Today Reason published a piece by Jesse Singal about an English professor named Elisa Parrett. Parrett teaches at a public technical college outside of Seattle called the Lake Washington Institute of Technology. Last June 19, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the school held an event called Courageous Conversations which was based partly on Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. The event was mandatory in the sense that the school’s president sent an email asking every professor to attend unless they had a conflict with their teaching schedule. It was also segregated by race, meaning whites in one room and people of color in a separate one.
Knowing what was coming, Parrett decided to write out a statement which she intended to read during the session. She asked a couple of other professors to offer input on her draft beforehand. Jesse Singal got a recording of the entire meeting and here’s his description of what Parrett said.
About an hour and 20 minutes in, Parrett said, “Hi, I would like to speak, if I may.” The moderator replied, “Mm-hmm,” indicating that she could go ahead. Parrett then explained that she had noticed something she was hoping to point out to the group and asked if she could have five minutes to read a statement she had prepared. The facilitator didn’t respond to this (at least not audibly), and a beat later Parrett continued.
“Over the past couple of weeks, a lot has happened,” Parrett began. “Protests have occurred, riots have broken out, people have been killed. And across the United States, companies, organizations, and schools have proclaimed their support of a movement called ‘Anti-racism'”—here Parrett was referring to the capital-A variety. Parrett went on to complain about the segregated setting of the training and what she saw as the generally closed-minded nature of the nation’s post-Floyd discourse. “Democracy thrives on conversations, but what we are seeing happening right now in the United States is not a conversation,” she read. “It is a coup. Everyday Americans of all colors, creeds, backgrounds, and beliefs are being held hostage. Zealots are telling us, ‘You’re either with us or against us, and if you’re against us, you’re an evil bigot.’ They are telling us, ‘You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem.’ They are telling us that all people may be classified into two sides: us or them, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, people of color or white, righteous or bigoted, oppressed or privileged. I don’t accept such false dichotomies, and I don’t accept the ad hominem implications that come with it. Too often, words like ‘privileged,’ ‘defensive,’ and ‘fragile’ are just ways to dismiss what another person has to say. Too often, words like ‘racist’ are just a way to intimidate someone into silence.” Parrett argued that people should work together to solve “real problems like wealth disparity, poverty, job insecurity, unemployment, the high cost of living, or the fracturing of the nuclear family, whatever form that family takes,” but are waylaid by those who claim the “real problems” are “racism, sexism, transphobia…[and] hateful words.”
“Thank you, Elisa,” said the facilitator, cutting Parrett off about three minutes into her remarks. “No, you don’t get to cut me off—I’m going to finish what I have to say,” she responded. “I’m going to ask that you share the platform with the rest of the 200 nearly people who are here today,” replied the facilitator. But Parrett continued for about another minute, telling the all-white attendees of the mandatory, segregated conversation that universities should be places where “ideas could be discussed, explored, debated, and assessed”—and that “this is not that.”
As Singal points out, none of this is extremist language. It’s all stuff that at least half the country believes. But there were some upset people in the room who didn’t like Parrett’s decision to attempt to contradict the basis of the entire meeting. After a brief disruption, the conversation continued on its intended course. Later, some people privately thanked Parrett for her statement and a couple days afterwards she got what she thought was a supportive call from a school vice president who wanted to know how she was doing.
But five days later Parrett got an email from President Amy Morrison which had a very different tone. It read in part, “Because of your egregious behavior which has led to substantial harm to hundreds of colleagues on campus, I have asked Dr. Ames, Dean Doug Emory, and [executive director of H.R.] Meena Park to meet with you in the next few days to have a serious conversation about how successful you can possibly be on campus in the future.”
Two days later, Parrett was placed on administrative leave. President Morrison sent a lengthy email mentioning Parrett by name and saying she was stunned by her statement during the training. A disciplinary complaint was filed against Parrett by the vice president who’d made the seemingly supportive call to her a few days earlier. The complaint alleged Parrett had behaved in a “corrupt, insolent and insubordinate manner.”
When Singal emailed the Vice President about the story, she doubled down and claimed that Parrett had been “aggressively yelling at folks in the meeting.” At the time, she was apparently unaware that Singal had the audio of the entire session. When he sent her a copy and asked her to point out where Parrett had yelled at anyone, a university spokesperson suggested Parrett’s “visible anger” wasn’t conveyed by the audio.
After a months-long investigation which cost the school a minimum of $80,000 and generated reports that were cumulatively about 200 pages long, the school suddenly announced about two weeks ago that the outcome would be a written reprimand and a demand that Parrett create no further disturbances to the school’s anti-racism efforts. Here union rep is filing a grievance about that since it’s not clear a tenured professor can be forbidden from speaking about an issue on campus.
But as Singal notes, the story goes well beyond this one school or one professor. It’s about a tactic employed by woke progressives in many similar situations. That tactic is to claim harm in a way that is unsupported and irrational.
In parts of academia and media, it appears to be increasingly common for left-leaning people to make inflated claims of harm when they are exposed within their community to opinions that might rate as blandly center-right or even center-left in a broader context. In other words, the victims of these inquisitions are often accused of having perpetrated a level of harm that would strike a reasonable observer as a profound exaggeration of what occurred.
Parrett’s case is drenched in harm claims. According to the LWTech administration, hundreds of her colleagues were rendered so distraught by her words they couldn’t even do their jobs. She also needed to be punished, according to Ames, for the harm she could commit against a hypothetical student from a marginalized background…
In this worldview, everything is a harm. There is no such thing as legitimate political disagreement, because we (the progressive in-group) already know the correct answer to every question (even if the answer can sometimes change overnight), and anyone who disagrees clearly—clearly—does so not because of some well-founded political or philosophical difference but because that person wants to harm the innocent people we are righteously hellbent on protecting. There is literally no other explanation for such a difference of opinion, and it doesn’t matter whether the opinion being denounced is held by the majority of Americans.
This is how anti-racism operates. Vague and extremely broad claims of harm are alleged based on speech and specific and narrow punishment is then proposed as a remedy for these alleged harms, i.e. you hurt the feelings of this group and therefore you should lose your job.
In this case Parrett did not lose her job because she had tenure and because the allegations against her have no connection to any grounds for firing listed in her employment contract. But that didn’t stop the school from spending nine months trying its best to find an excuse to oust her. This is becoming the new normal.