Blog Post

Recap: Scholars for Social Justice Twitter Chat

Image featuring photos of the chat's participants and their Twitter handles. Text reads "Scholars for Social Justice Presents #SSJResist Twitter Chat. Racism Resistance & Free Speech. Tuesday, February 13, 7PM CST"

Last Tuesday, February 13th, Scholars for Social Justice (SSJ) held their first Twitter chat on the subject of "Racism, Resistance, and Free Speech” using the hashtag #SSJResist. The chat’s invited participants were Charlene Carruthers, Cathy Cohen, Alvaro Huerta, Barbara Ransby, C. Riley Snorton, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and the conversation was moderated by Jenn Jackson.

Scholars for Social Justice formed in the summer of 2017 as “a new formation of progressive scholars committed to promoting and fighting for a political agenda that insists on justice for all, especially those most vulnerable.” SSJ intends to mobilize the knowledge, skills, and resources of scholars to battle repressive attacks on marginalized communities, focusing on reparations for slavery, immigration and migration, gender justice, transnational solidarity, resistance to white supremacy and anti-black racism, anti-state violence and anti-mass incarceration, and labor rights and economic justice.

Academia has long struggled with how to position itself in solidarity with communities on the front lines. Its “ivory tower” reputation speaks to those who choose to make the issues facing marginalized communities the subject of academic scholarship but would rather not engage in activist organizing, but also to the structures of higher education which often make commitments to social justice praxis difficult to maintain and carry out. However, the punishing of dissenting voices within academia, the defunding of public education (in particular of the arts and humanities), the exploitation of university staff and contingent faculty labor, and rising student tuition and debt ought to remind us that these issues are not far beyond university walls and of our responsibilities to act. Therefore, part of SSJ’s work is also to “reimagine the academy”- expanding who it serves, who has access to it, and who shapes its mission. The chat was an exciting conversation- a glimpse into the current landscape of issues we are fighting on our individual campuses and of the possibilities that can emerge from a coalition of scholars for social justice.

Q1: There seems to be an increase in the number of universities and colleges using the framework of free speech to allow white supremacists like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campuses. Is there anything such as free speech on college campuses?

A1: "Free speech" is as much an ideology as it is a principle. Situations in which white supremacists are invited to campus under the banner of so-called free speech reveal it to be an instrument of white supremacist ideology. #SSJResist

— C. Riley Snorton (@CRileySnorton) February 14, 2018

3/it is only with the Right that this idea of unchecked free speech arises...for everyone else on campus, speech is regulated, monitored and surveilled. This is core to the myth of the liberal campus. it does not exist.

— Keeanga-Yamahtta T. (@KeeangaYamahtta) February 14, 2018

Many highlighted the inconsistencies in how the framework of free speech is deployed on our campuses, often to justify giving platforms to ideas that spread hate and incite violence, while not extended to defending unions, contingent faculty, graduate students, and campus staff. Power and privilege affect who can speak out and not have to suffer consequences.

Q2: The Free Speech Movement was once aligned with the left. What has changed about “free speech” in recent years and why does it require more attention and analysis from the progressive scholars and activists?

Folks questioned the idea that free speech was once aligned with the left. As much as free speech has benefited leftist movements, it has also always been a strategy of the right to advance agendas of their own. Free speech has never been guaranteed for all.

Q3: Often the media and others suggest that opposition to alt-right and white nationalists speakers on campuses are examples of folks on the left limiting free speech. Are there some folks on the left, esp POC, who've been attacked by institutions for their beliefs?

Many called attention to the silencing of voices, including student clubs and university faculty, speaking out against Zionism, advocating for BDS, and/or on behalf of Palestinian struggle. Women of color, queer, and trans faculty are also particularly vulnerable as universities cave into right wing pressures rather than defending faculty.

Q4: How has the framework or ideology of free speech been used against communities of color, women, Muslim and queer folks?

#ssjresist A4: We know there is an asymmetrical burden that comes from the promotion of free speech. Those who are targeted by hate speech as asked to "tolerate" the challenging of their basic humanity so that others can enjoy the idea of free speech.

— Cathy Cohen (@cathyjcohen) February 14, 2018

The ideology of free speech often disguises what is really hate speech that advocates for ideas and policies bent on the destruction of marginalized communities including people of color, women, Muslim, and queer folks. Furthermore, SSJ contributing member Chaumtoli Huq noted that when the ideology of free speech is not extended to defend faculty, women of color (who are concentrated in the least secure academic positions) face disproportionate consequences, recreating inequalities within the academy.

Q5: What lessons can we learn from history and from situations in other parts of the world about the repression of dissident and left voices, most notably the situations in Palestine and Turkey, and parts of Latin America and Africa?

#ssjresist A5: We learn a lot of from the rest of the world. First: the idea of the university is outside of politics is a dangerous myth. In Latin America, everyone knows that university reproduces the dominant class, but it also produces resistance movements @ScholarsForSJ

— Tianna (@tpaschel) February 14, 2018

A5 #SSJResist The expectation of civility in response to voices that deny your very humanity is the epitome of colonialism and white supremacy. One is expected 2 respectfully disagree w/ the proposition that u & your people are less than human.

— Barbara Ransby (@BarbaraRansby) February 14, 2018

A5. I learn so much from other parts of the world that our desire for freedom can't be suppressed; amazed by activists who organize, writers write despite repression. I learn to lean into my own courage and live my principles. #SSJResist

— Chaumtoli Huq (@lawatmargins) February 14, 2018

Scholars asked us to look to the #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa and movements in Latin America for lessons on power and freedom.

Q6: Why should movements like the Movement for Black Lives care about an issue such as free speech? What does free speech have to do with the movements on the ground?

A6. Liberation movements are being presented as violent/dangerous ("black identity extremism" or "radical Muslims") justifying restriction of the message and criminalizing. We need an intervention on how free speech is discussed that includes power, context, history #ssjresist

— Chaumtoli Huq (@lawatmargins) February 14, 2018

A6: The right to criticize, to be a dissident, to speak truth to power, is at the heart of progressive social movements. If we can’t speak, we can’t organize, and we can’t change the world #SSJResist

— premilla nadasen (@premillanadasen) February 14, 2018

Free speech has everything to do with movements on the ground.

Q7: What types of speech most concern you in this political moment?

A7: i am most worried for those of us in the middle of desperate breaths, struggling for legible words, because some of this shit feels so deadly overwhelming #SSJResist

— Dylan Rodríguez (@dylanrodriguez) February 14, 2018

#ssjresist A7. I am inspired by the speech of activists like @CharleneCac and @BYP_100 who are putting forth an analysis meant to make anti-black racism legible while also mounting a struggle on the group meant to empower our communities.

— Cathy Cohen (@cathyjcohen) February 14, 2018

Many were concerned with who gets to speak and what narratives get to be heard.

Q8: As scholars, activists, and practitioners, what can we do to effect change around hate speech? How do we actively resist it?

#SSJResist Q8 In moments like this it is easy to fall into saying what we are against...and we should, but we have to also say what we want. I want to organize solidarity. I want an end to the raids and deportations/ an end to police terror/ an end to white nationalism...

— Keeanga-Yamahtta T. (@KeeangaYamahtta) February 14, 2018

There was a loud call to speak out and organize. For those within the university, we can mobilize the spaces and resources we have access to amplify marginalized voices through talks, teach-ins, workshops, even, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor suggests, “our own speaking tour to counter the Spencer tour.”

Q9: How can the work of SSJ and progressive academics and activists more broadly work to resist hate speech and oppression of marginalized communities? What would you like to see this organization do?

A9 SSJ can be a vehicle for linking the forms of repression and resistance within & beyond the academy #ssjresist

— Adom Getachew (@AdomGetachew) February 14, 2018

A9: I hope we can help strengthen resistance strategies between campuses and regions, helping people prep for and respond to attacks by building deep and strong networks, sharing tactics, connecting off-campus work to on-campus work, and defending each other. #SSJResist

— dean spade (@deanspade) February 14, 2018

We encourage graduate students and scholars, activists, and those doing work in vulnerable communities to visit our website and consider joining the organization at #SSJResist

— Scholars for Social Justice (@ScholarsForSJ) February 14, 2018

Many saw a network like SSJ as being crucial to linking struggles inside and outside of the university. What also came up during the chat was the use of classrooms as a space to model how to engage in debates around these critical issues.

I’d love to hear your responses to the chat’s questions below or on Twitter with the hashtag #SSJResist.


1 comment

Thank you for sharing this summary of a rich and important topic. I recently attended the conference of the African American Intellectual History Society where Dr. Ransby was the keynote speaker, her discussion of 21st century black insurgent thought was critically important for thinking about scholar-activism, its meaning + significance, and practical ways we can be engaged and encourage our students to think depthfully. I'm looking forward to more chats by Scholars for Social Justice.