Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"Vulgar Intersectionality" Doesn't Strike Again

For the past few months, I've been following the story of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a Jewish professor who was summarily terminated from his tenured position at Oregon's Linfield University after whistleblowing about sexual assault allegations against members of the university's board of trustees (Pollack-Pelzner was the faculty delegate to the board). Pollack-Pelzner also had complained of antisemitic language used by the university President.

The AAUP has just released its investigation and report into the incident, and it is blistering in condemning the university and its treatment of Pollack-Pelzner. The report is about 20 pages long, and is absolutely unsparing -- definitely worth reading if you want a thorough account of what happened here. One would struggle to find a more vicious (and frankly petty) abuse of power by a university administration against one of its tenured faculty than is presented here.

Here, I only want to add one thing. The President of the University (whom Pollack-Pelzner had accused of using antisemitic language) is African-American, and as the allegations against him and other high-level university leaders began to pick up steam in the media, he started to complain that the backlash against him was racist in character -- even enlisting the NAACP to conduct its own investigation. That investigation, in turn, inveighed against groups like the ADL and other Jewish organizations who had vigorously backed Pollack-Pelzner, and characterized the allegations against the President as "what systemic and institutionalized racism looks like in Oregon."

I do not venture an opinion as to whether the university president has faced disproportionate scrutiny on account of his race. Clearly, such treatment would in no way justify the inexcusable fashion he and Linfield had treated Professor Pollack-Pelzner.

However, I flag this because of what it tells us about a certain alleged trend that we are often told is ascendant if not unchallengeable in spaces like education and academia. Sometimes dubbed "vulgar intersectionality", this is the claim that in putatively progressive spaces the only factor that is functionally considered in cases of controversy or conflict is a sort of crude ranking of oppressions, one where (we are told) Jews are slotted in with privileged White folks (and accordingly ignored) while groups like African-Americans are giving immediate and unquestioning deference -- facts be damned.

If this thesis were true, it would suggest that in this case -- where a White Jewish man (alleging, among other things, antisemitism) was in conflict with a Black man (making a counter-allegation of racism) -- a group like the AAUP would have unquestionably backed the university president and vilified Pollack-Pelzner. This, we are told, is the hegemony of vulgar intersectionality: Jews are at the bottom (or top, depending on your point of view) of the totem pole, and so are unworthy of support when victimized or wounded -- still less, when the perpetrator is a member of the "favored" (to the intersectionalists) class.

But of course, this is not what happened. This is not even close to what happened. The AAUP conducted its investigation, assessed what happened, and again, backed Pollack-Pelzner to the hilt. It specifically condemned any effort to use claims of racism "to invalidate or distract attention from other allegations" of discrimination, such as those here. Simply put, the report's approach could not have been further from that predicted by the "vulgar intersectionality" thesis -- a thesis which always relied more on social panic than empirical observation.

I am pleased, of course, to see Professor Pollack-Pelzner vindicated. I hope that he his restored to his position at Linfield (if that is his desire), or gains whatever recompense or remediation he believes is his due. And I hope the Linfield administration listens to the robust consensus of its faculty and students (who have loudly rallied behind Pollack-Pelzner and the community members he had been supporting as a whistleblower) and shifts course away from these sorts of abuses and towards the ideal of academic freedom and shared governance.

1 comment:

LWE said...

The president clearly attempted to invoke "vulgar intersectionality", although his attempt was rejected.