A roundup of commentary and analysis on the O’Brien rescinding

An editorial in Seattle University’s student paper, the Spectator, claims the rescinding “shames Jesuit values”:

As much as Wild claims it’s not about outside influence, the reality is he caved to that pressure after O’Brien had already signed a contract and accepted. Wild’s veto and lies were cowardly and unethical. The decision compromised not only Marquette’s academic freedom, but its institutional integrity and independence. Marquette is governed by a board of trustees, not the archdiocese or the greater Catholic community. Giving in to these misguided voices demonstrates that Jesuit values should only be upheld when it’s easy and won’t upset others.

This was a decision that deserves condemnation from fellow Jesuit universities. It threatens their decision-making and autonomy while portraying Jesuit Catholic education exactly as it isn’t: intolerant. By claiming her writings conflicted with university values, Marquette leaders also insulted sister school Seattle University.

O’Brien is Seattle U’s Louis B. Gaffney Endowed Chair, a position reserved for a faculty member who embodies and works to promote the Jesuit mission, according to Arts and Sciences Dean David Powers. By claiming her writings didn’t align with Jesuit Catholic values, Marquette boldly undermined Seattle U’s judgment and firsthand experience of O’Brien’s work. University administrators at Seattle University have been quiet except for noncommittal statements praising O’Brien when the right thing to do is stand by Seattle U and its current Gaffney Endowed Chair. Administrators should voice their interpretation, which we see in practice here at Seattle U, of academic and institutional freedom as well as Jesuit Catholic values.

Dan Maguire released another statement , this one condemning the Academic Senate:

The administration’s position from the start was that Dr. O’Brien goes and Fr. Wild stays uncensured. Our academic senate has supported that position, acting as though the rescinding of this oral contract (and the indignity visited upon Dr. O’Brien)is an irreversible fait accompli, not something we as faculty dare to challenge by demanding its reversal.   Now a relieved administration can speak of “healing,” code for “this too shall pass.”  End-of-year crises are preferred by administrators.  The students leave; the faculty depart for their summer sabbatical of work and rest, and heated issues melt in the summer sun. It is my belief that academic faculties get the administrations they deserve.  Administrations assume as much autonomy as a faculty permits.And now the archdiocesan intervention, the x factor that has been missing up to now.

A point of order: Marquette is not “Catholic” in the sense that a parish is Catholic.  Marquette is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and agnostic.  Marquette is chartered by the State of Wisconsin and charged with providing not indoctrination but education marked by unfettered academic freedom and integrity. The local archbishop has no more right to interfere in academic appointments in this university than the local mayor does.  Neither are part of this academic community.  The archbishop should be so instructed.

Maguire doesn’t see a conflict between the idea of a “Catholic institution” and a “university,” or at least an assesrtively Catholic institution and an ideal university. I do. I think there’s a conflict when any university tries to style itself as belonging to some external tradition. Administrators will feel compelled to stack the deck of hired personell to try to embody its patron ideology, which will bias the course of education and inquiry.

Of course, as administrators of a private institution, the president of a Catholic univeresity (or for that matter a Jewish university, or an Islamic, Platonist, or Democratic one) has every right to do this. But they also can’t say their inquiry can ever be really “unfettered” if there is active effort and cultural pressure to retain some degree of fidelity to some ideology. There might be no institutional rules enforcing the university’s identity, but closeness or alienation to that identity will influence hiring practices and advancement. This produces an environment in which academics might not be entirely comfortable expressing their own opinions.

 Maguire, I think, does believe Marquette is and ought to be an ideological institution, with the ideology being his Catholicism, and allows his own pluralistic, politicized, highly idosyncratic interpretation of Catholicism to color his understanding of the Catholic tradition as a whole. I find it very difficult to believe the institutional Magisterium would encourage, even in principle, “unfettered” freedom of inquiry. Their institutional authority is predicated entirely on the claim that they are the safekeepers of truths that are unique and the most important in human history, and that anyone who disagrees with them is condemned–indeed, they claim anyone who disagrees with them is worthy of–perpetual and perfect suffering post mortem. Whether or not hell exists (and, take comfort, for it doesn’t), it is the perfect disincentive. Between threats of damnation and the embrace of “faith” as a theological virtue, Catholicism in its orthodox formulations has built-in redundancies to discourage adherents from questioning it from the inside.

This makes Maguire’s claim that the theology department had a unique responsibility for condeming Wild’s decision frankly bizarre:

Our administration has repeatedly taken upon itself the specifically theological task of deciding by administrative fiat what “Catholic” means vis-a-vis our mission and policies.  In this case they have demeaned the Catholic moral tradition by making it look like Dr. O”Brien’s oral contract was trashed because of Catholicism.  They have demeaned the Jesuits claiming Jesuit warranty for this judgment of Dr. O’Brien, for reasons apparently unknown to the Jesuit Seattle University.  How anti-Catholic that is!  What a bitterly negative message about the Catholic faith it sends to students to tell them that Catholicism justifies what the administration has done to Dr. O’Brien.  The Theology Department has stood by and allowed this to happen. 

Former political science professor Christopher Wolfe published an opinion piece in the Journal Sentinel:

Marquette University has moved quietly but consistently away from its distinctively Catholic roots during the past 30 years, so the events of last week are not surprising: They are simply a working out of long-term trends. But the problem is even deeper than it appears.

Marquette offered the position of dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to a lesbian sociologist from Seattle and then withdrew the offer. Besides articles explicitly advocating gay marriage, her writings included an article (“Changing the Subject”) on whether there are closets in cyberspace, which alternated turgid post-modernist prose with imaginative lesbian sex vignettes and dialogue, including gender-bending and domination.

I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be horrified by discussions of “gender-bending and domination” in cybersex. Both are pretty tame kinks, and relatively common. 

Also, I think I’m supposed to find the discussion of online kinks in an academic setting ridiculous. But I think any true account of human nature must account for the bizarre and marginal. There is a long tradition, going back at least to William James, which looks for insight into the “normal” by way of the queer and aberrant.

I also don’t think, as McAdams claimed, that discussing fetish-experimentation online is necessarily a “vacuous” intellectual enterprise:

 It really doesn’t get beyond country singer Brad Paisley’s song “I’m So Much Cooler Online.” O’Brien adds that you can be gayer online, or if you are gay, you can be straighter. OK, so she should strip out the turgid prose and make a fun song out of it.

McAdams treats O’Brien’s qualitative findings as banal facts that don’t bear reiteration in an academic setting. To this I would respond, Sometimes academics need to pass along banal facts. Anyone teaching Constitutional Law should mention it was adopted in 1787; anyone lecturing on Plato for a semester should probably spend some time on Athenian history; and anyone undertaking a study of gender and New Media should read up on case studies on people’s sexual experimentation online.

I admit it’s not groundbreaking work, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. An intellectually serious education strives to interrogate all assumptions, even those that seem obvious, like the assumption that people on the Internet are lying perverts.


I’m on the Internet…don’t read too deeply into that.

Wolfe continues:

The withdrawal of the job offer led to outrage among some of the university faculty. A call to arms went out, demanding that the faculty make it clear that they will not stand for this.

The question that should be asked is not why Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild backed off the hiring but how in heaven did the hiring ever occur in the first place? If trendy post-modernism is a qualification for being a dean, that would explain it, but why should it be? The premise of her writing on sexuality is that sex is “socially constructed” and cybersex is especially fluid, since people can try on many different sexual personae.

The problem with theories of social construction – which assume that there are no fixed “natures” of things that determine what they are – is that they are self-contradictory. If everything is socially constructed, then the theory of social construction is socially constructed – we have no reason to think it says anything about reality itself.

That is not a problem for social constructionists, who always put “reality” in quotation marks because they deny that there is such a thing. But for others, it is a serious problem. Why should we bother attending to social constructions at all? Their answer is simply that we can or cannot, depending on whether we feel like it. But there is no reason to do so or not do so.

Um…longtime readers will hopefully have picked up on my hostility towards most any mode of analysis with “post” in front of it. But Wolfe’s description doesn’t seem to be an intellectually fair representation of most academics working in a broadly social constructionist paradigm.

I’m not deeply read in the traditions of post-Heideggerian Continental philosophy or deconstructionist criticism, and, frankly, they’re not priorities on my reading list. But I’m not aware of many pomo thinkers who would deny the existence of a reality independent of human constructs per se. Derrida, maybe. But most critical theorists are mistaken for anti-realists because of their belief that no epistemological system is “privileged,” but all are the products of local historic circumstances working from limited knowledge and cultural experiences, which necessarily excludes some perspectives. Therefore, they are reluctant to commit to the “absoluteness” of any truth, but, in theory, treat all propositions as arising from contingent circumstances and held by necessarily limited subjects. Consequentially, critical theorists spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the “realms of discourse” and “ideologies” from which propositions about reality originate, and less time grappling with things-in-themselves than philosophy traditionally has. But that does not preclude the belief in things-in-themselves. In fact, there is a strong tradition of Marxism-derivative ontological materialism on the Continent. And of course, nothing is concrete or real quite like matter. It is there, occupying space and exerting mass, indifferent to our acknowledgement of it.

The above two paragraph should not be construed as a defense of postmodern theory. It’s not. The genre takes healthy skepticism to unhealthy lengths, invents problems for itself, and, as Wolfe pointed out, is usually unreadable. I only mean to argue it is less ridiculous than Wolfe makes it out to be. He could have treated O’Brien’s actual work at length, but instead wastes all our time taking apart a Straw Woman.  This Straw Woman doesn’t believe in reality; but from the information before us, we can only say that O’Brien believes gender norms are socially constructed, which is to say she does not believe any mainstream culture’s gender-constructs are adequately representative of the actual diversity of sexual identity expression. Given that the Zeitgeist has yet to fully comprehend homosexuality, transgenderism, intersexuality, and even the nonideal expressions of male and female heterosexuality, this is a sound enough position for even an Analyst cheerleader like me to take.

It also should not necessarily be construed as a defense of O’Brien. I’m still undecided as to whether or not she deserved the job in the first place (though I am sure the breach of her verbal contract with Wild is a moral wrong, especially considering it cannot be untied from the knot of homophobia). I try to be tough but fair in all my writings, and I don’t think Wolfe was being fair to O’Brien or critical theory. I would like to see critical theory and postmodernism fall out of practice; but I’m not prepared to use misrepresentations, inaccurate generalizations, or gross exaggerate to see that happen.

2 Responses

  1. Well said, Bento! Wolfe’s argument that “If everything is socially constructed, then the theory of social construction is socially constructed – we have no reason to think it says anything about reality itself” completely misses the point and is, frankly, the most juvenile critique of social construction that I have seen, especially from someone as smart (though usually wrong) as he is. This is not to say that all post-modernist or deconstructionist thinking/writing is legitimate–often it is indeed too “trendy” for my tastes–but there is also a lot of room for smart thinking within those discourses. And I can totally see why the hypertextual/cybersexual world of the internet might be the ideal testing ground for analyzing and troubling constructed gender identities, even if it is not a super groundbreaking move.

  2. Wolfe is a homophobe who attempts to use reason – which, sadly he is pratically entirely devoid of – to bully others into seeing the world through his hateful gaze. His article appauls me.

    Well said Bento! I enjoyed reading over this post very much.

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