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'Reading the Riot Act' to Truth-Tellers at UT San Antonio

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1952, Eve A. Browning received her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, in 1979. After teaching for three years at Ohio State University and a year at the University of Denver, she spent three decades on the faculty of the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Three years ago she left Duluth for the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she now chairs the Department of Philosophy and Classics. She has two academic books to her name, both published in 1992: one, co-edited by her, is about “feminist ethics,” and the other, written by her, is about “feminist criticism.” She's published scholarly papers in such journals as the University of Dayton Review and reviewed books for the Women's Studies Review and Women's Review of Books.

It's not a stellar CV, to put it mildly. Then again, over the years Browning has participated in conferences with titles that include the words “ethics” and “moral complexity” and “extreme vice” and “liberty and virtue” and “liberty and moral decline” and “character formation” and “modern freedom.” So you might expect that she's actually devoted some serious thought to these topics.

In September of last year, however, Browning had a meeting with a graduate student that raises sobering questions about the extent and depth of her reflection on these matters. The student was Alfred MacDonald, who at the time of the meeting had been studying philosophy at UTSA for about two months; Browning, in her capacity as department chair (he wasn't taking a class with her), had summoned him to her office for a discussion. About what? She wouldn't say. Her caginess on this point, and her unwillingness to handle the matter by e-mail, raised MacDonald's suspicions, and so he clandestinely taped their conversation, which in the state of Texas is legal. He posted the tape on YouTube, which took it down after Browning complained; the complete tape is now available here, with a shorter version here. There's also an online transcript of their exchange.

These videos and transcript are representative documents of our times.

After mentioning that MacDonald had missed a couple of classes – an issue that he acknowledged and explained – Browning came round to what was plainly the real problem in her eyes: she'd been informed that in a conversation MacDonald had recently had between classes, “the topic of one student being engaged to a Muslim” had come up, “and it was alleged that you made offensive comments about Islam to that student.”

MacDonald admitted at once to having said to another student: “I don’t think highly of Islam because I am bisexual and could be legally put to death in about a dozen countries that use Islam for their legal system.” But not until he'd said this did his interlocutor reveal that her fiance was a Muslim. Whereupon, says MacDonald, “I repeatedly told the student 'I’m sure he’s a great guy.' She seemed pleasant as if nothing had gone wrong, and then reported this to the chair afterward.”

Hence the meeting with Browning, who, after being told by MacDonald what he had said to his fellow student about Islam, asked him: Do you understand how someone would find that offensive?” Note well: Browning didn't mean that the Islamic death penalty for gay people is offensive; she had nothing to say about that. What she meant was that mentioning the penalty is offensive.

She then professed to be puzzled by MacDonald's reference to the Islamic death penalty:

EVE BROWNING: It’s a confusing comment to me because Muslims do not all live in countries in which bisexuals are executed. Muslims live in the United States –

ALFRED MACDONALD: Sure.

EVE BROWNING: – Muslims live in France, Muslims live in every country in the world – it’s the fastest growing world religion.

Needless to say, these facts were entirely irrelevant to MacDonald's point about Islamic law – and Browning cannot possibly be stupid enough to have thought otherwise. But MacDonald agreed that they were, indeed, facts, and even volunteered that “one of my good friends at the university is Muslim.” But this didn't win him any points with Browning, who asked: “And do you tell him that you object to his religion because there are places on earth where gay, lesbian and bisexual people are discriminated against, including your own country?”

This, of course, was a classic moral-equivalency ploy: hey, gays may be victims of “discrimination” in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but don't forget that they also experience prejudice in the U.S.! MacDonald corrected Browning, informing her that his Muslim friend was a “her,” not a “him,” and reiterating that when it came to the treatment of gays in those Islamic countries, he wasn't referring to mere discrimination but to execution. As he put it: “Death penalty’s pretty severe.”

But Browning couldn't even be bothered to agree. Instead, she resumed her attack on him for being “offensive”:

EVE BROWNING: What does that have to do with her being engaged to a Muslim?

ALFRED MACDONALD: Nothing. I wasn’t talking about the engagement to the Muslim. I was talking about Islam in that particular moment.

EVE BROWNING: Well, let me just say that kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department. We’re not going to tolerate graduate students trying to make other graduate students feel terrible for our emotional attachments.

She then threatened to refer MacDonald to the university's “Behavior Intervention Team,” which, she explained, is “trained on talking to people about what’s appropriate or what isn’t,” or to “the student conduct board,” which had the power to recommend his dismissal from the university. When MacDonald commented that he “thought that UTSA was a public university with first amendment protections” and expressed surprise that he could be kicked out for stating objective facts about Islam, Browning affirmed that this was indeed the case, and that the chief objective of her conversation with him was to try to “inculcate” in him “professional standards and performance and behavior” – because when anyone deviates from these standards, “students are intimidated; they don’t learn well, they aren’t happy, they don’t flourish, they leave the program.”

Browning then repeated these points at some length, saying that “confrontational interaction with other graduate students is objectionable and unprofessional,” that MacDonald's Islam comment had been “very objectionable,” that “if you do behave objectionably...you’re not being a constructive member of the community,” and so on. When MacDonald tried to push back against her characterization of his Islam remark, she complained: “You’re clearly expressing a lot of resistance to what I’m telling you.” And she told him that if he were working under her in an office environment, his Islam comment “would get you fired.”

ALFRED MACDONALD: Would it really get me fired to say that I could be killed somewhere?

EVE BROWNING: In that situation as you’ve described it, absolutely yes.

ALFRED MACDONALD: How?

EVE BROWNING: Don’t even ask. It’s clear you’re not taking my word for it. I don’t care to convince you. If I can’t persuade you that it’s in your interest to behave in ways that other people don’t find offensive and objectionable, then at least I’ve done my job.

ALFRED MACDONALD: Well I know that it’s in my interest. I’m just trying to understand the reasoning.

EVE BROWNING: You don’t have to.

ALFRED MACDONALD: Well, this is a truth[-]seeking discipline!

And how did the philosophy professor respond to this perfectly factual, utterly appropriate observation? She laughed.

For her, apparently, this wasn't a question of ethics or logic – it was a matter of shutting up and obeying the rules. Period. “I’m not out to persuade you,” she admitted. “I’m just out to read you the riot act basically.”

Yes, she actually said that. In her own words, she “read the riot act” to a student for having articulated an appalling truth about Islam and for having expected a philosophy professor to provide him with a philosophically sound reason why he should keep silent about that truth.

As MacDonald wrote the other day on Facebook: “You should be able to criticize the religious leanings of anyone, anywhere, on any taxpayer-funded university campus outside of a classroom. The implication that you not only cannot be able to but should not be able to is so backward it’s pre-Enlightenment.” Browning, he noted, seemed to believe the following three things:

(1) I am wrong to mention

(2) I should feel sorry for mentioning that I could be killed in this way.

(3) Not only should I be sorry, it should be so obvious to me that I shouldn’t even question her.

As for her repeated insistence on the importance of not saying anything that might give offense or cause discomfort, MacDonald has it exactly right: “A university should be the time you are the most intellectually uncomfortable you've ever been. The most unique function of a university is to use ideas to challenge other ideas.” This should go without saying; but throughout their exchange, Browning acted as if such bedrock considerations were irrelevant.

“I have taken so long to go public with this,” MacDonald wrote on Facebook, “because I want to do it right. Eve Browning, and professors like her, are unfit to guide the direction of scholarship and knowledge. There’s no telling how many ideas have never seen light at UTSA under her leadership. Whatever her role, she thinks the foundational principles of universities themselves are a joke. She should not be in charge of anyone in any knowledge-based profession, and she should be stripped of her taxpayer-funded influence at the University of Texas at San Antonio.”

I've never met Alfred MacDonald or Eve Browning. I don't know anything about either of them aside from the details of this case, a brief online Q. and A. exchange I had with MacDonald, and the basic facts of Browning's career as available online. But one thing that's obvious to me here is that the philosophy student is a great deal more interested in “truth-seeking,” as he put it, than is the philosophy professor – who is manifestly far less of a true philosopher, wrestling with facts and ideas and prepared to entertain opposing views, than she is a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat, reflexively spouting inane platitudes and enforcing irrational procedures and regulations, and a good multiculturalist, unwilling to address the darker sides of the institutionally fetishized “other.”

Soon after his meeting with Browning, MacDonald transferred to Texas State, where, he says, he's now doing well. “Texas State's department is considerably better about open speech” than UTSA's, he told me. That was good to know. Unfortunately, however, Eve Browning is still on the job. And professors like her are legion. She's far from alone in taking the view – or, at least, acting as if she takes the view – that the execution of gay people in countries that are governed in accordance with sharia law is less offensive than mentioning those executions.

Fortunately, more and more gay people are awakening to the fact that the left, academic and otherwise, does not have their back. When it comes to supposedly downtrodden groups, the left has a distinctive pecking order. Especially now that same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S., gays are no longer seen as being particularly oppressed – especially not gay white males, who thanks to their whiteness and maleness are increasingly viewed as members of the oppressor class, not the oppressed. Muslims, on the contrary, are at the very top of the victim-group heap – and, perversely, every time another act of murderous jihad is committed in the name of Allah, Muslims' victim status seems to grow.

When a gay news website contacted Browning about MacDonald's charges, she “declined to comment.” Why? Believe it or not, she offered the following excuse: “The number of threats I am receiving (due to threads the student has started on Reddit) makes this a subject I would not feel safe discussing even very generally.”

So the woman who enjoined MacDonald to retreat from intellectual reflection and honest expression into cowardly silence is now taking her own craven advice – staying mum. She's refusing to even try to defend her own indefensible conduct. She's demonstrating exactly how little real regard she has for the core principles of philosophy. And she's hiding behind the thoroughly ridiculous implication that she would be in some physical danger if she spoke up. Good heavens, it's as if she's a gay man in Iran or something.