First ALT NEW COLLEGE webinar featuring Judith Butler and Masha Gessen
A promotion for the ALT NEW COLLEGE webinar. (Photo by ALT NEW COLLEGE.)

First ALT NEW COLLEGE webinar featuring Judith Butler and Masha Gessen

More than one-third of faculty have reportedly left New College of Florida, but ALT NEW COLLEGE is set to launch courses and lectures on topics including gender studies, social justice, racial justice and systemic racism. The series has been organized by New College alumni, faculty—including former NCF faculty—and allies to provide free and subsidized courses, tutorials and mini-classes on topics that are being banned in the state of Florida. The stated goal is to support the academic freedom of students. Over time, ALT NEW COLLEGE hopes to build an online institute that helps cultivate strategies and share resources to help protect other communities facing similar educational challenges. The first of many planned events took place on Sept. 18. The webinar, titled Masha Gessen and Judith Butler on the Authoritarian Assault on Gender Studies, was introduced by former New College student Libby Harrity, who is currently attending Hampshire College. 

The webinar began with Butler, a philosopher and professor in the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) expressing respect for Harrity and “the students and the faculty who have been fighting the destruction of academic freedom and fighting the right-wing efforts to keep you from studying, knowing, seeing, learning all the rights that you have.”

Butler, who prefers they/them pronouns, said that a “terrifying” experience in Sao Paulo, Brazil a few years ago prompted them to delve into the subject of anti-gender ideology. They were met with protest and a burning effigy outside a democracy conference for promoting so-called “gender-ideology,” a term they had not heard  at the time.

“What is this anti-gender ideology movement? Who are these people? What do they want? What do they fear? How are they organized?” Butler questioned. They explained that anti-gender ideology is something they encountered in Latin America and across Eastern and Central Europe. They said some individuals believed that by embracing certain gender concepts, constraints against homosexuality and other societal taboos—including those related to incest, bestiality and child exploitation—would be loosened. 

Butler said this represented a somewhat radical interpretation of gender studies and the concept of gender itself. To Butler, the people of Brazil seemed deeply afraid that their conventional notion of the traditional family, defined by strict heterosexuality and patriarchy, was under threat due to the idea of gender. “They hadn’t read about gender studies or know how gender operates in public policy; they accepted a kind of phantasm of what gender is and how destructive it could be from church authorities and other kinds of right-wing institutions,” Butler said. “And as a result, it led them into a certain kind of frenzy, bolstered by the [Jair] Bolsonaro regime at the time.

“It [anti-gender ideology] has more recently come to the U.S. through the Evangelical Church, the World Congress of the Family and right-wing Catholicism mainly,” Butler said. “And it has found its way into the attack on gender studies at New College and in several other colleges and universities throughout the US and Canada.” 

“The attack on something called gender ideology isn’t about an open debate,” Butler continued. “It’s actually an effort to close down debate. They don’t want us reading or writing about this topic. It’s a way of trying to stop reading and stop writing and stop open discussion.”

Butler touched on how those involved in gender studies have been labeled totalitarian and accused of adhering to an ideology, or single doctrine.  

“In my experience, every women’s studies class I’ve participated in has been characterized by vigorous debate, conflicting perspectives, and a multitude of methodologies,” Butler explained. “The pursuit of understanding within this field is far from straightforward. However, by branding us as indoctrinators with a single doctrine, they aim to suppress intellectual exploration. Their objective is to obstruct open inquiry, which in turn threatens the very essence of academic freedom and the fundamental concept of the university.”

Gessen, who also uses they/them pronouns, is a Professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and an expert on Russia. They remarked on similarities between the U.S. and Russia, where a victim mentality prevails in relation to the rest of the world. In their opinion, the narrative of gender ideology plays a pivotal role in Putin’s rhetoric, portraying the West as a purveyor of foreign ideas and lifestyles. This fear hinges on the belief that Western influence threatens traditional family structures and disrupts the lives of individuals and families. 

“Strangely, as I delved deeper into the materials surrounding the [Russian] anti-gender movement and ideology, I found that it is underpinned by a fear of societal upheaval and disintegration,” Gessen said. “My sense is they are frightened of the questions we pose. They’re frightened of the different frameworks we offer. They’re frightened that we’re producing too many possibilities in this world, too many forms of freedom, and they want to shut that down.”

The professors offered debate on topics surrounding intensified state control in transexual health care, LGBTQ+ rights and border control, the idea of a new masculinity in politics and whether fascism is the appropriate term for changing U.S. policies. Butler also spoke about the ongoing “brain drain” that is happening in Florida and the lack of control over educational curriculums faculty are experiencing. 

Executive Vice President of Bard College Jonathan Becker had reached out to Harrity, asking them if they would introduce the webinar. 

“The main intention of the seminar was to address the authoritarian attacks on gender studies, not just in Florida as we see it, but around the world,” Harrity told the Catalyst in a telephone interview. “I think something that Professors Butler and Gessen really got into the nitty gritty of is the fact that what is happening in Florida indicates what happened ages ago in World War II and previous fascist administrations, those of which have been studied by Professor Gessen. We’re able to see this as a warning sign. It’s happening. Authoritarianism is here. It is now.”

For Harrity, it was particularly frustrating to hear Gessen explain how fast authoritarian attacks are happening in Florida when compared to Russia or Nazi Germany. 

“Throughout the beginning of this takeover in February, I was a student ambassador being asked by the parents of prospective students, ‘Should we still send our children here?’ And you know what I said to them? ‘Yes,’” Harrity explained. “They can’t change it that fast. And then they did.” 

“Over the summer, they destroyed what was New College of Florida and created something completely different,” they continued. “A bastardization of what used to be the Honors College of Florida. It’s disturbing. And the fact that these professors who have studied for decades these fascist regimes are saying that it is shockingly quick should disturb everybody.”

Harrity, currently rebuilding their life at Hampshire College, was previously New College’s Senate President. Harrity is now one of three students who have been forced to transfer for alleged  student conduct violations, an experience they remarked was “traumatic. Horrible. Terrible. Bad. Stressful. Out of nowhere.”

“The [charges] that I was facing were things like disturbing the peace, inappropriate expression, not listening to a school official, all things that can be really broadly defined,” Harrity said. 

Harrity explained that another student was charged with bullying Richard Corcoran by yelling profanity at a Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting. 

“We are being actively suppressed, our freedom to organize is being suppressed,” Harrity said. “My due process was violated. None of these administrators, none of these individuals care about what is legal, what is constitutional, or what is right. They care about what’s going to make them some cash, and what’s going to get them in good graces with their overlord.”

Harrity commented on the concept of a new, emerging masculinity, a subject brought up by Butler and Gessen. Harrity cited New College Trustee Christopher Rufo’s critique of the feminization of higher education. Rufo was quoted in a New York Times interview as saying that New College’s alleged two-thirds female population “caused all sorts of cultural problems” and turned the school into “a social justice ghetto.”   

“This is a mission to re-masculinize higher education and that translates directly to the things that were spoken about in the webinar,” Harrity explained. “The ways that masculinity leads to violence, to resentment, to misery for everybody involved, this clinging to this idea of a masculinity that we are evolving from, that we do not need to cling to. This is what Rufo and his allies are fighting to bring to New College.”

In Harrity’s opinion, the student athletes at New College are being taken advantage of. They said students are “being brainwashed” and are “being turned into an army of right-wing conservatism,” which Harrity said is disturbing and unfair to them. 

“It is a line that we have to toe, trying to accept them and convince them that we are human, but the fact that they are above us on the totem pole, so to speak, means that they can be dangerous if they want to be,” Harrity stated. 

During the webinar, the concept of community was pointed to as important by Butler, Gessen and Harrity. Harrity stated that organizing is still important, though they emphasized the importance of safety. 

“They have made it clear that they hate students, they have made it clear that they will stop at nothing. We cannot sit and take that, but we also can’t put ourselves in danger,” Harrity said. “You have to organize carefully and organize with fear because that is now what we are living under. They will use their power against you and you have to be ready for it.”

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