Dana L. Cloud, associate professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of Communication Studies at University of Texas, will on campus Thursday, Oct. 22 to deliver “You Are a Scary Woman”: Framing the Enemy in Conservative Hate Mail, through the Fall 2009 Visiting Rhetorical Critics Series. This lecture is hosted by the Department of Communication Studies, and has been organized by Davi Thornton, assistant professor of Communication Studies.
Cloud’s prolific work to expose inequality and support social justice has resulted in her recent identification as one of the “101 Most Dangerous Professors in America” by David Horowitz. Cloud was a major contributing activist in the historic Save Kenneth Foster death penalty campaign in 2007, which was of national attention. Her lecture will provide a rhetorical analysis of the hate mail she has received in relation to Horowitz’s 2006 publication.
Widely considered one of the nation’s top scholars in the areas of rhetoric, social movements, race and gender criticism, feminist theory and Marxist theory, Cloud has published numerous articles and books, and her work includes studies of the ways that images of Afghan women are used to justify the “War on Terror,” and how discourses of “racial tokenism” surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s success as an African American woman. She has published a book on the “rhetoric of therapy” which carefully traces the ways in which contemporary psychological and psychiatric rhetorics reinforce race, class and gender hierarchies.
Leshikar: Regarding the hate mail you have received in response to the publication of Horowitz’s book- have these letters been representative of public protest discourse?
Cloud: The letters are more frequent, more virulent, more sexist, and more threatening than any public response I have gotten from Horowitz supporters, who may mock me and other protesters, but generally refrain from the threatening insults, which are easier and more powerful to deliver privately.
Leshikar: Is your academic classroom a safe place for critical debate and open discourse among students? Can you provide an example?
Cloud: Yes, I work hard to make sure that my classes are safe places for multiple points of view. One way to do this, ironically, is to be open about my political perspectives and identity, alongside reassurances that I appreciate multiple points of view and won’t be offended by any question or disagreement. At the same time, when teaching about public controversies, I am careful to present multiple sides respectfully. In a lecture on the power of naming in political communication, I talk about abortion: pro-life or anti-abortion or anti-choice? Pro-choice or pro-abortion or anti-life? What does one call what grows in-utero after conception? A fetus? A baby? A child? An embryo? Asking these questions allows students to recognize how naming shapes perception on all sides of this controversy. I find that students can think for themselves and stand up for themselves given an open and stimulating environment.
Leshikar: It seems as if critics like Horowitz are using “freedom of speech” rhetoric to frame their disapproval of leftist bias in higher education. Why do you think these critics see this as a strategic rhetorical choice, and what might be some of the broader consequences?
Cloud: It’s seriously Orwellian how the Right and Horowitz as a representative use appeals to free speech in order to suppress academic freedom in the name of academic freedom. A clear tactic of McCarthyism is to accuse your opponent of doing what you are doing. It is very strange and hard to combat.
Leshikar: Universities have historically been havens of critical thought and dissent, as is arguably the nature of academia. How do you respond to such threats to critical intellectuals and activists on our campuses?
Cloud: In addition to protesting Horowitz and writing and blogging about academic freedom, I am a member of national networks that promote awareness of cases of the suppression of critical/Left academics, including http://www.freetheacademy.blogspot.com/ (the site is new). We focus on particular cases like those of Margo Nankoe, Loretta Capeheart, many others to show the depth and personal consequences of the attacks on them. We petition and help student and other organizations on the ground to organize in defense of the affected professors. I write and publish articles in the progressive press about these cases. Bringing publicity to attempts of the Right to undermine my colleagues is the best way to expose the hypocrisy of their campaigns to defend “academic freedom.” See this and
Leshikar: How might we think about the recent attention to alleged leftist bias in academia in light of the historical role and function of the university?
Cloud: Good question. At various points in the past, the academy has been a conservative force in society, sequestering knowledge away in its rarefied halls. But at other points during times of heightened social struggle, universities offer access to space, activists, media, critical thought—all the conditions for a live public sphere. We have seen many university protests generalize to include workers and provoke strikes, like in Paris’68. In the U.S., movements have had to force universities to open up politically, for example in the free speech movements at Columbia and Berkeley in the mid-1960s. Students just wanted to have tables for civil rights and were at first prohibited. It took occupying the presidents’ offices to gain the simple right to discuss politics on a public university campus! Here at UT, access to public space and resources are severely curtailed and the source of continual struggle.
Leshikar: What might the future of academia in universities look like with increased policing of free academic content? How might this affect student’s educational experiences?
Cloud: Leaders of universities have become more cautious and more likely to intervene if there are complaints about political professors. At UT, there is a faculty conduct policy that prohibits political views from leading to censorship or punishment of students–but in tough times, that clause could be interpreted very loosely and in arbitrary ways that threaten critical intellectuals. One effect of Horowitz’s efforts to get state legislatures to pass an “academic bill of rights” is that, even when it doesn’t pass, it pressures administrations to adopt some of the bill’s language and assumptions.
The Department of Communication Studies is delighted to host Cloud’s visit to Southwestern, and the entire campus community is invited to attend her lecture at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22 in Olin Lecture Hall 110.
For more information about Cloud and her work, visit here.