The other day, Tumblr user whitehotharlots broke the news that Kieran Bhattacharya, a University of Virginia med student expelled after expressing skepticism at a seminar on microaggressions a couple of years ago, would be allowed to proceed with his legal complaint against the university. Journalist Wesley Yang subsequently drew attention to the post, after which Reason’s Robby Soave told the same story in a more formal article, one that would subsequently spread like wildfire among groups concerned about the overreach of social justice activism and ideology, free speech, cancel culture, and so forth.
The story, as Soave tells it, is simple and outrageous. After a skeptical but measured exchange disputing the presenter in a seminar on microaggressions, Bhattacharya found himself called into a dean’s office to explain himself, mandated psychological evaluation and counseling before he would be allowed to return to class, and ultimately railroaded down a series of escalations culminating in expulsion. As Soave put it in a tweet:
Over a period of several weeks, the student — Kieran — repeatedly asked administrators to explain what he had done that was a crime. They then treated his mounting frustration and confusion as evidence he was unstable. It’s pure Kafka.
I respect Soave and enjoy his work, and fully agree with him that the story, as he outlines it, reads as an unconscionable violation of freedom of expression, a chilling of opposition in which ideological disagreement is branded harassment. You can listen to the exchange starting at around 28 minutes here. He’s skeptical and clearly not thrilled with the topic, but he maintains a measured tone throughout and engages directly on the ideas. Calling him in for further scrutiny, based on that alone, is unreasonable and should not have happened.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story is much less defensible. The exchange that led directly to his suspension sounds much worse for him than the seminar clip, and his apparent behavior across forums such as 4chan’s /pol/ and a scattering of subreddits was shameful. Near as I can tell, Soave wrote the piece quickly in response to the news breaking in his circle, taking it as a simple, egregious case of campus “cancel culture” in line with much of what he reports. As a journalist, though, he has a responsibility to dig deep and present a full picture, not just the part that aligns with his message. My curiosity was piqued by his description, and I did some of that poking around. The picture that emerges is a murky one, scattered in bits and pieces across 4chan, reddit, and elsewhere, and it simply cannot be neatly reduced into a dismissal for daring to disagree with an ideology. In the spirit of painting a fuller picture, it’s worth examining a bit more of what happened.
To start, here’s a recording, not linked by Soave, of the hearing to determine whether Bhattacharya should be suspended. Keep in mind the context as you listen. He’s in front of a panel of experienced physicians as a medical student, being evaluated for whether he should be allowed to remain at the school. They tell him they’re investigating him because some of his interactions have been concerning people. In that context, he steps in immediately like a prosecutor cross-examining a witness. He spends the first five minutes of the conversation quibbling over whether he received a letter they sent about the meeting. When the professor mentions they might be getting a bit off-track and that the focus is on his recent interactions and behavior, he replies, “Okay, but I want to stick with the letter first, because you started it, and we need to finish it.”
This approach continues through the interaction. They focus on his conversation with his dean, who expressed concern after meeting with them, and he asks them to describe what interaction he had. Here’s that snippet:
Bhattacharya: Let’s start with Dr. Densmore. Could you describe in your best detail what interaction I had with Dean Densmore?
Panelist: I suspect it’s similar to what you’re showing here, which is that you’re —
B: Documenting something?
P: What do you mean?
B: Just documenting this and making sure… I don’t know who more than half of you are, I don’t have anyone I can say I really trust… maybe this cop, I talked to him for like ten minutes outside, I can really trust… the only thing I really have is just audio evidence. I want it to be very clear how exactly people in this room tried to eject me from medical school. Back again, can you tell me exactly what I did with Dr. Densmore?
P: So I understand that Dr. Canterbury recommended that you go to CAPS before you return to class, and you have been resisting that, I think, right?
B: Okay, I think “recommend” is a very interesting word to use here. Let’s just read what Canterbury said. But we’ll start with what Densmore said. Densmore. So you said recommend, that’s a very key mistake, again, ’cause we’ll just read the email, because we need to be official. You didn’t bring any exhibits, I did, so…
It continues in that vein. A bit later, he hones in on the wording of “recommended” again, saying, “It’s almost laughable, what’s going on here.” The whole time, he treats it as something akin to a legal case, with him as prosecution aiming to pick apart their defense. The whole time, the professors emphasize that what he is doing is unusual, is coming across as threatening, and is inappropriate for the meeting. He replies at one point that they’re simply projecting aggression onto him. Listening to the audio, I can find no way to disagree with them. I want to. I came in rooting for the student, unfairly railroaded by an uncaring establishment. But even making allowances for the stress and difficulty of the circumstances, he does not come off well. He comes in positively spoiling for a fight, refusing to give an inch, arguing even trivial points at length, openly laughing in their faces.
As far as I’m aware, his meeting with his dean was not recorded. But his subsequent online behavior was — or at least the behavior of a talkative online individual claiming to be him, along with a few others closely focused on defending him but claiming not to be him. While all I can find occurred after the suspension, it’s worth taking a look at to establish exactly what his aims and thoughts on the topic were and are. After the suspension, he — or an interested close observer set on defending him — started a series of threads entitled ‘Medgate’, on 4chan’s /pol/. This is the first thread (made by someone claiming to be him), and this is a typical example. The full collection can be found here.
On the threads, someone claiming to be him shared a picture of the panel along with some, well, choice insults directed at the members. The anonymity of 4chan, with only tripcodes available to identify a consistent poster within a single thread, makes this uncertain, but since nobody else could have taken the picture it seems overwhelmingly likely he was at least the one to share it.
Around the same time, a couple of reddit users began paying close attention to the case. One, /u/GoogleIsTheBeast, emphasized he was not Bhattacharya but defended him at length across multiple subreddits and [claimed to have been posting the 4chan threads. Another two, /u/redpillpub and /u/trumpmed22, claimed to be him and also posted, ah, extensive defenses.
Throughout the threads, all three maintain that same combative, terse style, and portray the process as a deliberate crusade against “SJW indoctrination happening in the place of medical education”.
One thread contained a particularly striking question: Was the seminar required? It was an event sponsored by UVA’s American Medical Woman’s Association (AMWA) club with a guest speaker, and the ever-trustworthy source “some random on the internet” claims to know with certainty it was optional. I can’t make the same claim, but it’s an important question. If the seminar was optional, it puts his dissent into a very different light than if it was mandatory — rather than speaking out against forced participation in an ideology he opposes, if it was optional he comes off more as an ideologue actively looking for trouble from the beginning. My digging hasn’t been sufficient to find the answer for certain, so take this part with a grain of salt.
So — what’s the point of all this? Why have I dived into rabbit holes around the internet to explore what exactly he did and said? Put simply: Standing for free expression means you must often defend scoundrels. But you cannot forget it is, in fact, scoundrels you’re defending. To the best of my observation, his original challenge to the speaker on microaggressions — certainly if asked at a required event, arguably if asked at an optional one — was well within bounds, and disciplining him over it would be unreasonable. Even asking for a meeting, as they did, seems excessive. Disagreement is not harrassment, and students should be free to share their perspectives on difficult topics, even unpopular ones.
But this all raises a tricky question: If, after an unreasonable initial reprimand (as the first interaction seems to have been), you then uncover legitimate concerns, is it reasonable to enforce discipline based on them?
I do not think the university is incorrect in their claims in the final hearing. At least in that interaction, he was unnecessarily aggressive. He was rude. He made no attempts to take a compromise or to accept any conditions. He acted unprofessionally. On that panel, as they said repeatedly, it was never about the initial interaction. It was about the follow-up, and based on his behavior online and in the final hearing, in the absence of contrary evidence I think the professor on the panel was likely correct to suggest the dean who objected to his behavior was noticing a similar pattern in their meeting. Contrary to the student’s claims, I think the professors on the panel were quite clear, when he wasn’t interrupting him, about how and why his approach was unprofessional, and it had little to do with the initial interaction. They saw in front of them a man with a mission, a student who saw them as the face of “SJW indoctrination” and was determined, not to smooth things over and move on, but to fight against them, to oppose them in every particular and reject all feedback.
Open discourse is vital. I think there are legitimate reasons to defend Bhattacharya here, and I agree with the general direction of the concerns Robby Soave and others consistently raise about the issue of free speech. In defending it, though, there must be room for more nuance than “the hero student versus the villain school, the student suspended for nothing but daring to question the orthodoxy”. Defend free expression, yes, but defend it with your eyes wide open and with precision. Kieran Bhattacharya should have every right to direct skepticism towards the concept of microaggressions, but much of his behavior after the initial encounter was shameful. Both of these points can be true at once, and I believe a robust defense of free expression must emphasize both rather than providing the pinhole view seen in Soave’s piece.
Header image: Bill McChesney, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons