It is still unclear whether or not Cal State Fresno Professor Ronda Jarrar had the 1st Amendment right to Twitter shame with professional impunity – thanks to her tenured status – the character of the recently deceased Barbara Bush and her still living family. Whether Professor Jarrar was actually right or not to do so is perfectly clear. Like Professor Jarrar, I am an award-winning author and a professor of creative writing. Unlike Professor Jarrar, I do not have tenure but I do recognize that my role as a professor in an institute of higher learning comes, unofficially but without question, with an obligation for higher personal conduct.
College professors are tasked with preparing students not only for the professional work place but also for their role as active citizens in a democracy. And that democracy depends, in large part, on the educated class whom we are nurturing. This is particularly true in the Humanities and especially so in writing courses, where Professor Jarrar and I work, since accomplished reading and writing fosters the critical thinking skills that differentiate the educated class regardless of their eventual political affiliation. This is why education is not just empowering for individuals but crucial for the continuation of a democracy. We are tasked with generating souls and minds capable of logic and reason, who are suspicious of those who appeal to fear; we are in the practice of producing the opposite of the now notorious “low information voters” who have been manipulated by propaganda and the vitriol that so informs our national discourse and personal lives.
We, as writing instructors, are the arbiters of discourse and should, therefore, abstain from the types of hate speech that Professor Jarrar unleashed on the former first lady via Twitter. This is not only a horrific example of how to comport oneself as an educator, but it is also exactly the type of example those who generally truck in this type of behavior will use to their advantage to undermine any moral authority the left has over the far (or alt) right.
So, yes, this is not just ethical but political. We are in the midst of a culture war with the very soul of America at risk. The halls of higher education are often demonized by the right as indoctrination labs for liberal group think. This is somewhat accurate as educators and those being educated are simply attracted, both intellectually and empathetically, to the ideas typically espoused by the political left. This doesn’t guarantee any moral authority, though. Such authority has to be earned through the practice of what is preached (inclusivity, justice, compassion, common sense and the common good).
Any opportunity for higher education’s association with illiberal-ism (and there are legitimate examples of this: safe spaces and petulant riots, overzealous professors and capitulation to entitlement, et al.) will be seized upon with great enthusiasm and utilized to even greater effect.
How many disingenuous and distracting segments on propaganda TV will this latest episode inspire? How many pages will be filled on far-right websites and blogs? How many rebuttals of “Well, how about Professor Jarrar…” will be referenced by conservative opinion writers when someone spits similar statements about a prominent figure on the left?
Roger Stone, a long-standing adviser to President Trump, also said some awful things via Twitter about Barbara Bush upon her death, but the public push back against Mr. Stone does not compare whatsoever to that of which Professor Jarrar received. This makes sense, sadly in so many ways, because vitriol is expected of such figures as Mr. Stone and not from professors of English who should adhere to a higher standard.
Educators are not pundits or provocateurs; we should not be part of any Twitter mob. Part of our job is to represent the values and intellect and dignity we hope our students will practice in their personal and professional lives.
It’s being reported that George H. Bush, 41st President of the United States and widower of Barbara Bush, is now himself in failing health. I imagine many prayers throughout the nation are with him and his family. My prayers are that my peers in higher education refrain from hateful commentary upon his eventual passing.