About two weeks ago, members of the Rutgers New Brunswick math department received an email entitled Klass Act with the subject line “Nazi visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Rutgers.” The email accuses a former Rutgers postdoc of running an anonymous Twitter account where he posted racist, sexist, and, well, Nazi-ish takes.
Having reviewed the evidence, I can say two things:
It’s definitely him. Digital evidence can be faked, but barring that it’s him.
The “Nazi” label has some justification. Some tweets were just edgy conservative opinions, but others were full-on, all-out, “the Holocaust didn’t happen and the Aryan race is pure” type takes.
As you can imagine, this has generated some controversy around the department. Grad students are up in arms, administration is investigating, and word is getting around to the undergraduates. It seems inevitable that something unpleasant is going to happen to our postdoc.
While I share the general disgust at our postdoc’s opinions, I find myself asking: What did he do wrong?
After all, if some punishment is going to be handed out, he must have done something to deserve it. Is it because he had the wrong opinions? Or is it because he shared the wrong opinions? Perhaps we should have rules about what opinions you are allowed to have or share?
Maybe some are nodding in agreement, but I couldn’t disagree more.
What if the email we got was not about a closeted Nazi, but a closeted gay man who kept an anonymous Grindr account? What if this were not Rutgers, but the evangelical Liberty University, where gay students are recommended therapy for their sins? Or, god forbid, Kabul University in Afghanistan, where the LGBT community fears the newly-ascendant Taliban regime? What if these were not anonymous tweets, but letters between closeted officers of the Gay Student Association at Dartmouth, obtained legally and published in a student newspaper?
We celebrate our postdoc’s outing because his private opinions happened to be disgusting, but what society thinks is “disgusting” is never fully in our control. A free and tolerant society ought to let people have private opinions, from the sexual to the political, from the traditional to the extreme. Until our postdoc was outed his private opinions were just that: private. If we did not know about his tweets, there would be nothing to say.
But we do know about his tweets. And soon lots of people will know about them. We cannot escape the consequences. I join my peers in denouncing his awful views. I wonder if he ever acted inappropriately towards students, and I think we ought to find out. I wonder how he could possibly teach again without being a distraction. Just as he has every right to spew hate, the community should have every right to expel him. I certainly won’t stand in the way.
Where I differ from many of my peers is that I pity our postdoc. His life is has come to a sudden halt. Is he afraid? Embarrassed? Alone? How on Earth is he going to recover? I can’t defend his views, but I also can’t celebrate a witch-hunt. There is no great victory here, only a great mess.