Today LIS101 interviews University of Nebraska English professor and gun control advocate Amanda Gailey. This interview sheds some light on the different factors that impact the quality of the information that informs this public debate, including culture, free speech, government and corporate censorship, academic freedom, the toxic information environment, in general, for women online, and how those things impact debate in the public sphere.
A brief warning: This interview does contain her recounting of a misogynist slur she is frequently called. I have decided to leave it in uncensored as a way of highlighting the kinds of abuse women put up with online.
Today we are talking about gun control, lobbyists, politics, academic freedom, free speech, and a particular incident that happened at the University of Nebraska. But first a little about you. You have been active in the gun control debate for quite a while now. Could you tell me when and why you decided to fight this battle?
First I need to make a quick disclaimer: while I am employed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, much of this discussion is about my activism and as such does not represent any views except my own.
I got started in gun control when the Sandy Hook massacre happened in December of 2012. I had never been a fan of guns, really, but did not consider it a major issue to me. The school massacre, though, was a gut punch. It woke me up to the pervasive injustice of our gun laws. In retrospect I wish I had woken up a lot sooner, and I know that my racial privilege is one of the reasons that gun violence did not strike me as a major political concern. Many people in the U.S. have lived with the daily terror of gun violence for decades.
America leads the developed world in firearm casualties. Why here and why us? What do other first world countries do that keeps them from experiencing the same problems with guns that we have in the US?
In every other developed country, guns are viewed the way we view any other dangerous consumer product: as objects whose sale and use must be regulated sufficiently to protect people from harm. With guns, that amounts to some pretty strict laws in many countries—you need strict laws to mitigate the damage of such a dangerous product. But in the United States, a toxic combination of a few factors have created a blind spot with guns. It would take me pages and pages to spell it all out, but our gun mess has essentially resulted from a lucrative industry identifying some of the worst impulses in its customers, then relentlessly stoking and pandering to those impulses while funneling much of their profits into politicians and legislation that protect the industry and spread false beliefs about the virtues of the product. So now, contrary to all evidence, a significant portion of the population believes guns make them safer and that a reduction in guns would reduce how free our society is. In fact the opposite is true.
What specific hurdles do you see for the US in terms of crafting policy or legislation that will decrease gun violence?
My answer to this is a little different in mid-2018 than it might have been five years ago. It used to be that public apathy and NRA campaign contributions to specific politicians’ campaigns were the problem. This has shifted over the last few years. The majority of the American people want gun reform. Young people are particularly tuned in to the issue. More people are seeing how our gun policy contributes to state violence against communities of color. And many politicians are now showing courage in denouncing the gun lobby and refusing to take money from them. But to address these problems we face the same obstacles that many other worthy causes are facing—a gerrymandered Congress and illegitimately skewed Supreme Court are likely over coming years to not reflect the widespread American desire to improve the environment, labor conditions, etc. Gun reform is one of those issues that most Americans know will improve our lives but threaten industry profit, so it is likely to languish until we figure out how to correct a federal government that is no longer representing the people.
In this debate, political concerns seem to shape the quality of information that the public receives. Why might this be the case, and are there any expert voices that need to be amplified?
There certainly are useful studies and experts on this topic. In fact, I would recommend GVPedia (http://www.gvpedia.org/) as a resource for anyone interested in this—this project attempts to gather the scientific literature on gun violence into one place. However, we don’t have as much as we should because for many years, at the behest of the gun lobby, Congress has blocked federal funding for studies that could tell us much more about how gun violence relates to different factors. On the one hand, there is a clear scientific consensus that stronger gun laws lead to fewer gun deaths. On the other hand, we cannot slice and dice the statistics to find meaningful insights the way we would be able to if this public health problem had been adequately studied.
Do you feel that our politicians would be open to hearing the findings of these experts?Why or why not?
Some are and some are not. Just this week I met with a local politician who asked me to send her further research on a topic related to gun control because she wants to understand more about how safe storage laws reduce gun deaths. But for many politicians the topic of guns falls squarely into tribalism. If you promote guns you are part of their team and if you restrict guns in any way you are not part of their team. They are not basing their decisions on observations about the world and what would solve its problems, but rather on what empowers them politically. Pushing guns everywhere is more of a signifier that the politician belongs to a tribe of patriarchal nationalists than it is an actual suggestion for improved policy. You can’t get through to that way of thinking with reason.
How did the NRA become such a powerful voice in this debate?
For most of its existence the NRA was just an organization of people who enjoyed the shooting sports. They saw no conflict between their interest and gun control. In fact, gun control could be a source of pride for gun owners who understood the dangers of the weapons they owned and agreed that people should be trained and held responsible if they wanted to own firearms. The organization got more political when the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, responding to high-profile acts of violence such as the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1975 they founded the Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA), indicating a mounting interest in politicizing the organization. Then in 1977 the “Cincinnati Revolt” occurred. An extremist, political faction of the NRA took over the organization at its annual convention in Cincinnati. It was at this point that the NRA became an amalgam of an industry lobbying group and ideological extremists, swearing that it would become a no-compromise advocate for gun rights. By turning unfettered gun rights into an ideological cause, it could sell more and more firearms to a flagging market. And the more guns they sold, the more money they would make that could be invested into political campaigns and lobbying for looser gun laws.
You teach at the University of Nebraska, which is a publicly funded university. Describe the university’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech among its faculty and students.
Well, this is another question that would take a book to answer. The short answer is that my department and the College of Arts and Sciences are quite committed to academic freedom and the rights of students, faculty, and staff to engage in political speech. In fact, they have fought for these principles valiantly. At the higher administrative levels I have been disappointed. I do believe that some in our administration understand that a university must be independent and its faculty must have the freedom to regulate themselves professionally and to explore those questions and topics that they, as a profession, deem appropriate. However, our state government contains a number of legislators and a governor who believe that the popularity of an opinion or topic—and by “popularity” I mean whether they themselves like it—should determine whether faculty pursue it. Some senators, with no background whatsoever in English Studies, seem to believe that if our curriculum does not appeal to them, they can demand we change it. (One of them wants us to stop teaching about LGBTQ issues, for example.)
Other senators have tried to pass legislation criminalizing faculty political speech. They believe that if a faculty member or other employee engages in political speech on their own time that these politicians don’t like, the university or state government should punish them for it. These people to some extent control the purse strings for the university, so they can threaten the top-level of university administration with financial punishment if their demands are not met. Unfortunately, this resulted in the firing of a lecturer here last year, which in turn resulted just last month in the American Association of University Professors voting to censure the University for its failure to uphold academic freedom. I hope the University has learned from this. Our whole state loses when we cave to the ideological demands of politicians. Time will tell.
Do you feel that there is a difference between the kinds of academic freedom you have as a public university professor versus, say, a colleague who teaches at a private university?
Yes. In theory I have more legal protection working at a public university. But let me back up a bit to explain a crucial distinction for your students. Academic freedom and free speech are two different things. Freedom of speech is a right conferred to everyone in the US, and it means that the government cannot punish you for your speech (with some exceptions). Academic freedom is not a legal right, but rather a tradition. It is the belief that the people best suited to judge the fitness of an academic expert are other experts. So it should be the Biology Department, looking fairly and carefully at the teaching and research of a colleague, who determine whether that person should be hired, retained, promoted, or fired. We want biologists to do this, not politicians who take umbrage at the fact that the biologist believes in evolution. So if a biologist says something controversial in a biology class at a public university, she is protected by academic freedom—it is her colleagues, using the spelled-out means of evaluation in the university bylaws, who will determine whether she is competent or a crackpot. If she says something controversial at a political rally, her job is protected by freedom of speech, because her employer, which as a state university is the government, cannot fire her for it. At a private university she is protected by academic freedom (though all of this gets hairy from a legal perspective, depending on what the bylaws or her contract look like) but she does not have the same protection for free speech at a political rally because her employer is not the government. (Again, there might be contractual or state law provisions that complicate this.)
How might funding alter the teaching and learning at a university?
Another excellent and complex question! Funding can alter teaching and learning in lots of ways because ultimately funding comes from funders with agendas. When a state government cuts public funding to a university, decreased funding likely will lead to cheaper labor—meaning overworked, underpaid adjuncts with few job protections. People with few job protections usually avoid things that jeopardize their jobs. For many, student evaluations are used as an overly simplistic way of assessing “customer satisfaction” with their teaching, so adjuncts are under real pressure to please students—and that can often translate into pressure to assign less work, inflate grades, or avoid topics or readings that students find boring or aggravating. This is really the worst way that funding is impacting higher ed because it is pernicious and pervasive.
We are also seeing both public and private universities increasingly rely on money from private donors. Sometimes the donors only want a thank-you and an update on the lecture series they funded. But sometimes they want a say in who gets to do what with the money. So at some universities, billionaire donors who are funding faculty positions (for example, at the Economics Dept at Florida State) find blatant or sneaky ways to ensure that the money only goes to events or faculty who will promote their ideological agendas in the classroom. This is a serious threat to education, because it means a billionaire ideologue is determining what counts as truth, and not a community of experts.
And then, of course, places like Nebraska and Kansas have had incidents in which the university is making decisions based on ideological arm-twisting by the state government. Just recently (July 2018) the chancellor of the University of Kansas forced the campus art museum to remove an art installation that included an American flag because the governor found it offensive. This is a really scary road to go down—we do not want to live in a country where wealthy people and politicians dictate what is acceptable in art or science or the humanities.
I spend a lot of time in my classes talking about different kinds of censorship. There is, of course, the standard Soviet model of censorship or the Texas School board kind of censorship. But there is also a de facto corporate or private censorship. For instance, corporate discourse tends to frame information in a way that boosts profits and minimizes social responsibility, resulting in both commercial misinformation and information deficiency. Beyond that, I believe is a third kind of external censorship, which is the censorship of culture and tradition. Either the tradition limits expression to being within prescribed margins, or the culture imposes a sort of socially activated “You can’t talk about that!” Could you describe your experiences with censorship or attempted censorship?
I like the way you frame that. Yes, this is something I have thought about a lot. It is interesting to me to see (it seems, anyway) that our country is kind of getting savvy about this before our eyes. I think the main way I see this happening is in how the tone and language of individuals, especially women and minorities, is policed for etiquette and civility. Infractions of etiquette and civility are often treated as heinous moral failings, even though they usually harm nothing but someone’s sense of propriety, while truly horrific abuses are often treated as no big deal. I had my own encounter with this a few years ago because I made a social media post using a bunch of F-bombs in describing gun and police violence (and I stand by every word of it!). Some people clearly considered my use of a vulgar word on my own social media space as an offense far worse than shooting children or selling guns that look like toys. Or take a look at Michelle Wolf, a comedian whose job is to shock and lampoon, and how she was targeted for her words at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Or really, take a look at the ways in which the press is gasping and wagging its finger at “uncivil” protests of politicians who are taking babies away from their parents at the border. Why are we spending a single second worrying about whether someone’s dinner was disrupted when that nonviolent disruption was responding to a national Constitutional and moral crisis? As for me and how I respond to censorship, I am just doing what I always do. I believe my job as a resident of this country who strives to be an ethical person is to speak out when I see something wrong, speak truth to power, and punch up, not down. Maybe one day I’ll suffer some terrible consequences for that, but if I do, at least I’ll have a clear conscience.
It is impossible to talk about online discourse without also discussing the impact of sexism on that discourse. How does being female affect how you are received by your peers?
Okay, now I think your questions are just a series of potential book topics!
I am pretty comfortable as me, and I think that is probably the best shield and weapon I have when it comes to sexism. I get barraged by sexist comments online sometimes—I have a whole “cunt” collection on my hard drive and I am starting a new collection of hate mail from men who think my “mental illness” will be cured by sex with them. But I see this garbage for what it is, and it just does not have the power to humiliate or diminish me because I don’t grant it that power. It strikes me as kind of funny now, but when I took my first step as an activist and went public with some political work, I was cringing because I knew I was going to get troll comments about my appearance and gender. And then when it actually happened, I realized how silly it is and that what a misogynist rage-typing at his computer says about me has zero impact on my self-worth. I want more people—not just women, but anyone whose physical presence makes them feel socially vulnerable—to realize that when you let that go, you will become really empowered.
There are other ways that sexism has affected me—one is just in the way that women can be overlooked and invisible. There have been times in my career when I felt like I was passed over or had to work harder because I was an invisible person in the room. But this is something else that can be somewhat remedied by finding your voice. Sexism is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions, but we can do some things to empower ourselves.
What do you see as the primary threats to academic freedom, freedom of speech, and free access to information?
Well, at the root of it all the main threat to all of these is an increasingly corporatist ideology in our culture—one that holds that the “freedoms” to make and spend money are the most sacrosanct freedoms. So in higher ed, the primary threats to academic freedom are the reduction of public funds to higher education, the infusion of (inadequate) private funds and influence, along with a consumer/corporatist mindset that runs the university like a corporation and holds that anything the customer or donor wants is right.
Freedom of speech is under assault by similar forces—most notably in how it was coopted in Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling that held that corporations are people and their money is speech. We see a constant slide toward protecting the right of wealthy entities to make more wealth and control our government’s policies, and a degradation of the right of the people to organize in their own interests.
Free access to information—this is not something we have discussed here yet directly, and certainly there are complex discussions to be had about where the rights of one’s ownership over one’s intellectual work ends and the rights of society’s access to information begins. But in general we have seen a clear sliding away from the idea that information, scientific discoveries, and technological development are for the betterment of the people and toward the pervasive belief that these things are the private property of corporate entities.
All of these important ideals are threatened by the ideology that the right to profit and the right to buy are nobler ideals than the right to clean water, or a healthy planet, or food, or free speech, or freedom of conscience, or the pursuit of knowledge.
To bring this back to lobbyists, can you think of specific instances when one group or another has tried to influence the decisions of your university’s administration, either directly or through the politicians they support?
Sometimes these things are hard to nail down because the money and influence flow is intentionally obscured. So I would speculate that powerful lobbies such as big agriculture and big oil are profoundly influencing the administrations of public universities.
However, one instance here in Lincoln was relatively transparent. An organization called Turning Point USA (TPUSA), which purports to be a student movement opposing “big government” and “socialism” but is actually a radical anti-regulation and racist group funded by billionaires, had a relationship with the political party that controls almost all local and state government in Nebraska. (Editor’s note: Though it seems charged, Prof. Gailey is far from the first person to point out TPUSA’s connections to racism.) The head of TPUSA had been the headliner speaker at their high-dollar fundraiser event in March of 2017, and they had already set up a chapter at Creighton U in Omaha after directing a racist troll swarm (Editor’s note: This is a bit of a portmanteau combining the meanings of trolling and Twitter swarms.) onto a professor there. The faculty advisor for the Creighton group is also a political appointee of the governor in a state government body. So they were already enmeshed. After the incident at the UNL campus in August 2017 (it’s a long story I don’t want to go over here, but I would direct you to the This American Life episode “My Effing First Amendment” for a pretty good recounting), senators and a University regent who had very active relationships with TPUSA–helping them recruit, attending their functions, etc.–actively lobbied my university’s administration to fire me and a lecturer in my department. They succeeded in getting the lecturer fired against University bylaws. Even though they tried hard and lied about my own actions and political activities and beliefs, they could not make a persuasive case for getting me fired. But in short: yes, billionaire-funded TPUSA worked with politicians in my state to try to get faculty who object to their organization fired.
If we are using the construct of the three different kinds of censorship above, would you say that our lack of information about gun violence stems from government censorship, free market censorship, cultural censorship, or some combination of all of them?
The government censorship probably boils down to failure to fund (not sure that is censorship, exactly) and also a network of state laws that guard some data from study–so for example, a lot of states have laws protecting the identity of people with conceal carry permits. Your marriage is a public record, the births of your children are public record, your house purchase is public record, but your license to carry a lethal weapon in public is specifically shielded by privacy law. What this does is prevent independent researchers from collecting data on how often concealed carry permit holders commit violent crime. I think this is a form of government censorship to keep consumers in the dark.
Free market censorship is probably the biggest culprit–guns are big money, and that money is used to lobby for laws like the ones I just mentioned, and the rationale of the free market is used to justify gun proliferation (it creates jobs and people buy them) and to punish and silence people who fight the gun lobby. The NRA pools money from the industry with donations and likely foreign contributions, and directs their silencing influence toward people who fight them through intimidation. In my case, for example, the NRA worked with Fox News and politicians in my state to try to intimidate me (most notably by staking out my house and sending two men to follow me as I dropped my child off at school–ultimately hoping to get on tape a reaction from me that they did not get).
Cultural censorship is also at work here. It’s an interesting concept because on the one hand cultural norms are what keep some awful ideologies from running amok. On the other hand they can stifle growth. With gun reform, it seems to have become culturally taboo to say you are anti-gun, that you want to ban guns, etc. Somehow we allowed the gun industry to 1) make such statements seem radical even though they describe the views of most people in most advanced democracies, and 2) make any gun control advocate worry that these views will be pinned on them. So it’s rare to see a public figure advocating gun control without bending over backward to say they are not anti-gun, they support the Second Amendment (which wasn’t interpreted as an individual right until 2008), etc. You don’t see people advocating for other public safety issues making the same concessions to the opposition every time they talk. So I think this is a bizarre kind of cultural censorship that keeps people from saying something true openly. I try to break this taboo when I speak publicly about guns: I am anti-gun and I don’t support the Second Amendment because it was made moot with the creation of the National Guard and a standing army. The place for guns in our society should be seriously curtailed for the good of the people.
What methods do you use to find reliable information about this topic?
When I am looking for information about gun violence, I approach it like other academic topics and use my university library’s databases of peer-reviewed research to try to locate studies. Sometimes I also consult government information, such as crime data from the FBI. Sometimes I also rely on information published by nonprofits, such as the ACLU or Gun Violence Archive. Of course I am also a consumer of the news, and I try to be self-conscious about sources–there is a lot of misinformation out there about guns and it is not always the pro-gun side pushing the misinformation. For example, reliable information about high-profile shootings can often take a while to come out, and it is not a good idea to listen to anyone who is making assertions about exactly what happened or why. Pro-gun publications often prematurely credit “good guys with guns” for stopping shootings when, a few days or weeks later, it turns out to not be the case. On the flipside, I think people who favor gun control can be too quick to attribute motives to shooters or blame specific laws that turn out to not be relevant. It’s best to wait and let investigators and professional journalists at reliable publications uncover what actually happened.
Thank you for your thoughtful and detailed answers to my questions. Do you consent to my posting this exchange on www.lis101.com?
I sure do! Thanks for the provocative questions.