The Judith Butler on the “Judith Butler Affair”: “The method is wrong”

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The latest issue of the Swedish magazine Kvartal has an interview with none other than Judith Butler herself. The Judith Butler. Pdf here.  In the interview she comments on the recent “Judith Butler Affair” at Lund University, on the use of gender quotas on reading lists, and discusses the role of academic freedom at a university. I am delighted to find that she agrees with my position on all of these issues. And not just half-heartedly either, but with gusto, with zest and with emphasis. Judith, you are the best!

I have promised the author of the article not to publish the whole English version of the interview here. Not surprisingly, he wants to find a more, well, prominent, place for it. But here, at least, are a couple of quotes:

How do you regard having your work imposed on a university lecturer in the name of gender equality?

JB: I am not in favor of my work being imposed by quotas. … Suggestions can be made about how to expand perspectives on gender, or which texts might be useful, but the final judgment has to be made by the faculty member. I am opposed to imposing specific texts and authors on faculty. I would myself reject any such attempt on the part of the administration, no matter the social goals that they seek to achieve through that method.  The method is wrong, and the goals cannot be achieved through coercion.

You have written several texts on academic freedom. Why is academic freedom important? 

JB:  Academic freedom is the protection that faculty have against administrative or state intervention in our research activities, the curricula for our courses, and our academic point of view. … Of course, we can, and ought to be, challenged when our work demonstrates prejudice, bias, or consequential blind-spots.  But that has to happen through conversation and public dialogue.  If it is imposed by a university authority, then that authority is augmented, and we expand the power of the administration to control what we teach.  What happens if the administration becomes a fascist one? Or what if it decides to ban feminist perspectives from the classroom?  If we give that power away, we suffer its consequences.

If not gender quotas, how should we work to achieve greater gender equality in our universities?

JB:  Quotas are a short-cut, and they cannot achieve the social justice goal.  Social justice is achieved through freedom, and any concept of social justice that denies freedom denies justice itself.  We know this from the struggle against censorship.  Equality and Freedom are equally important: freedom without equality is unjust; but so too is equality without freedom.  Let us hold in mind that complexity as we proceed.

Judith Butler provides strong support for my position on three issues. She too believes 1) that university teachers should not be required to teach specific texts; 2) reading lists should not be ruled by gender quotas; and 3) how courses are taught at a university should be decided by the teacher responsible, in accordance with professional standards, and not be dictated by outsiders. None of these three requirements are currently met at the Department of Political Science at Lund University.

Judith and I are in complete agreement. If you think I’m mistaken you will from now on have to tussle with the two of us.


  1. Could you clarify, Professor: was the matter specifically Butler, or was it that the new version did not include enough women on the reading list and the inclusion of Butler would resolve the issue?

    It seems pretty easy to me, as someone not academic but quite interested in the history of the period, to reach any reasonable quota if teaching the violent response to modern society in the first part of the 20th century. I hear you added anarchism, but couldn’t you also add Communism? That was certainly violent. And it had a number of prolific female authors. Not just Russians like Kollontai and Krupskaya, but also Clara Zetkin, Dolores Ibarruri, Rose Luxembourg… One could basically study Communism by works of women alone. Or women plus Lenin for a more rounded picture.

    This is not a statement that Cmmunism was wrong (or right) or that it was comparable to fascism (or not). Simply that it was also a violent response to modern society in the period.

    1. Hi Ramendik, good question. We had had Butler on the reading list a previous year, in a section on “post-modernism.” The idea was that po-mo would be another example of a critique of modern society. We removed that week since it didn’t fit well with the other romantic and conservative material. The Butler text was also too difficult for our students. The board of the political science department then decided to put Butler back in although she had no theme to go back to. When some students started insisting on reading Butler is when I lost my patience.

      Including Communist authors is certainly something I’ve thought about, and The Communist Manifesto ended up on the reading lists. However, Communism doesn’t fit very well since it wasn’t a critique of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. I wanted to focus on romantic and rightwing thought.

      1. Thanks, bit now I am confused. How can students wanting to read (as opposed to “refusing to read”) something become a problem?

        I think that Communism *was* a critique of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Specifically for hypocrisy, for proclaiming universal rights nit not actually delivering them to anyone except a limited bourgeois group. This criticism seems quite related to that by the Revolution’s contemporary, Olympe de Gouges. I’ve just read some pretty chilling words by Alexandra Kollontai (1906) specifically about modern society, but sadly I could not find an English translation. So I’ll furnish just a couple of phrases myself. is the Russian-language link in case you might have a way to read it (Google might help some but not sure).

        “The people of labour have never had a sweet life. But they never knew such misery, humiliation, abject poverty, rightlessness as is reigning since the time that the factories and manufacturing plants appeared everywhere, that is, the large capitalist production system has become established. Every day more and more people fall into paupery, go bankrupt and join the ranks of the proletariat, those who live by selling their labouring hands. … The world is being divided ever sharper into two hostile camps: the capitalist owners and the proletarians, there is ever more hate and anger in people’s hearts”.

  2. I would also suggest that a course studying Fascism and Communism (and anarchism) would possibly be a *better course* than one studying Fascism alone. It would be a better reflection on what was actually going on with Euro-American societies at the time. In fact, much of the sad success of Fascism, especially in its German Nazi form, is very hard to explain without referencing Communism and reactions to Communism.

    1. Hi again,

      This is no doubt a way in which the course could have been changed and maybe improved. “Right and left-wing critics of capitalism,” something like that. I would have been happy to teach a course like that too. However, under present circumstances I believe this course is quite beyond redemption. Sad, but true.

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