Letter: Emerson’s response to classroom incident taps into moral outrage, not deliberation

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By Sam Binkley and David Kishik

Sam Binkley is a Professor of Sociology and David Kishik is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, both in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts at Emerson College. 

Dear Friends, 

We would like to share our views on a recent statement from Interim President Gilligan concerning an allegedly antisemitic event in a class at Emerson College. The hope is that our comments will inspire critical reflection on the college’s responsiveness to incidents that test its commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

On the last days of the fall semester, a professor was identified by a student in an Instagram post for a classroom incident that was considered antisemitic. As elaborated in a Beacon article, this involved the use of German language and the affecting of a Nazi salute. In the wake of the attention this post drew, Interim President Gilligan conveyed his regret over this incident and pledged that it would be investigated. 

We commend the President for recognizing the harm such incidents can cause, for his insistence on taking seriously students voices, and for taking a stand on a value central to Emerson’s identity. But it seems to us that his email, in denouncing “anti-Semitism and other forms of hate and intolerance,” tapped into an appetite for moral outrage, rather than appealing to a higher sense of reasoned deliberation. 

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There was no mention in the email of the presumption of innocence, the need to reserve judgment, to assess the context of the actions identified in the Instagram post, or of the need to otherwise exercise caution before reaching the most damning of conclusions about our own colleague. 

What is also striking is the direct line of influence between the often-casual culture of social media and the top office of this institution, from which careers are made and broken. In our view, the email adds to an atmosphere of panic that often emerges when such incidents are reported. 

In a spirit of collegiality, and in the absence of any details concerning this event, we reached out to the professor under investigation. What we heard was the story of an obviously unfortunate action that was, however, taken out of context. Comparisons between this incident and the one depicted in the Netflix series “The Chair” were difficult to resist. It made us wonder whether the sordid affair that consumed a fictional college on TV could become our own sad reality.

That the act was parodic, and tied to a specific and relevant pedagogical purpose, gave it, in our understanding, an inflection quite distinct from those “forms of hate and intolerance” referred to in the President’s email. It is possible that the act could be read as the result of a momentary lapse of judgment, one which certainly deserved discussion, and probably an apology. Though it seemed to us that the grave charge of antisemitism was inappropriate to this incident. 

We believe that hate has no place in any classroom at Emerson College. We believe in the need to constantly reflect on our everyday use of language, to call out where others and we ourselves fail, and to pledge to do better. But we also believe that, when we stumble, we should respond in a measured and fair-minded manner, upholding Emerson’s reputation as a republic of learning where principles of justice and tolerance are respected and honored.   

Wishing you happier holidays,

Professor Sam Binkley

Associate Professor David Kishik

Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts

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