The Judith Butler Affair

Fascists and gender at Lund University

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In the social science faculty at Lund University there is a rule of thumb which suggests that at least 40% of the articles on the reading list of a course should be written by women. This is necessary, say the advocates of the system, in order to give female academics a more prominent voice. BS, I say. The system is a threat to the university and to academic freedom.

Let me give you an example of how it works. Take my course on the rise of right-wing ideas, and eventually fascism, at the turn of the twentieth century. What interests me is the possibility of a connection between the spread of global markets in the course of the nineteenth-century and the subsequent swing to the right. If we once again are living in a period of globalization and if fascists once again are on the march, it is difficult to conceive of a more urgent topic. Besides, it is bound to be a topic on which students have a lot to say. Excited by the idea, I submitted a proposal to the relevant course committee.

The problem was only the lack of female authors on the reading list. My course did not reach the 40% quota required. It was not even close. It was right-wing ideas I wanted to talk about and since the focus was on primary sources — authors from the turn of the twentieth-century — it was difficult to find female candidates. It seems most reactionaries of the day were men. Women, at least the ones who expressed themselves in writing, were predominantly liberal and progressive. Finally, after an extensive search, I came across one female author who was against women’s right to vote. Gratefully, I included her on the reading list.

Then the Director of Studies in my department contacted me. “Sure,” he said, “the 40% quota is only a rule of thumb, but a course with this few female authors will never be accepted.” Oh well, I thought, and continued my search for female reactionaries. In the end I decided to change the rationale of the course a bit. If I included anarchists too I would be in a much better position. Anarchists were not fascists to be sure — in fact they were, well, anti-fascist — but at least they shared the fascists’ fascination with violence. And, more importantly, there were quite a number of female authors among them.

My course passed the course committee but is was a close call. The student representative on the committee was very critical of my “lack of focus on gender issues,” and a number of other committee members agreed. After an extensive discussion, the course was approved — as long as I promised to include Judith Butler, a well-known contemporary post-structuralist feminist, among the nineteenth-century male reactionaries.

The course started last week, and already the first class was eventful. I had not gotten far into my first lecture when I was interrupted by a student: “Could you please tell us something more about the condition of women during this period?” one asked. “Yes, that’s right,” another chimed in. I was stumped. I was talking about Plato’s cave metaphor and the idea of enlightenment, a topic quite far removed from the status of women. Why are the students interrupting me with such an extraneous question?

Two days later I hear from the Director of Studies again. A delegation from the students on my course had come to him to complain — after only two seminars. The complaints were not very specific, but it seemed I had not taken their comments seriously and besides my course did not correspond to the reading list as it was officially approved. Of course it did not. There is not a course committee in the world which can force me to teach Judith Butler unless I want to.

The whole thing was strange — the students who interrupted me with extraneous questions, the delegation that went to the director of studies before the course had even properly begun. But finally I got it. One of the students, he revealed in an unguarded aside, had worked full-time for the student union, and besides he was a friend of the student rep on the course committee, the one who complained about the lack of a focus on gender. “As a student,” he said, “I love your course, but the student union has a number of issues with it.”

The student union at Lund University is thus busy finding “issues” with courses and proceed to harass teachers who have an insufficient focus on gender and too few female authors on the reading list. In these aims they are actively supported by some members of the course committee and passively supported by the majority of members who are too scared to take a principled stand. Since I wanted to give a course about old reactionaries, I now have a reputation as an “anti-feminist” and my course is something that needs to be investigated and scrutinized.

The basic problem is that an intellectual activity — in this case a course — has been subject to democratic criteria. But if everyone is allowed a vote, everyone will vote for their favorites, and students are in a position to veto what they don’t like. Democracy has its place, but it is not on my course and not on my reading list. The affirmative action system for female authors must stop. Intellectual activity is about thought, analysis and understanding and it is not just an occasion for people to express their preferences. It is the course committee’s inability to grasp this point, and their failure to stand up for the integrity of the intellectual process, that has made the situation untenable.

I have after some head-scratching decided not to give the course again. I don’t want to be bullied by students and I don’t want weird rumors to spread about me. Too bad, I think, since the growth and spread of fascism is an important and timely subject.

45 Comments

  1. You should give the course but in the first actual class teach women’s conditions at the time, explaining why. Ask the students if they want the actual course and if a democratic majority do request permission from the uni. Something on these lines could put them on the defensive and make it clear the students desires and education are being thwarted.

  2. I guess a vastly more practical idea would be to show how this was a problem for this course and see if the student union would recommend some kind of student override to approve non 40% courses. Since their theory is that innocent students are having systemic biases taught to them it should short circuit that thinking and again make it obvious that students choices are otherwise throttled. If they can’t conceive of doing this for a fascism in a globalist times course they cannot be reasoned with.

  3. As for the complaint about lack of women author on your reading list, I usually reply by offering to give me a more constructive criticism : the person who complain should have to offer suggestions that are relevant to the class.

    Alternatively, you could just add the most ridiculous author, for example “Going Rogue” from Sarah Palin, or Atlas Shrugged from Ayn Rand or any other book that would make it obvious that being a woman does not imply that you write the most pertinent text on a subject. Of course you might actually breed sexism because the reader won’t be able to avoid noticing the difference in quality between the books written by men and those added to meet the quota from the PC police, but they asked (demanded in fact!) for it

    1. imagine a course on the Bible… not a single female author in it! (scary times we live in… one day we won’t be able to use a car because it was invented by a MAN)

      1. There is a real problem when we judge words and thoughts by the identity of the person responsible for them rather than by their content and validity. This is the Nazi “Jewish science” argument. Well, at least God is a woman.

        Erik

      2. Franciskus Henriksson

        Although the authorship of various parts of the Bible is a contested subject, there is an opinion (not quite unreasonable, if you ask me) that the authors of the Book of Ruth, the Book of Esther, the Book of Judith, possibly, were female. In general, I agree with Erik that it is problematic if you judge the “worthiness” of a text based on the social identity of a text’s author.

    2. I know. This is clearly what made a number of feminists angry. Given the premises of the course they would have to include reactionary and anti-feminist women. Now, if you take a proper intellectual view of these things, those kinds of women are very interesting too.

      Erik

  4. Christian Fredriksson

    Om vi pådyvlar 1800-talet skyldigheter från vårt århundrade, typ könsbalans hos dåtidens författare, så får vi nog även ge 1800-talet våra rättigheter också. Alltså borde litteraturlistans författare själva ha rätten att definiera sin könsidentitet. Tyvärr kan vi ju inte fråga dem, så vi får väl helt enkelt förutsätta att de identifierade sig lite hipp som happ, eftersom vi använder vår tid som måttstock. Så hade jag varit dig hade jag hävdat att litteraturlistan är helt könsneutral. 😉

    1. Ett intressant argument måste jag säga. Kanske jag bara skulle ha ändrat förnamnen på författarnai litteraturlistan. Friedrich Nietzsche till “Fredrica Nietzsche” och så vidare … Ha, ha.

      Erik

  5. Franciskus Henriksson

    What I find the most appalling in your experience, as you told it here, is the seeming lack of collegial support from your Director of Studies. Instead of criticizing your course, the Director should have stood up for your rights to teach the course as you had envisioned it. My experience is that the over-zealous student activists can be easily contained if they see that there is a strong opposition to such an effort of de-professionalizing teaching in the institution of higher education. Personally, I understand your decision not to offer the course again, but my suggestion would be to form a pro-active alliance within the corps of lecturers at your Department, and to offer the course anyway.

    1. Hi Franciskus, the job as a Director of Studies is very difficult, I do realize that. There are a lot of different concerns that have to be adjudicated. What I find very troubling though is the attitude of the committee responsible for decisions on reading lists. They are the ones who should stand up for academic freedom. You are surely correct regarding the possibility of actually confronting the students, but I don’t think anyone in my department has an appetite for that. I’m the only Don Quixotian.

      Erik

      1. Franciskus Henriksson

        Interesting how the actual workings of such course committees can vary in various institutional environments. I have had experiences from teaching only at three different institutions of higher education, but my impression is that course conveners, generally, have a rather high discretion when it comes to the course literature. I have observed a collegial interest to keep some books on the list (but only expressed as a suggestion, not as a demand), but I have never heard of forcing a book on the list. Whatever the reasons are behind such a step, it is an extreme.

        While I respect your decision, it is due to such Don Quixots (or old-fashioned excentrics, or whatever you choose to call yourself) that we still have such a valuable thing as “academic freedom” in this country, in which the state-financed institutions of higher education are legally defined as “state administrative agencies” (statliga förvaltningsmyndigheter). Please, do not give up for your own sake as well as for the sake of academic freedom.

        1. Hi again Franciscus, This is indeed why I react so strongly. Obviously I’m open to all kinds of suggestions that would make the course better, but what we have in this case is a sheer exercise of power. They are trying to make us think about certain things in a certain way. This is Maoism and we can’t have that at the university. Maybe, when things calm down a bit, I can rethink the course in some fashion, but given the level of hostility right now it’s not going to be easy.

          yours, thanks,

          Erik

    2. Hi,

      The lack of collegial support is totally logical, given that the students are costumers. Staff at swedish universities have to bite their tongue before saying or doing anything that is against the student’s interest or preferences. This case exemplifies this. The higher up in the hierarchy, the higher the possibility that people will protect the costumers’ point of view. There are some brave exceptions, but the pattern is obvious. Loose a student and the university looses money and reputation. To adapt to the students’ opinion is the easy way out. Hence the gender-question, trigger-warnings, safe spaces and so on.

      /Henrik

  6. What? Did the woke students and faculty just assume the gender of the authors on your reading list? They’re literally Hitler and I’m literally shaking!

  7. Thank you for this text, Erik. This goes well in hand with what I have noticed during my, albeit few, years in Lund. Might I add that it was a privilege to have had you as a lecturer during my last year in Lund. Extremely interesting course (Rationality, Emotions and War), great discussions and – perhaps most of all – no “forced” nonsense.

  8. Erik, I share your views absolutely but I think that you should persevere. For at least three reasons. The first one being that it will make you feel better and avoids making you a victim of personal anticipatory socialisation. The second reason is that if you give in, lesser souls will do so already when they draft an upcoming idea for a new course. And thirdly, if you don’t abandon ship, it will convey a message to the ‘gender-is-all’ group that you are NOT against their basic aspects – which you have clearly formulated, but some arenas are better suited than others. As for your reputation, persevere and it will grow. I am a strategy consultant, innovator and PhD-student at the Dept. of Business Adm. in Lund.

    1. Hi Johan, yes, I clearly need some advice from a strategy consultant here. I see the logic of what you are saying, and if nothing else it would prevent me from having to develop an entirely new course, but right now the whole issue is just too infected. I can imagine major student-led demonstrations against my course if I give it next semester.

      Erik

  9. Clearly, these students have nothing to do at a university, and I suggest you ask them to remove themselves and their “safe spaces” from the premises.
    It’s people like these that made Socrates drink from the poison cup. They have NOTHING to do in university.

    1. Hi Aristoteles, yes, this “safe spaces” talk is indeed worrying, at least as long as it means “we can’t accept that others challenge our claims.” No one should be safe in that sense. That’s the whole point of what we do.

      Erik

  10. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happened if you filled up the list with female authors that were relevant to the subject of authoritarianism even if they were not authoritarians themselves, but refused to include Judith Butler? That would really put your opponents to the test. Maybe exerpts from something of this could be useful (all female authors):
    Else Frenkel-Brunswik,
    Hédi Fried,
    Hanna Arendt,
    Anne Appelbaum,
    Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement 1923-45 by Julie V. Gottlieb,
    Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust,
    Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower
    Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, by herself
    How Fascism Ruled Women, Italy, 1922-1945 by Victoria de Grazia
    Pioneering Female Modernity: Fascist Women in Colonial Africa, by Cristina Lombardi-Diop (book chapter)
    The Female Condition During Mussolini’s and Salazar’s Regimes, by Mariya Chokova (Thesis)
    Mothers of Invention: Women, Italian Facism, and Culture, by Robin Pickering-Iazzi
    Italian Fascism and the Female Body: Sport, Submissive Women and Strong Mothers, by Gigliola Gori
    Or perhaps Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi (masculinity and globalization in more modern times)

    1. Hi Kristian, thanks for that list of titles. I’ll file it away and keep it for some rainy day when I have an opportunity to teach this course again. Maybe not at Lund U though.

      Erik

  11. “growth and spread of fascism is an important and timely subject”, thanks!, finally!

    Its playing the same role as religion and have very little to do with facts and proofs. Therefore, it is also dangerious, especially for academia. Wouldn’t be surprise, without starting to push this behaviour firmly back now, resolutely, we soon see something similar to a cultural revolution when they want to establish their ideals. Question is how they will punsih those that does not agree, do like pol pot or force people into re-education camps.

    Student Union should maybe retake some exams in history and political science to at lest start understand they are trying to repeat dark periods of our history. its a suggestion for self help.

    1. I’ve seen references to “Maoists” on Twitter and I began by thinking they were exaggerations, but now I’m no longer sure. That is, you just might be on to something here. During the Cultural Revolution too the students were denouncing their teachers and insisting on the right to make their own reading lists. It’s actually pretty frightening.

  12. You should, if you have the energy, teach the course on the f-ing internet. Let them have their safe space dwelling in Butler where I for one, who’s not even student at LU, would love to take the course in whatever form you see fit. The topic is to important to be censured by ignorant students.

  13. Coward. If professors keep on refusing to take a stand and let yourselves be pushed around by teenagers, this will destroy the humanities beyond recovery. You are the one with the expertise. They are students.

    1. Yeah, Ann, I know. I am indeed a coward. But it’s a difficult situation when no one in the faculty of my department stands up for the same thing. They are all keeping their heads down and hoping for my sudden exit. Moreover, the students are backed up by official government policy which mandates “gender equality” on all levels of the university. There are only two of us in the whole country who have complained about this (a literary historian at a university in Stockholm). If everyone around you has lost their minds, how do you know you are sane?

      Erik

  14. You write here that the your course is about reactionaries and facists in the turn of the last century. But link to a course description and reading list that includes all kind of criticism of modernity into the last decades. Can you clarify, what kind of course is this, what have the students signed up for?

    1. Hi Martin, glad you asked that question. The course deals with “modern society” defined as the broad consensus that emerges out of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. What that course investigates are the people who occupied positions outside of this tradition. That includes all kinds of people, German and Russian Romantics and nationalists, critics of “machine society,” philosophers of home and homelessness, critics of rationalism and ideas of human “liberation.” This is a course in the history of ideas, not in social or political history. My own research interest concerns the emergence of Fascism at the time of the First World War and there is quite a heavy emphasis on this material. Hope this helps.

      Erik

      1. Thanks for quick reply.
        I looked at the course desciription now. Why was more modern thinkers like Butler, Hayek, Marcuse and Heidegger included in the literature list in the first place? Did you take over the course from someone else?

    2. Hi Martin, certainly not. This is our own design. When we taught the course last year there was a week on “post-modernism,” this is where the Butler reading first appeared. For this year we cut out that week since the material fit badly with the rest of the course and since the readings were far, far too difficult for the students. The committee, in their wisdom, but Butler back on the reading list without realizing that she had no theme to week to return to. The charitable interpretation is that they were being careless and didn’t look at the reading list properly.

      Erik

  15. Jag tycker att det är underligt att institutionen (och vissa av studenterna för den delen) inte kan se att man måste prioritera kurslitteratur som har format och påverkat de bärande idéerna inom ett visst ämne, framför kurslitteratur som inte gjort det. Könskvotering i andra sammanhang är en sak, men när det gäller kunskap och utbildning måste man utgå från det som är relevant för ämnet. Det är skevt att försöka skriva om historian genom att leta fram texter som kvinnor skrivit (om man nu hittar några) som faktiskt inte var viktiga på sin tid (helt enkelt därför att kvinnor historiskt inte haft möjlighet att få tänka och presentera sina idéer på samma sätt som män eller för att kvinnors texter inte uppmärksammades) och påstå att de var det, eller använda dem som om de var det. Förstår heller inte hur detta skulle gynna kvinnor idag. Däremot tycker jag att man ska sträva efter att föra in kvinnor i litteraturlistan sålänge dessa texter är relevanta, men är de inte det, vilket de inte ofta var historiskt, kan man inte tvinga läraren att göra det. Man kan alltid påpeka kvinnors situation och förklara varför man inte hittat relevanta texter skrivna av kvinnor. Har för övrigt haft dig som lärare denna termin i delkurs 1 i statsvetenskap och du är en fantastisk lärare!

  16. Erik – you address a very important topic! Allowing these anti-intellectual forces impact academia is exceptionally serious and should be fought back with everything possible! Post-modernistic gender theories is ideology and not science. Forced ideology does not belong in academia!

    1. Anders, thanks. I agree. But I also think that getting rid of post-modern nonsense is to argue with it. Arguments become difficult when the nonsense is imposed from above.

  17. You might want to revise your criteria for what counts as right-wing or right-leaning, if you think only women who were against female suffrage would qualify. British suffragettes were typically right-wing, and several of them were involved with British fascism from the very beginning.

    1. Hi Lena, the history of the suffragette movement is indeed very interesting. On the course web site we have a podcast from the BBC that discusses this. Well worth a listen: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/5/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p02q5dx7.mp3
      The course is not actually about the social or political history of fascism but instead the political thought that emerged as a reaction to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. This includes conservatives like Burke and de Maistre, and early nationalists like Fichte and late nationalists like Heidegger. If there were women authors who wrote in this tradition, I would be very happy to include them in the course (next time I teach it, perhaps in a different country, a different group of students).

  18. För några år sedan hörde jag en skolchef berätta att skolorna i den aktuella kommunen slutat anställa lärare med examen från lärarhögskolan i Malmö. Anledningen var att många lärare som examinerats där hade hobbyämnen i sin examen, samtidigt som de saknade kärnämnen. Exempelvis kunde lågstadielärare ha valt bort hur man lär barn att läsa för att kunna läsa om sin hobby.
    Nu är frågan hur länge det dröjer innan svenska företag och institutioner huvudsakligen söker efter personal som studerat utomlands, eller flyttar utomlands för att få kompetenta medarbetare, istället för indoktrinerade dilettanter men tyckarkurser från svenska universitet och högskolor.

    1. Nej men visst va. Och samhällvetenskaperna och humaniora ligger speciellt illa till eftersom de lätt kan utsättas för politisk styrning. Vi kan bli helt irrelevanta på nolltid. Det enda sättet att försvara våra ämnen är att garantera den akademiska friheten.

  19. This is a ridiculous situation. If there weren’t many women who advocated fascist ideas at the turn of the 20th century, then there will be few of them on a reading list as well. Judith Butler has nothing to do with the subject of the course. I think both Lund University and the students are being stupid. One cannot teach with quotas on authors. I applaud your decision not to teach the course.

    1. Dear Pinar, thanks for your support. What obviously is a good aim — to improve gender equality — has been turned into an administrative directive that no one dares to do anything about for fear of alienating a very vocal group of activists. Besides, all Swedish academics are dependent on research grants from the government and they are all lining up to affirm their loyalty to the current system. As always, I can’t stop myself from speaking my mind ….

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