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Opinion | The larger pattern of malice at Stanford — it has to stop

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Chaze Vinci’s posts are horrific in their brutality, explicit racism, homophobia and misogyny. I believe they are the product of a very troubled mind, one which has latched onto some of the most virulent forms of hatred we suffer from as a nation. At Stanford, this situation needs to be thoroughly addressed. To do so, we need to see it as part of a larger pattern that has been in place since at least 2017.  Viewed through this lens, it is clear that Vinci’s attacks are in fact a well-established pattern.

We should not forget that Vinci identifies himself as a member of Stanford College Republicans. His rhetoric and posts align perfectly well with statements and actions we have seen from SCR over and over again. The only thing that distinguishes his posts is the explicit and graphic violence they urge — it is a matter of degree, not of essential nature or aim. 

Despite the indisputable similarities between Vinci’s and SCR’s remarks, at least publicly SCR has attempted to separate itself from Vinci’s radical remarks. On Aug. 30, SCR tweeted out a condemnation of Vinci’s “racially abhorrent” statements. They were also quick to claim that “leftists have baselessly used these statements to smear our organization.” I question whether people’s criticisms of SCR (leftist or not) are truly baseless. Here I set forth the case that, rather than being seriously outside the scope of SCR’s beliefs and behaviors, Vinci’s posts are essentially consistent with SCR’s agenda and actions, both currently and historically.

In 2017, as attested to on their website, SCR refashioned themselves in a specific manner — they aligned themselves with the Trump/MAGA version of the Republican Party.  In response, many members left SCR. The new SCR’s belief system and platform was and is exactly the same as MAGA’s — importantly, they, too, subscribed to the notion that the 2020 election was “stolen” from them. 

While any organization is free to espouse its beliefs, it is entirely another matter to maliciously attack those who hold different views, especially when these attacks are meant to cause harm. While SCR itself has not advocated physical violence on others, it has started campaigns to deprive people of their livelihoods and careers and to damage their standing at Stanford. They have invaded the living spaces of other students and harassed them in person and online. SCR claims it cannot “control” its members, but they have not even made the effort to set any protocols or guidelines to determine what is acceptable and what is not.

Besides a heteronormative, masculinist, white supremacist, Eurocentric and “Christian” ideology that is pointedly antagonistic to gay and trans- rights, to anti-racism movements such as BlackLivesMatter and to liberal and progressive politics, SCR deploys MAGA’s tactics of intimidation, bullying and the distortion of the truth to the political end of harming those it perceives to be threats. During the planning of the ill-fated Cardinal Conversations series, SCR leader John Rice-Cameron and Hoover Senior Fellow Niall Ferguson discussed ways to attack progressive undergraduates. The Guardian described their exchange:

Ferguson confides, “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

“Unite against the [social justice warriors],” he instructed students in another email, urging them “to bury whatever past differences they may have for the common good.”

Rice-Cameron replies: “Slowly, we will continue to crush the left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.” 

Vinci’s posts similarly threaten and persecute some of the most vulnerable members of society. In both his posts and the above comments from Ferguson and Rice-Cameron, we see a fear of “social justice warriors” and of “the left,” which in both cases merely refer to women and minorities.

Vinci’s posts fit well with SCR’s aims — in reaction to these fears and perceived harms, they mean to silence, to intimidate, to hurt. To substantiate their fears, they often refer to nothing but thin air. Vinci’s graphic death threat to me (which SCR, by omission, does not condemn) was in fact preceded in 2017 by SCR’s attack on me as the leader of a violent band of “anti-fa thugs.” Despite a letter signed by professors at Stanford Law School from across the political spectrum attesting to the fact that the public record yielded no evidence whatsoever to support such a claim, SCR continued its campaign to get me fired, and to thus intimidate me. Rice-Cameron admitted this intimidation to Stanford Politics: “Although Rice-Cameron has repeatedly emphasized his support for the free expression of even extreme political views, he admits that part of the goal of the article was intimidation of faculty.” It was precisely then that I received the first SCR-inspired death threats. When I explained the nature of these threats and this organization to the administration (and to the Faculty Senate), it chose not to comment on the issue. The result: SCR has only persisted in its attacks. I hope the Stanford administration will not wait for yet another attack on me or anyone else before it addresses this issue seriously and unambiguously. 

That SCR has no intention of altering its behavior is abundantly clear. As recently as this past spring SCR launched a campaign to smear 22-year-old Stanford alum Emily Wilder — digging into years-old tweets and starting a campaign to get her fired from her hard-earned job at the Associated Press. They succeeded in the short-term — but she has since drawn the admiration of the world for her intelligence, character and tenacity, and she has landed another job in journalism. She is now a hero to many people, journalists and non-journalists alike. In these days of social media “value,” I should point out that Emily has 94K followers on Twitter. SCR has 2,240.

SCR has used these kinds of malicious tactics for decades. It has always wished to create discord and distrust to promote an anti-gay, anti-Black, anti-brown, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, anti-first gen, anti-affirmative action, anti-labor, anti-refugee, anti-trans, anti-queer, anti-multicultural agenda. Indeed, one look at its website provides strong evidence that it is anti-Stanford, accusing the University of being a left-wing “echo chamber.” In fact, its signature characteristic is negativity and silencing.

This characteristic became apparent as far back as 1992, when SCR attacked Stanford’s attempts to curtail sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus. They decided to “test” Stanford’s commitment to free speech by loudly and publicly screaming out homophobic remarks outside the residence of a gay Resident Fellow. Addressing these attacks, on Feb. 7 of that year, President Donald Kennedy declared in an op-ed in the Stanford Daily, “During recent weeks, students and organizations that claim to be ‘conservative’ have issued a series of challenges to the Stanford community. These have included an issue of The Stanford Review containing attacks on campus policies on sexual assault and an incident in which a student formerly associated with that publication shouted obscene homophobic insults toward the residence of a faculty member. … Our respect for freedom of speech may stop us short of formal sanctions in this disturbing case. But it need not prevent us from naming the behavior for what it is: vile, vicious and unworthy of Stanford. Nor need it prevent us from discerning and deploring its purpose, which is to damage our community by sowing mistrust.”

In sum, I find it is hard to believe SCR’s assertion that their “vision” is “to create a cultural environment at Stanford University where the leftist echo chamber of the University is abolished, and where students are free to debate and exchange ideas without the fear of coercion or reprisal.”  Wilder’s support of Palestinian rights and her criticisms of the state of Israel earned her reprisal in the form of her loss of employment.

I find more-than sufficient reason to link Vinci’s posts to SCR and their modes of operation, and to recognize that Vinci’s posts differ only in degree, not in nature, from SCR’s pattern of harassment and attack. They have created a toxic climate on campus where no one is immune from targeting, especially people of color and queers. An undergraduate told the Planning and Policy subcommittee on campus climate, “I need to watch what I say — I do not want to be the next Emily Wilder.”

SCR’s actions speak much louder than their words, and this well-established pattern of behavior offered Vinci a safe haven in SCR — attacks, intimidation, threats and harassment are all standard parts of their practice. This kind of aggressive and divisive behavior is the very last thing we need as we move back to campus — we have seen how SCR’s poisonous climate can create the conditions under which fear, hatred and viciousness seem acceptable and even called for.

At a time when our community is trying to mend — when our entire nation is trying to mend — it is imperative that we refuse to engage with the gutter tactics of SCR and others like them. Our eyes should be focused on the positive and the affirmative. I am convinced that we can emerge from the chaos and destruction of the pandemic if we remember what we value most in a learning community — genuine tolerance and an investment in the welfare of all, which should come at the expense of none. To create a better world, we must rise to the challenge of being better people, which means refusing to condone, accept or stay silent when any of us is attacked by organized malice.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University.

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