Do Not Take That Arkes Class


I know that smug smile and I stand unimpressed by it’s deviant, contrarian charm. This is your first semester at Amherst and you’re taking Politics, Statecraft and the Art of Ruling with Hadley Arkes. Or worse, you’re in your second or third class with him, as a junior and you’ve been waiting a year for American Constitution II. You think you’re doing something clever and you’re excited about the thick multilith of Eisenhower, Reagan and Machiavelli weighing down your backpack. You head to the Red Room a little nervous, anticipating the whirlwind course you’ve read about as a controversial highlight of Amherst College.

Don’t go. No, seriously.

By enrolling an Arkes class you are giving him the equivalent of your vote of approval. Enrollment in a college class is the student version of voting with your dollars in the consumer world. In the same way that you shouldn’t buy products made using child labor or non-sustainable palm oil that destroys orangutan habitats, you shouldn’t take the Arkes class you’re shopping.

Arkes preaches hateful and discriminatory speech that creates a community of exclusion, intolerance and cross-cultural misunderstanding. Especially in recent memory, the professor’s equation of bisexuality with necrophilia has come to light, as well as his more well known argument that if we allow homosexuality in our society, we will logically next allow bestiality. The thesis of his argument is that marriage should be an institution purely for the purpose of rearing and protecting children. While this is a conservative view that is out-dated and holds no water in courts against counter-arguments such as noting that sterile and elderly people are allowed to marry or that legalizing same-sex marriage actually protects the children of same-sex marriages within the bounds of law, my issue is not with this theoretical basis but with the examples and syllogisms that he employs.

Arkes goes much farther than this jurisprudential, political argument when he puts non-heterosexual individuals and sex acts on the same level as bestiality and NAMBLA. The conservative viewpoint is, while incorrect, certainly part of the conversation in re-defining marriage. While it is harmful and offensive to people in same-sex marriages – not to mention people of any sexual orientation in childless marriages – it does not have the quite the same violent impact on the students in his classes and in the Amherst populations as Arkes’ more radical, hyperbolic slippery slope arguments.

The legal definition of hate speech (according to Blackwell) is:

Hate speech… is a form of verbal aggression that expresses hatred, contempt, ridicule, or threats toward a specific group or class of people.

In an article for The Catholic Thing, published in March, Arkes wrote:

Many people shift back and forth across a spectrum that may now include the bisexual, fetishistic, transvestic, zoophiliac (sex with animals). The term has become so elastic that, as one commentator remarked, “there is real doubt whether sexual orientation is a valid concept at all.”

Arkes here puts bisexuality (being attracted to both men and women) and a desire to have sex with animals as equal problems under law. If a man can marry another man, he writes, than why can’t a woman marry her son or a man marry his dog? To place bisexuality and bestiality on the same place is to speak in a derogatory way towards bisexual individuals. To espouse that kind of view in a classroom, given the immense power wielded by a professor and to a group of students, is an act of aggression. He is using his standing from within the academy, as a professor who teaches classes, to speak in a hateful way about a marginalized group.

It could be argued that Arkes is coming for an intellectual, academic tradition that uses a permutation of the slippery slope argument at the center of its thinking. When he was given tenure many moons ago, this line of reasoning held water in the academy and he was publishing in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals. However, what Arkes is writing today, given the both the shift in his intellectual tradition away from such modes of argumentation and given the places in which his articles are being published, provide no such integrity to back his claims and place them in the realm of respectable or responsible. The readers of non peer-reviewed mass-consumption media outlets such as National Review, Wall Street Journal, and The Catholic Thing are being published come with a different set of expectations than an academic journal. When Arkes writes that bisexuality is equivalent to bestiality in the Catholic Thing, it means and reads as something quite different than if he were to publish it in a Princeton University Press publication.

“I haven’t had a single conservative professor at Amherst, so I’m taking Arkes” you might tell me. Maybe you’re conservative yourself or maybe you just want conflict, a dialectical diversity of opinions to work through before you come to your own conclusions on any of these issues.

I support bringing people of different perspectives and backgrounds to campus to speak and teach. I agree that it is crucial to rigorous debate to have conservative and liberal professors teaching together in the political science and every other department. My issue here is not with Arkes as a conservative per se. While I am staunchly pro-choice, I think it’s important to have a pro-life voice, even a religious, Catholic pro-life voice in the conversation about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. For my thesis I have spent weeks at a time with evangelical Christian conservatives discussing what are at times opposing, at times surprisingly similar political views and I enjoy and support robust debate between people who disagree. Arkes’ perspective is not just another perspective. As Ethan Corey so eloquently wrote:

Ideological positions that attack the full humanity and equality of members of our community don’t foster debate or academic growth; they only serve to marginalize and silence the students that they attack. Such beliefs offer nothing but hatred for our community.

I react so strongly to Arkes because I think his special brand of homophobic hate speech merits further scrutiny and consideration of how it affects the students of all sexual orientations and the campus community in which they live than just any alternate point of view.

“What? You’re going to tell him not to teach classes?” You may ask me next, armed, as you will be, with your texts on free speech and academic freedom.

We’re actually in agreement again. There is quite a large camp, particularly of alumni in the LGBTQIA OutOfAmherst listerv, who believe that Professor Arkes should be burned at the stake and thrown off Amherst campus. I am not of that camp. Arkes is a tenured professor. Craig Campbell wrote:

Arkes is an employee of Amherst College, a private institution. As a professor, he teaches college students — who are on all counts adults — about politics and the law. As an academic, he is free to publish papers that make logical arguments that cite relevant facts and precedence in order to defend a proposed thesis.

To take away tenure for him would be an unprecedented move on the part of the college. The very purpose of tenure is that allows academics a certain intellectual freedom to experiment and engage with a wide variety of topics without having to fear the pressures of publishing or censorship. To set a standard that tenure could be taken away based on Arkes speech would make impossible so much of the positive, progressive work that comes out of academia.

If not through revoking tenure, the responsibility, therefore, is on each of us as thinking, conscientious adults, to take away one vote from Arkes, to drain his classrooms of our engaged, anxious faces waiting for his seal of approval, to leave his desk void of papers and his office hours impotently waxing away. This is a much stronger message than simply cutting off the head of the beast. This is a statement of allyship: “I support my community and my friends and I will not allow your bigotry, bullying and discrimination to stand.”

If you want academic rigor, or a new perspective, there are roughly 200 other professors to choose from. Advocate for more conservative professors in hiring; take a 5-college class. Get out of the Red Room, there are better ways to learn about the constitution that saturated in antiquated hateful polemics.