You may remember a meme circulating widely after the U.S. presidential election last November with a picture of Kamala Harris and the following comment: “She will be an inspiration to young girls by showing that if you sleep with the right powerfully connected men then you too can play second fiddle to a man with dementia. It’s basically a Cinderella story.”
The political theorist and historian Marco Bassani, Professor of History of Political Theory at the Università Statale di Milano, was one of many who reposted the meme on a personal social media page. When this was brought to the attention of his university, the administration initiated disciplinary proceedings that finally reached a conclusion this past week after over six months. The verdict, reported in the Italian news, was that Prof. Bassani was found guilty of sharing “sexist and highly offensive content, not only toward the directly interested party but toward the entire female gender.” As punishment, his university teaching and salary were suspended for one month.
Yet the penalty was apparently not simply for reposting the meme in question but for the nature of his social media posts more generally, since the press relates that he was also told “what happened does not constitute an isolated episode, since it is your custom to publicly express strong opinions on social networks, sometimes with extreme content.”
Prof. Bassani reacted to the sentence with the following statement as reported in the press: “This clearly shows that I have been punished because I am not aligned with the banalities of the contemporary post-left. Furthermore, the verdict had already been written even before the commission was created. In the end, it is good that it happened to me since I am over 50 years old and a full professor. Had it happened to a young scholar at the beginning of their career, they would have been shredded to pieces. But I want to turn this madness into a battle in defense of the values of freedom, because this new Inquisition is really dangerous.”
Prof. Bassani’s Italian colleagues are in the process of writing an open letter that they will circulate widely and ask supporters to sign in a gesture of solidarity. They have also set up a venue to collect donations to help offset the legal fees required to fight against this measure.
Below I share the English version of an open letter that I have sent to an Italian publication.
Open Letter to the President of the State University of Milan, Professor Elio Franzini
Although I have never had the privilege of meeting Professor Marco Bassani in person, I’m an admirer of his scholarly work, in particular Liberty, State, & Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson, and, most recently, Chaining Down Leviathan: The American Dream of Self-Government 1776-1865. In addition, we are friends on Facebook where I value his wit and perceptiveness in posting comments, news, and memes on hotly debated topics of contemporary relevance.
When I heard the commotion last fall simply because Prof. Bassani had reposted a meme on his personal Facebook page, I considered it an attempt to intimidate him for having expressed his opinion publicly but I honestly did not expect the fuss to amount to anything concrete. Now, however, that disciplinary proceedings at the Università Statale di Milano have resulted in an actual punishment in the form of a month’s suspension of his teaching and salary, I feel the moral obligation to register my shock and disagreement and to urge a repeal of the sentence against him.
According to the press, you deemed that the meme in question contained “sexist and highly offensive content, not only toward the directly interested party but toward the entire female gender.” I cannot speak for others, but frankly I find the charge that the meme was “detrimental to the dignity of women” to be absurd. As a woman, and in particular as an American woman, I can assure you that the post was not in the least “detrimental to my dignity.” Indeed, I would call the content not at all sexist but rather feminist. In any case, putting all the focus on the question of gender diverts attention away from the issues of political corruption and conflict of interest that the meme raises. In fact, and I say this as a scholar of language and literature, if an entire group were implicitly the target, it would not be the female gender but instead the political class. But I’m writing not to defend the meme per se, but rather to defend Prof. Bassani’s fundamental right to repost it on his personal Facebook page without fear of a reprisal of any kind from his employer today or in the future. I cannot believe that such a fundamental right to expression could be denied to a professor at an Italian university.
A meme often functions as a shorthand way to bring to mind and comment upon serious issues that are of public knowledge or have otherwise been treated at greater length in previous venues. And in fact, the widely circulated meme that Prof. Bassani reposted on his page drew attention to Vice President Kamala Harris’s rise to power that had been examined in detail and criticized in earlier publications. The meme did so using sarcasm which, like satirical humor more generally, has had a venerable role in speaking truth to power throughout the ages—including and especially in the history of Italian culture and literature. Today, however, this freedom is increasingly threatened if one’s opinions do not coincide with those that dominate in political institutions, the press, and even academia. This right of expression must therefore be safeguarded and defended with even greater tenacity.
If not reversed, this sanction will endanger the freedom of speech of us all (already abolished in a large part of the world, where academics in particular are often prohibited from expressing their opinions freely). It could also lead that much faster to a world in which those who hold the monopoly on legalized violence can act with impunity—also thanks to the cover of those who should protect independent thinking!—without having their actions scrutinized or censured. In the grand scheme of things, it is certainly a much graver injustice that today whistleblowers and courageous investigative journalists who expose criminal acts are imprisoned or forced to live in exile while the corrupt powerbrokers who carry out misdeeds of all kinds are not held accountable and are instead shielded from the consequences of their wrongdoing. All the same, I really wonder how we’ve arrived at a situation in which—in a country that considers itself free—someone can be sanctioned simply for having reposted a meme on their personal Facebook page!
In the Italian press I read that the commission’s assault on free speech was justified by the University’s rule that one must “avoid damage to the image and reputation of the University.” For me, it’s clear that the reputation of the University of Milan was not at all damaged by the reposting of a meme on the part of Prof. Bassani, who has a right to express himself freely. On the contrary, what gravely harmed the reputation of the University was the infliction of an unjustifiable punishment that made their disciplinary proceedings seem more like the persecution of his political ideas.