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Relatively well-educated, protected and privileged, academics speak from a safe pedestal. This makes it easy for them to sign a petition standing up to white nationalist’s hateful violence ("UM Faculty leader urges inclusivity," Dec. 7).

Who wouldn’t denounce “evil” when it wears an easily recognizable mask? Especially when it dares to push its ugly head through academe’s protected, ivied groves? It is like falling off a log. Petitioning against Steve Bannon, a controversial, sulfurous and crafty agent provocateur, is also easy — although, sensing a contradiction, the petitioners were quick to declare “we also recognize and remain committed to the principle of free speech and the practice of civil discourse.”

Petitioning makes for effortlessly acquired self-righteous, feel-good brownie points, which is fine and dandy — but it is not significant. It is more a politically correct sign of weakness than a radical, politically enlightening act.

Educators’ public responsibility has a name: engagement, as J.P. Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, argued. Professors’ knowledge, critical formation, pedagogy and ethical dimension should empower them to take on “evil” and show why, how and for what reason people err into the wrong side of the human, ethical divide — including white nationalists, who are ignorant, misinformed and oppressed by the “system,” as are many of us. Poverty, resentment and alienation bring about bigotry and misdirected violence (René Girard’s “scapegoat theory”).

Instead of signing futile petitions, professors should address “political evil” in open forums, explain its roots and even help ignorant “political victimizers” deconstruct and shift their paradigms. Why? Because corporate greed, exploitative globalization and unparalleled, pitiless, dehumanizing, universal competition are responsible for community decay and individuals’ angry dis-empowerment. They inflame paranoid, racist violence. It is one thing to preach to a small choir of students in classes held in artificial “free-speech” and “hate-free" zones. It is another “to [publicly] take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing end them” or, even, to bring knowledge to prisoners.

The petition’s goal is inclusivity. Why, then, did the petitioners never stand up in defense of the only major institutional force that combats ignorance, alienation and “evil,” i.e. the liberal arts-based, affordable, public higher education? One understands professors who denounce “white hate pamphlets” on campus by screaming “Fire!” One does not understand why these same educators, over the years, never publicly screamed “Help!” to protest the University of Montana's destruction of the Humanities, depriving Montanans of the means to understand and appreciate otherness.

Are they “sheltered” and therefore captive of their allegiance to institutional power? Which would explain how their “protected inclusion” made them immune to the “radical exclusion” felt by others: all the personnel, adjuncts, lecturers and professors terminated since 2015, while retiring faculty were not replaced? Is the firing of English and foreign languages faculty not an action of exclusion? If yes, why then the biased silence of these “inclusiveness petitioners”? Why “courageously” ask for inclusivity on one hand, while accepting exclusion on the other?

By the way, Montana is not the “state with the highest per capita instance of hate groups in the country.” Arkansas is, followed by Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama. Montana is not even on the list of the 12 states with the most “hate-groups.” Montana does have the highest suicide rate in the nation, and the highest percentage of alcohol-related car accidents. This should give our petitioners food for their socio-cultural and political intelligence.

Last week, UM President Seth Bodnar facetiously tweeted that the “bell tolls” for “our students.” Bodnar forgot to add that, showing total inclusivity, it also tolls for us all (John Donne).

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Michel Valentin is a retired University of Montana faculty member and researcher for the Missoula-based Existential Psychoanalytic Institute and Society. He had agreed to debate Steve Bannon before Bannon's appearance at UM was cancelled. 

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