My University Protects Free Speech. Yours Doesn’t.

From the archives!

I teach at the University of Chicago. Admit it, you’re jealous. 

Not because the campus is beautiful (it is!) or because it is crawling with Nobel prize winners (ditto, although the economists do keep somewhat to themselves in their beautiful newly renovated building). Not because we ranked number three—along with Yale!—in the U.S. News and World Report for 2018, or because we are still the place where fun comes to die, which should give us points against Yale.

You’re jealous because we have the best university president in the country, who says things like this:
It is the obligation of all of us who aspire to true excellence in education and research to forcefully and unequivocally defend an environment of free expression on campuses.
And this:
To stifle free expression and open discourse and suppress speech that you don’t like is just an invitation for others to do the same. 
And this:
Those who argue for avoiding discomfort, while seemingly seeking to aid students, are in fact doing all students a great disservice—they are advocating for reducing the quality of education, and along with it the capacity of students to apply critical and independent thought to the world.
Paraphrased, as Milo might put it: “Fuck your feelings! It’s the only way you will learn how to think.”

I began writing about Milo on my personal blog Fencing Bear at Prayer in September 2016 after our Dean of Students John Ellison sent out a letter to our incoming undergraduates warning them (yes, I appreciate the irony!) not to expect “intellectual safe spaces” on our campus or “trigger warnings” in their course syllabi. I stood up for Milo last February when the conservative establishment turned on him, and I was outed along with some of Milo’s other advisors by Buzzfeed this past September [2017].

Like Milo, I have been called my fair share of names. “White feminist” was an early one, before I even knew about Milo and had been writing about why Western women should give “three cheers for white men.” “White supremacist pundit” became a favorite after Breitbart published one of my blog posts about Milo. “Nazi” is almost a given by this point, but my favorite is undoubtedly this one: “nasty, snarky troll like the imaginary boyfriend she deifies.” (I called him a holy fool, like Jesus.) And these are just the names that colleagues in academia have called me.

In September [2017], after Milo’s team wrote up one of my blog posts about this name-calling on his Facebook feed, some 1,400 of these colleagues from around the country signed an Open Letter which they sent to my department and dean. The letter accused me of doxxing because I cited my academic colleagues in the debate by name and used pictures of them I had found online with their professional biographies. It also claimed that the image of Maege Mormont (“the She-Bear”) which Milo’s staff writer had chosen for the Facebook write-up was intended as a physical threat, rather than a pun on my blogging avatar Fencing Bear.

I should be in trouble. If I taught at almost any other institution in the country, I almost certainly would be in trouble. But I teach at the University of Chicago, where fun comes to die and there are no “intellectual safe spaces” except the ones you can defend with logic and proper references to the text. 

After receiving the Open Letter, the full professors in my department issued a statement in which they explained how we do things at Chicago
Individual faculty members are entitled to express and publish their opinions on any public issues of concern to them, and when they do so they speak only for themselves. As a faculty body, the Department of History does not endorse or defend the scholarly, political or personal views expressed by any of its members. Nor as a collectivity does it take critical positions on matters of individual faculty opinion, be they personal or political. Other faculty members are, of course, also free to express their own countering points of view, to criticize or repudiate publicly whatever they disagree with or find offensive, and when they do so they likewise speak only for themselves. 
And that was that. My dean came to talk with me to make sure I was okay, and the communications office offered its help if I needed any advice about talking with the press. But otherwise...crickets. 

Well, mostly crickets. 

There have been a few editorials in the student newspaper and some of my Chicago colleagues have taken issue with my arguments about why Milo is important. (He is—far more than almost anybody other than me seems to realize! Call me Lady Wisdom, I see all.) But at Chicago even those colleagues and students who disagree with me have (for the most part) proven themselves valiant opponents in the lists, willing to argue with me rather than trying simply to shut me down.

Back in March [2017], the week after Milo’s establishment shaming, my department had a reception for candidates newly admitted to our Ph.D. program. I had been on leave over the winter and had not seen my departmental colleagues in months. I was about to walk into our meeting room, and I emailed Milo for advice. What should I do? 

He responded: “Remember to laugh.”

Milo has been called names. I have been called names. But the names that matter are the names we call ourselves—Dangerous Faggot, Lady Wisdom, Fencing Bear, Ivana Wall—because they help us remember to take joy in the fight. Because that is when the fun really comes to die: not when we are called names—which cannot hurt us—but when we forget why we are fighting.

As Milo put it about this time last year, in his speech at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend:
So let us fight, but let our motto be Risus et bellum, Laughter and war. Because nothing stings our foes, foreign and domestic, more than our hearty laughter at their lies and nonsense. And also because nothing will better remind us what we’re fighting for than the laughter of Chesterton, of Chaucer and of Shakespeare, and of course the God who inspired them all. 
Call me the Merry Medievalist, at your service. Welcome to the fray—there will be dragons!

—Originally published December 5, 2017, on Reprinted with permission.

Campus update: “Who’s Who: Professors Iconic, Beloved, and Infamous,” The Chicago Maroon, September 21, 2019. 

I made the list!
Medieval historian Rachel Fulton Brown receives rave course reviews for her classes on Christianity in the Middle Ages, but has also attracted the attention of national news outlets for controversial blog posts praising her friend Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right commentator. Yiannopoulos, a former editor with right-wing outlet Breitbart News, wrote articles with incendiary headlines like “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.” Brown has seemed to delight in the shock Yiannopoulos provokes, recently publishing a blog post detailing “The Art of the Virtuous Troll.” 
For my continuing adventures with Milo, see The MILO ChroniclesFor the full story of my adventures in academia, see MedievalGate.


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