position of being a pariah in my department and in my discipline, but anything but a pariah everywhere else. The attention my case received in the non-local media was almost entirely positive with the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education leading the way. With the American Council of Trustees and Alumni naming me a hero of intellectual freedom. With columnists and pundits and papers and magazines and podcasts here and abroad, chastising Princeton, and with Matt Taibbi being his usual devastating self in a wildly funny, but deeply depressing piece titled "The Left is Now the Right." My case was even alluded to on the floor of the United States Senate. The good news is that the ratio is 75 to 1 of positive to negative email messages, letters, texts, and phone calls that I've received from politicians, academics and shopkeepers; from conservatives, liberals and centrists; and from white people, Black people, and those who are neither. I have been sustained by these communications and by the very strong support I have received from students, colleagues and true friends in Princeton, outside my department, largely outside the humanities I regret to say, and it is unfortunately the case that some colleagues, especially in the humanities have tempered their support by stating that they would never allow themselves to come forward in my defense for fear that what has happened to me might happen then to them. Still, while the classicists have behaved abominably, it's nice to know that all of academia is not yet lost.
At Princeton, I'm glad to say, all will not be lost as long as the university sticks to its own rules and regulations. Not too long after announcing that it would be looking into the matter, the university acknowledged that my speech is protected, and that I am not being investigated. And indeed it had to do so for a reason that is as simple as it is important. In April, 2015, Princeton became, by formal vote of the faculty, and with the support of the president, the second institution of higher education in the country, after the University of Chicago, to adopt the so-called "Chicago principles of free expression." These same principles are legally enforceable. They protect my speech, they protect the speech of colleagues and current students who would cancel me. They protect the speech of Princeton's president. Outside marginal, though are very important exceptions, such as child pornography and incitement to violence, free speech is a bedrock principle. It is an American principle, not a partisan matter. And if we cannot agree even on this, then we truly are lost as a nation.
Now I have barely used the word canceled in this talk because I don't like it. For one thing, it sounds so final. And it's ironic that some of the biggest supporters of redemptive policies when it comes to presently and formerly incarcerated people, policies I generally support by the way, are also some of the loudest voices in favor of destroying the lives of those who say things they don't like. But beyond this, while some people have certainly mistreated me, and while it is clear that my life will never be the same again, I have not been canceled in any final sense. I am a professor at a prestigious university. I have a loving and supportive family, and I refuse to allow myself to be silenced for non-existent crimes. Indeed, the idea of being canceled by other Princeton professors is just silly. My colleagues and I live a life of what is to most people, frankly unimaginable privilege. We should be using that privilege to build, not destroy. Much of the illiberalism that is sweeping the nation comes from academia. We all live on campus now, in the excellent words of Andrew Sullivan, who left New York Magazine in that same crazy period in July when Bari Weiss quit The New York Times and Princeton quit me.
The way to combat illiberalism is to be blunt and sharp at the same time. Stand tall, do not give an inch, do not apologize for something for which you should not apologize. I do have one regret. If I had realized that all attention would be focused on my phrase "terrorist organization," I would not have used it, but that is not an admission of error and let's face it, if I had not used it, my critics would have had to seize on something else to express their discontent. Ah, discontent. The end of a talk of this kind is perhaps not the ideal moment in which suddenly to bring in Sigmund Freud. But my title, "Cancellation and Its Discontents," is not just an idle play on the familiar title of the English translation of Freud's work of 90 years ago, "Civilization and Its Discontents." In that treatise, Freud talks about the irreconcilable tension between individual and society, arguing that humans will always be disconnected because the laws that a civilization or culture imposes stop us from doing everything we might wish to do. Whatever one thinks of the word "cancel," the phrase, "cancel culture" hardly deserves to be considered culture. It is mob law and a civilization based on the misrule of a mob cannot hold. Is it surprising that everybody these days is discontent? Freud would call the feeling inevitable, regardless of circumstances, but some forms of discontent are in fact avoidable. Canceling people is one of these avoidable forms. We must stop this. As a country, as a society, as a civilization, as a culture, even in discontent, we can and we must do better. Thank you very much.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you, Joshua. Thanks for bringing your intellectual insights to that. And also thank you for your courage. I don't say that lightly. Feel free everybody to post questions. We've got a good period of time for them. And what I'll do is read them off to Joshua, you know, as many as we can get to and he'll answer them as best he can. So the first one is a question about the state of the academy. Lauren asks, has there been a permanent decline in probity in the academy, especially at the most elite levels. And if so, if there has been some decline in probity, what's the relationship between, he calls it the rise of post-modernism or historicist attacks on reason, and that decline? What's the cause of the potential reduction of probity?
JOSHUA KATZ: Well, the word probity is awfully strong and it's a little hard, I would think to get my head around that. I mean, is the question here, probity, as what's normally called truth? I mean, I'm now throwing this back at you. I'm a little uncomfortable using the word probity because it sounds very, I guess legalistic, but if I were to convert that into truth, well, it is no secret that most people now have a much more relativistic view of the world. I mean, most people in the American academy, in the western academy have a much more relaxed attitude, well, to set truth than they used to. And to some extent, in fact, I would say to a very large extent, that's okay. I mean, it's a good idea to contest received wisdom. It's a good idea to wonder that the truths that one has learned may not in fact be entirely correct, but the idea that there is no such thing whatsoever as truth out there in all sorts of subjects from English to physics is, shall we say, highly contestable at best? So yes, I would say that this has contributed. I would say that well, roughly speaking postmodernism has contributed to the decline in the idea of truth or call it probity in the academy, but I'm not going to go as far along that line, as some people will. I'm not against the idea of questioning the truth and I'm not against the idea that there are fuzzy areas that can be looked at from multiple perspectives as some people are.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah. There's a related question here that might open this one up some. The questioner asks, why do you think science and math professors are less likely to join into these protests? Of course, at Princeton, there's a very well-regarded mathematician who has written widely on this, who we may want to mention, but this person says my children have majored in science at Princeton. And they send me print pieces in which they had faculty signatures. And they were always so proud that science and math professors were not jumping on the bandwagon. And they also thank you for your bravery. So can you reflect on, and this is related to the first question. Can you reflect on this phenomenon in STEM in particular?
JOSHUA KATZ: Yes, well, I'm not really the person to talk about this, but the mathematician in question here is Sergiu Klainerman. I mentioned the name Romania in my talk. I said that colleagues and friends from such countries as China, Poland, and Romania have explained to me something about the totalitarianism that they left and how much they're afraid of the United States these days, as opposed to when they arrived here. And Sergiu Klainerman is one of these people. If you have not read his many recent pieces in, I don't know, Quillette and Newsweek and perhaps some other places as well, I urge you to do so. Okay, so the problem with my answering this question is that I don't know exactly what is going on and I don't really see how I could know exactly what is going on in the departments of mathematics and the sciences and also engineering at Princeton. It is true that I think it is, well, it is certainly true that very few mathematicians signed the so-called faculty letter and not a whole lot of physicists and engineers, but there were certainly some who did, and I would not be sanguine about the idea that these disciplines are going to escape what the humanities and some of the social sciences are currently going through. So I think it would be a mistake for me to say more than this, except to be on guard. I do not expect things to get better in those subjects.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, here's a kind of change of a topic. If you could write your letter again, instead of terrorist organization, would you use a different word or phrase and what would that be?
PROFESSOR KATZ: That's a good question. Well, I suppose if I were writing it again, I would leave off the whole paragraph, but the reason I would leave off the whole paragraph is not that I'm ashamed of the content of that paragraph, but rather that there were all sorts of paragraphs I could have written, there are after all 48 demands of which, well, I'm not gonna come up with a number now, but let's say 35 or 40 of which I object to somewhat or a lot or very seriously. So when I was writing the piece, I put together some of the ones that I thought were particularly important. And then some of the ones, like this one, that just happens to interest me at that moment. So quite honestly, I would probably leave it off and replace it with something else. Though again, not because I don't stand by what I said, I do stand by it. If I were including it, what would I say instead? A small local organization of aggressive agitators. I mean, that sounds awful. I'm sure that I could come up with something better if I really thought about it. It all comes down here, of course, to that one word terrorist. So one has to come up with some word or some phrase for making more than a nuisance of oneself while not actually doing something, perhaps, that is illegal. It's a fine line.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah, good. Let me move on to try to get through as many of these as we can. Flynn asks, does the curriculum of the university influence view should be training students and their teachers in free expression. What can we do pedagogically to help members of the university learn to treat controversial topics with civility in good faith? And there are a number of questions here just so I can kind of get them all at once that ask you, what can we do to elevate discourse? What can we do in the academy to push back against this pedagogically?
JOSHUA KATZ: Right, well, first of all, I'm not sure that I agree with Flynn here, that it is the job of the university to teach people, how did he phrase it to engage in free speech. That is to say, I consider the academy to be a place, though there are many other places as well where people should feel free to engage in free speech. But the idea that it is our job to teach people to do that seems to me wrong. What we should do is model the example of that. How do we do this? Well, I actually have never had a problem with this before. And I have taught a number of classes in which I have specifically asked students at the end of the semester to debate one another on controversial topics. These are classes in which some of the students are very liberal and vocal and very conservative and vocal. And by the time we get to the end of the semester, they trust me and they trust one another, that it's okay to do that in this setting.
I can say again, that I've done this many times that I've had no problem, but if I were teaching such a course this year, would I do that? No, I would not. So, I mean, it's not, I mean, I've just said one should not be afraid, but I would actually be afraid in this particular environment to push that sort of thing very hard. So unfortunately, up to a year ago, I would have said, look, this is actually very easy. You set a model from the start of the semester at you show yourself to be a reasonable person, you show yourself to be somebody who respects and makes fun of everybody equally. You don't take sides in the class. You don't show your own cards. When the crazies on one side say crazy things, you work against them. When the crazies on the other side say crazy things, you say things against them, and you provide an environment in which people feel comfortable talking, but I'm not sure anymore that it's possible to do this. Wait and see until I next have to do it and I'll let you know. I mean, this is a much more negative answer than I would like to give, but it's a negative answer, born of what I would have called prior success. But now I'm so infamous. I don't think I could get away with it. I'm not sure other people could get away with it either.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. I'm curious on this score. What advice you would give to younger academics? You know, there are folks out there, friends of mine and yours who say don't give an inch, no matter who you are. On the other hand, other people say to academics who would oppose this, who may be pre-tenure, just keep your head down. And so you've counseled bravery, but I'm wondering how would you, you know, to the teachers who are tuning in, how would you advise them to proceed?
JOSHUA KATZ: Yes, so I have maybe three sets of answers there. The one is to people, especially tenured people at institutions that have the University of Chicago principles. The second is to tenured faculty at places that do not have the University of Chicago principals. And the third is to junior faculty, whether or not they're at places with the Chicago principles. So the best case scenario for this is you're tenured at an institution with the University of Chicago principles. If that is the case, then you should stand tall and go for it. These principles at... well, I mean, I suppose different universities could enshrine them differently, but at least at Princeton, they're enshrined in the book of rules and regulations, which means they are legally enforceable. It's possible, I mean now, one would have to check every single university's manuals. It's possible that some universities and colleges have adopted these principles, but they're less enforceable. I don't know. But on the assumption that they are legally enforceable and you have tenure, in my view, you have nothing to lose. You and other members of faculty who were concerned should go for it and push against the crazies.
If you're at a university without the Chicago principles and you have tenure, then you should be pushing the administration very hard, and your colleagues very hard to take on the Chicago principles. If you read the Chicago principles of free expression, they are, what just a few years ago would have been in my view, completely uncontroversial. I mean, they're not very interesting. I mean, they're very interesting and they're very interesting to me right now, but they simply say that, barring extreme cases like incitement to violence, and things like that, you can say what you want. It doesn't of course mean that I believe that everybody should go around wantonly saying whatever it is they want and not thinking about the consequences, right? Of course you shouldn't. And of course, if you say something really stupid, then it's understandable that people will object to it, but you should not be able to be fired for this. You should not be able to be punished for this. Then there are junior faculty, you have to pick your battles. There are junior faculty who are very brave and are willing to stand up. And if you're a junior faculty member at an institution with the University of Chicago principles, then actually you should be able to stand up. Though, would I have done so 20 years ago? I can't honestly say that I would have. So I'm partly now going to tell you that you shouldn't, but if you're a junior faculty member at another institution, your job is to get tenure. I would say, do your best to not to say and do things that wildly violate your principles, but keep your head down.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, thank you for that. I think that's probably helpful for a lot of people. Somebody here has an interesting question about how this has changed you. This is Mike and Mike sort of assumes, you know, like all, not like all, like many academics, that you must have been certainly a liberal or a Democrat, that's what he says here, before this happens. And he says he apologizes if he's wrong about that, but he's curious, how has this experience changed things for you if at all on that score?
JOSHUA KATZ: Right. Well, so first of all, I would separate liberal and Democrat here. So I am a registered Democrat. I have always been a registered Democrat. I am still a registered Democrat. I have, so when I was young, I thought of myself as liberal. When I got to be somewhat older, I thought of myself as what is now quaintly called an old-fashioned liberal. That is to say, what used to be a liberal and now is no more. And these days, quite honestly, I don't know what I am politically, but in my heart, I am in fact a liberal. I mean, I used in my talk, the phrase lowercase c catholic and lowercase l liberal. I really do believe in knowing as much about as much and taking in as much about as much as possible. I'm interested in, well, we're at the Benson center. I'm interested in Western civilization, but I'm interested in things other than the west, and I'm interested in things other than civilization. I'm interested in high literature and low literature. I'm interested in major languages and minor languages. I'm interested in all sorts of subjects and that's what I would call liberal. Then there's political liberalism. And here, I think I'm gonna punch on the question because until very recently, I didn't really have to think about this. I mean, I would say that I was liberal because it didn't really occur to me that having a lowercase liberal worldview was no longer compatible with the current political ideology of liberalism, which as far as I can tell, effectively doesn't exist anymore, and has been replaced by progressivism. And I am not in the current. I mean, I would have said years ago, of course I'm interested in progress, but the one thing I can say, certainly from a political point of view, and everybody can tell this from everything that I'm saying, is that I'm not a progressive. So where does this put me on the political spectrum? God only knows. Has this summer made things harder for me to understand than before? Yes, of course.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, so somebody here wants to hold your feet to the fire a little bit more on the language, given that you address the terrorist comment. They say later in that same paragraph where you use the phrase terrorist, you use the phrase "baying for blood" and the word evil, and they say, isn't this inaccurate in hyperbolic language? And how do you address that language?
JOSHUA KATZ: Right, so let me, I'm not sure which one to go with. First, let me start with evil. You know how I said in this talk that I am regularly being misquoted. There's been at least one opinion piece in The Daily Princetonian in which it was said that I called students evil. It's not just that they weren't students, but I did not call them evil. I used the word evil, but what I said was that the event was one of the most evil things I've ever seen. That's a very different thing from saying that someone is evil, which I did not say. That's to me a rather important point. Why did I say that this was one of the most evil things that I have ever, I didn't say seen actually I said witnessed. I said that because it's true. The word witness means that I saw it live. That's a different matter. Some people have said, well, you've seen all kinds of photographs or clips on TV or all kinds of things that are more evil than this. That is true. But from the point of view of watching something live, actually witnessing it, this was about as bad as it gets. So I don't consider that hyperbolic at all. As for baying for blood, I consider this to be a completely standard metaphor. It is used and has been used by many people for many occasions all the time. A few people have criticized me for it, but I honestly don't see why. I mean, if you don't like that metaphor, well that's okay, but it was hardly a peculiar use of it.
SHILO BROOKS: Thank you, yeah. So somebody here wants to ask you in a certain sense about whether you're engaging in a certain kind of hypocrisy. They say they support your right to speak your mind, but the right to speak your mind doesn't include the right not to be challenged. And so they say that you challenged the BJL for their speech. And so it seems now that you're trying to apply a double standard, engaging in verbal criticism, but taking umbrage at the criticism your colleagues and others direct at you. And so they ask whether you see that as an accurate picture though for...
JOSHUA KATZ: No, I don't see that as an accurate picture at all. If I were not asked to give talks like this, I wouldn't be giving any talks like this. And I've turned down many possibilities of appearing, say on television, because I don't especially like talking about this sort of thing. If I could make all of this go away, I would do so. I have never said that anything that anybody has said or written about this should not be allowed. If I were going to push things, I would say that it is highly unwise to use an official organ, like a departmental webpage, to say things about a colleague in an official capacity. That to me is a very, very special case. Although even that one, even that one I have not pursued, but the rest of it, no. I mean, of course I'm saying that I don't like it, but I've never, my words against my critics has been nothing compared to my critics' words against me. So no I'm afraid I reject that.
SHILO BROOKS: Another question about words. This comes from Álvaro. He says he wonders whether you could speak a little bit as a linguist about what it seems like in our culture is a loss of shared vocabularies to express views and therefore debate on controversial topics. It seems to him, this doesn't merely result from disagreements in content, but there's simply a misunderstanding or disagreement about the meaning of language. And he wonders if you could reflect on this.
JOSHUA KATZ: Yes, I agree entirely with that. And it's a tremendous problem. If you take a really good dictionary, or even a mediocre dictionary, and you look up pretty much any normal word, especially abstract nouns, but even, even fairly ordinary nouns and verbs, you will find multiple definitions. You know, definition one definition, one[a], definition one[b], definition two and so on and so forth. This is the way language is, but in good times, people manage to negotiate this sort of thing. People manage to say, oh, we're having a disagreement. Oh, well, that's because you are using this shade of meaning on this word, whereas I'm using this other shade of meaning. I don't see how people can always understand each other because of the inherent ambiguity in language. And there, of course, this comes back to the first question. Now I'm sounding even a little bit postmodern here, but I really do believe that the problem at the moment is that there is no goodwill between people who seem to disagree. People who seem to disagree don't get to sit down anymore and actually figure out what the problem is in the definition of the words that is causing all the problem, instead, they just shout at each other. So I agree entirely with the person who asked this question, that this is a very real problem, but the problem is not I think so much in the vocabulary, as in the inability of people in the current climate to discuss where the differences in their understanding of vocabulary lie.
SHILO BROOKS: So somebody asks here a more social question. Do you think that your identity, your race, gender, academic status played a role in how people received your letter? Has that colored, you know, the reception of your letter and the response to you in a way that, you know, you say, for example, in the prelude to your talk and in the abstract that you are an extraordinarily lucky man to teach at Princeton. And so the question involves, how has that identity in quotation marks sort of white male teaching at Princeton affected how your letter has been in your view?
JOSHUA KATZ: I am much more aware now than I used to be, and that's no doubt a good thing, that it is a good thing in some respects, that people will judge any characteristics that they know or believe an author has in dealing with that person's work. There's not much that I can do about that. And so I don't worry a whole lot about that. I am who I am. I try to be honest about who I am. There's no doubt, but that I occupy a very privileged position. There's no doubt, but that I got to the position that I have through all kinds of good fortune. I like to think that some of it was talent, but there's no doubt that there's a lot of good fortune behind that too. I've never denied that. And I certainly don't deny it now. If people want to read the fact that I am, let's say male, as a good thing, or as a bad thing, well, let them do it.
SHILO BROOKS: Sure. Okay. So Russell asks, if speech can be construed in unwarranted ways to ruin a career, often anonymously, will professors ever really feel free to openly express ideas? How do you level the playing field in the academy? And this is related in a certain sense to the curricular questions that were asked earlier, although it involves more of a kind of professional, there's a professional tone to it.
JOSHUA KATZ: Yeah, this is a very serious problem. At the moment, I have no answer to this. I will hope that the world changes enough that they will be an answer in a year or two or three or five. I said something about this in the talk, but let me reiterate this. There are staggering numbers of people, some of them are young students, so I sort of get that, but others are tenured faculty members with named chairs at major institutions who are unwilling to come out and say what they believe about my letter, about the faculty letter, about dozens of other things. They're too afraid to do it because they themselves will be, to use this word, canceled. That is an extremely bad state of affairs and is unfixable until people actually start not being afraid to do it. And in effect, the only way to make that happen is to have more and more people do it so that more and more people realize that more and more people who do it are doing it, and therefore add to the pile. That's gonna take a long time because we're not in a good place at all, as far as that's concerned. So I wish I could be optimistic on this one. I like to think that a few years from now we'll have a general way of dealing with this, but we certainly don't at the moment.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, a number of people are asking whether you feel hopeful about the future and whether you think that the age of discontent or cancel culture will end, will this come to a head and will we look back in the rear view mirror and say, do you remember those crazy times we were out of our mind? What were we thinking?
JOSHUA KATZ: Oh yes. Well, of course it will end. I hope I'm still alive, but of course, they'll end. All of these things have cycles. You know, they have 10-year cycles or they have 20-year cycles. You know, anybody who has studied history generally or campus culture more specifically knows that there are years and decades in which the following things are ascendent and then they drop and then they go back up and it depends generation to generation. So yes, this too will end, but I think it's going to take quite some time. I mean, I'm gonna say it's gonna take 20 years because 20 years is sort of a standard amount of time for things like this to go from down to up and from up to down. But I'm sure a political scientist could give a much better number.
SHILO BROOKS: I don't know about that. Let me ask you this, you've talked about, this is me asking this question, you've talked about, or you've brought to bear your scholarship on the events that have happened to you. You know, you did this in the beginning of your talk and you've talked about the way language shapes our discourse and these sorts of things. I'm curious whether the things that have happened to you will change your scholarship. In other words, the courses that you teach, the research that you do, you are in some ways a different person, not wholly different, but you've lived a bit more. And I'm curious about your future research and teaching, will it be colored at all by these events in any way?
JOSHUA KATZ: Yes. So there are two ways to answer that, the one is what I myself want to do. And the other is what other people will allow me to do. So let me start with the latter. I used to be invited to give talks left, right and center. Now we're in the middle of a pandemic, so people are not being invited in quite the same way that they used to be. But I anticipate that the number of classics and linguistics talks that I am going to give in the years ahead is going to plummet sharply, just because I believe that those are constituencies who are no longer going to invite me. As far as teaching is concerned, well, I guess we're just going to have to see what the university feels I can and should be teaching. Teaching is, at Princeton or at least in the classics department, is not largely up to me or to any individual member of the faculty. Of course we get some say in it, but a lot has to do with the needs of the departments and so on, which I think is perfectly fair. What the department is gonna do with me, we're just going to have to see, so that's the one side. Then there's perhaps the more interesting side, which is what do I think myself. I fully intend to continue to teach and do research on the many things that I am interested in. I have always been an additive person, so I used to be interested in one thing, and then I became interested in another. It didn't mean that I dropped the first, I just added on, and then I became interested in something else and I didn't drop the other two, but I added on, and so on and so forth. So I intend to continue to add on, but adding on clearly means, and I know this, I feel this already now, that means adding on studies of 20th and 21st century academia and earlier, studies of social policy, studies of all sorts of things that are really not in my wheelhouse, or at least some of them are not at all in my wheelhouse, but I expect that they're going to occupy me more political questions, philosophical questions. I can already feel it, and there will be more of that.
SHILO BROOKS: That was gonna be my last question, but there's one more that I can't resist asking, and you should feel free not to answer it, but Marcy asks and this will probably have to be our last one. Do you have any comment about the Department of Education investigating Princeton after its president confessed to, for instance, being a systemically racist institution? This is of course in the news and I suspect everybody who's here has heard of this and that folks want to get your perspective from the inside on it.
JOSHUA KATZ: Sure. Well, this isn't so much an inside perspective as what I would call a reasonable perspective though, I haven't heard anybody articulate it. There seemed to be two camps. The one camp says this is preposterous, it is politically motivated, but the other camp says Princeton was asking for it. So go ahead. In my view, both of these are true. It is obviously politically motivated and in my view, Princeton was in fact asking for it. What's gonna happen now? Well, I am assuming that on January 20th, we're going to have a new president. I assume that the new president is going to reshuffle the Department of Education and many other things. And I imagine that this particular issue will go away. And because I see both sides of this question, I think that's both a good thing and a bad thing. So I feel very even handed on this. I was pleased in a certain way that the Department of Education did this because I think Princeton was asking for it. But you would have to be kidding yourself, not to think that there was a great deal of political action in Washington behind that. Some of which was motivated by, well, political rather than intellectual motivations.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah. Well, thank you Joshua for your insight. Thank you for your courage. And thank you for talking to us at the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization tonight. Next week, folks, Bari Weiss will be here. Everybody have a great evening. Thank you so much.
JOSHUA KATZ: Thank you for having me.
SHILO BROOKS: The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado Boulder. You can email us feedback at email@example.com or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/Benson.