While Johnny Mandel sang “suicide is painless,” it is apparently also ethical. Duquesne University Psychology professor Derek Hook is under fire this week after arguing in class that white people may find that the ethical option for the dismantling of white culture is suicide. As will likely come as little surprise to many on this blog, I oppose calls for Hook’s termination as a matter of academic freedom.
In a class to Baltimore-based American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work in June available on Twitter, Hook used a quote by South African philosophy professor, Terblanche Delport, that “White people should commit suicide as an ethical act.” Delport was discussing the movement for equality in South Africa. Delport stated:
“If the goal is to dismantle white supremacy, and white supremacy is white culture … then the goal has to be to dismantle white culture and ultimately white people themselves. The total integration into Africa by white people will also automatically then mean the death of white people as white as a concept would not exist anymore.”
Hook stated “there was something ethical in Delport’s statements” since, as Delport argued, “The only way then for white people to become part of Africa is to not exist as white people anymore.” Hook then added I want to suggest that psychoanalytically we could even make the argument that there was something ethical in Delport’s statements.” While noting that Delport wanted to stir up passions as a “fighter academic,” “nevertheless, I want to make the argument that there is some kind of ethical dimension to his, his provocations.”
Hook praised Delport taking “his White audience to the threshold of a type of symbolic extinction … he took them to a proposed end of whiteness” and “offered his White audience the opportunity to” contemplate “the castration of whiteness.”
The University has insisted that Hook did not endorse a call for white suicide and is being misrepresented in his use of the material.
The controversy in my view is a classic fight over academic freedom. Hook was introducing a radical and controversial theory in discussing the underlying issues. Professors often try to provoke emotions in classes, even pushing students into uncomfortable positions on the extremes of social or political issues. Many of us try to force students out of their comfort zones to get them to defend core principles or force them to consider opposing views.
Professors need to be able to challenge and even provoke their students without fear of being terminated or suspended. My concern is the lack of consistency in the application of academic freedom and free speech principles, including a recent case at St. Joseph’s University. It is doubtful that the university would be equally supportive if Hook discussed the value of other races committing suicide, even as a hypothetical.
Notably, Pennsylvania is a state that makes even the encouragement of suicide a crime under 18 U.S.C. 2505:
(a) Causing suicide as criminal homicide.–A person may be convicted of criminal homicide for causing another to commit suicide only if he intentionally causes such suicide by force, duress or deception.
(b) Aiding or soliciting suicide as an independent offense.–A person who intentionally aids or solicits another to commit suicide is guilty of a felony of the second degree if his conduct causes such suicide or an attempted suicide, and otherwise of a misdemeanor of the second degree.
Such laws often raise free speech issues, particularly for those who believe suicide is a basic human right.