When liberal institutions fail us: "Envious reversal" and the Hamline University debacle

A small college panicked and fired a professor — but the real lessons aren't the ones the right wants to teach

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published March 4, 2023 12:13PM (EST)

Wooden Chairs In Classroom Auditorium (Getty Images/Nikola Spasic/EyeEm)
Wooden Chairs In Classroom Auditorium (Getty Images/Nikola Spasic/EyeEm)

Everywhere we look, we're being failed by institutions that are "supposed" to protect us — and not just those, like the police, that progressives have good reason to distrust.  Take the recent example of Hamline University in Minnesota, which firing an adjunct art professor, Erika López Prater, for showing her class a famous medieval Islamic painting of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamline failed both the professor and its Muslim students, though in different ways. 

As was widely reported, López Prater gave both written and verbal advance warnings for devout Muslim students who may regard such images as sacrilegious — a widely-held view today that was not so dominant in the past. But one student who disregarded the warnings complained afterwards, leading the school's administration to label López Prater's actions as "Islamophobic" and terminate her promised future employment — a decision move vigorously opposed by the Muslim Public Affairs Council as well as the University of Minnesota's Department of Art History.

"The painting was not Islamophobic," MPAC wrote. "In fact, it was commissioned by a fourteenth-century Muslim king in order to honor the Prophet, depicting the first Quranic revelation from the angel Gabriel." This reflects the diversity of the Islamic tradition, the group explained: 

As a Muslim organization, we recognize the validity and ubiquity of an Islamic viewpoint that discourages or forbids any depictions of the Prophet, especially if done in a distasteful or disrespectful manner. However, we also recognize the historical reality that other viewpoints have existed and that there have been some Muslims, including and especially Shīʿī Muslims,  who have felt no qualms in pictorially representing the Prophet (although often veiling his face out of respect). All this is a testament to the great internal diversity within the Islamic tradition, which should be celebrated. 

This episode rapidly gained momentum on the right as an example of "wokeness" and diversity run amok, but it's important to understand that Hamline's decision was opposed to the diverse traditions found within Islam.  In the lawsuit López Prater filed against Hamline, she stated that the student in question, Aram Wedatalla, "wanted to impose her specific religious views on López Prater, non-Muslim students, and Muslim students who did not object to images for the Prophet Muhammad — a privilege granted to no other religion or religious belief at Hamline." 

So the university clearly failed to protect everyone involved as well its principles. It obviously failed to protect López Prater and academic freedom (leading the faculty to call for the president's resignation). But it also failed Wedatalla, president of the school's Muslim Student Association, and the rest of its Muslim community in at least three ways: it failed first at its core mission to educate, as well as at its mission to educate about education. It clouded people's understanding of actual Islamophobia, making it more difficult to combat, and well before the incident in question, it created conditions where Muslims didn't feel included. These ancillary or earlier failures didn't get much attention, but are equally important in appreciating how badly Hamline failed.

Mark Berkson, chair of the Department of Religion, shed some light on this in a letter to Hamline's student newspaper: "First, a majority of the world's Muslims today believe that visually representing the prophet Muhammad is forbidden," he wrote. "And yet here is another fact — Muslims have created and enjoyed figural representations of Muhammad throughout much of the history of Islam in some parts of the Islamic world." He also touched  on the second failure, observing that to label López Prater's presentation as Islamophobic was "not only inaccurate but also takes our attention off of real examples of bigotry and hate." 

MSNBC's Mehdi Hasan put it more directly: "There's a reason right-wing media have been all over this story. Because they don't want to admit that there is a real problem with anti-Muslim bigotry in this country. And now they can say, look, look, it's those Muslim bullies and censors on college campuses and those liberal cowards in charge of colleges who have invented the whole thing, who've taken offense of things they shouldn't be offended by."

Perhaps most importantly, Berkson implicitly addressed Hamline's third failing by explicitly drawing on Islamic thought: "Intention is a key concept in Islam," he noted, "and the Prophet Muhammad himself said that people will receive consequences for actions depending on their intentions. ... When, as in the case here at Hamline, everyone involved has good intentions… and is doing their best to honor principles (religious and academic) that are important to them, we can find our way forward in open conversation and mutual respect."

Ironically enough, Berkson's letter was taken down two days later, supposedly because it "caused harm." What's more, Wedatalla's supporters were not receptive to his message. The school newspaper reported another Muslim student saying, "Hamline teaches us it doesn't matter the intent, the impact is what matters." 

Attacking Hamline's Muslim students over this incident is missing the point. Amid widespread Islamophobia and an institutional track record of mistrust, their contradictory response makes more sense.

It's peculiar but instructive to hear students in this case rely on a liberal arts college, rather than the Prophet Muhammad, in arguing their case. This feels like an obvious contradiction — but why did they respond that way? There are hints of earlier incidents in the campus newspaper's story: When the dean of students sent out an email, Muslim students "had hoped that the email would include reference to past Islamophobic incidents," and several students at a later meeting "expressed frustration at repeated incidents of intolerance and hate speech in recent years, and asked about new forms of intervention."  

With an institutional track record of mistrust and alleged inaction, it's less surprising that Berkson's words fell on deaf ears. Islamophobia is widespread in America today, and anyone subjected to systemic attack becomes traumatized by it, perhaps especially when a "liberal" institution like Hamline purports to oppose such abuse, but repeatedly fails to address it. So it would be misguided to attack Hamline's Muslim students for this incident. The contradiction in their response mirrors the contradictions they've likely lived with all their lives — contradictions that Hamline had a responsibility to address.

Berkson could well be right about eveyone's good intentions, but Hamline's institutional failures managed to thwart or misdirect them. Even the suppression of Berkson's letter was presumably the result of "good intentions," however misconceived and poorly applied. 

Blaming the liberals

"Everyone blames the liberals," John Stoehr argues, reflecting on what happened at Hamline, and how it's been received. "No one blames the institutions for getting the liberals' ideas wrong." That's really the point made above. It's easy to say that academic freedom is a core liberal value, and that violating it is a major failure. But religious freedom, non-discrimination and pluralism are liberal values too, and Hamline had systematically failed on all those counts already.

"Liberalism is the force in politics and society that aims to flatten entrenched hierarchies of power in order to advance liberty, equality and justice for all, not merely the few," Stoehr writes, linking to Rick Perlstein's essay on right-wing education panic, "They Want Your Child!"

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"Public schools are where young people encounter ways of being and thinking that may directly contradict those they were raised to believe; there really is no way around it," Perlstein writes. "Schools are where future adults receive tools to decide which ideas and practices to embrace and which to reject for themselves. Schooling, done properly, is the opposite of conservatism. So is it any wonder it frequently drives conservatives berserk?" 

Note carefully what Perlstein is saying: "[T]he opposite of conservatism" doesn't mean that education is leftist indoctrination, but rather that students are given a choice to "decide which ideas and practices to embrace and which to reject," given tools to decide for themselves. They are free to choose "conservative" values and ideas, of course — but that act of choice is the essence of liberalism.

Returning to Stoehr's article, his central observation is that "the illiberals blame the liberals for the institutions that get the liberals' ideas all wrong. By getting the liberals' ideas all wrong, the institutions end up affirming what the illiberals say about the liberals."

Three things strike me here: First, the initial problem was institutional conservatism, that is, the fact that Hamline cared more about its institutional image than its actual mission. Second, this enabled a dynamic of "envious reversal" (which I wrote about here in 2015), which allows illiberal forces to portray liberals as intolerant and oppressive and portray themselves as heroes of freedom, exposing liberal hypocrisy. Third, the problem is far more general, and goes well beyond the Hamline incident or the educational realm.  

Image is everything

First, we need to be clear that an educational institution's mission is inherently liberal, in the sense described above: It's about empowering autonomous individual development, and in many cases about a long-term commitment to flattening hierarchies as well.

Of course all institutions want to survive and care about their images. But healthy, vibrant institutions don't need to focus on those things. If their mission is successful, then image and survival will take care of themselves. Now, the neoliberal era hasn't been kind to educational institutions, and there aren't nearly as many healthy, vibrant ones as there used to be. That's my deeper point: Our institutions are failing because of deep systemic problems, most fundamentally the neoliberal abandonment of public goods of all kinds, as described in the recent book, "The Privatization of Everything." 

In his commentary on the Hamline incident, historian David Perry wrote that rather than viewing this through a campus culture-war lens, we should "instead look at two issues: labor rights and the exercise of power":

In this case, López Prater was an adjunct, a gig worker with no guarantee of future employment. This is a massive problem in academia, of course, where there has been a generational shift from stable, full-time employment to contract work. That's been bad for those of us who work in higher ed. It's been bad for students, too.

As a full-time professor, I built infrastructure to support student learning year after year after year. A gig worker can't do that. But it's been good for the bosses. It saves them money. And it lets them dispose of workers when messy situations — such as a student complaining about blasphemy — arise.

Perry goes on to note that "the power dynamics on college campuses are happening everywherethroughout our economy, and no one is safe when it's easier for the bosses to wash their hands instead of getting down into the dirt with the rest of us doing the work." Neoliberal capitalism normalizes this, not just for businesses, but for all institutions. ("Running government like a business.") It's tragic and wrong that Hamline cared more about its institutional image than its actual mission, but it's also the fundamental logic of today's neoliberal gig-work world.

"Envious reversal"

This comes from British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Most people understand the concept of projection: The pot calling the kettle black, which tends to happen when something we don't like about ourselves leads us to point fingers at somebody else. In Freudian psychology, it's considered a primitive form of ego defense. Klein perceives a more complex process starting in infancy, well before the ego (according to Freud) is even formed. This involves both projecting what is unwanted and "introjecting" what is wanted. Klein introduced the term "projective identification," which has taken on a variety of meanings, but "envious reversal" refers to something quite specific. To quote from the website of therapist Chris Minnick

In this envy driven "role reversal" (or "envious reversal" for shorthand), two processes take place instantaneously and simultaneously. The first is that the projector rids himself of the unwanted baby state, by projecting it into the "container" [the recipient of the projection]. Simultaneously, the projector steals the desirable state of affairs (i.e., some aspect of the "container's" identity) from the container and takes it in for himself. 

Conservative attacks on liberals often involve envious reversal, as when conservative Republicans attack Democrats as the "party of slavery" and the "party of Jim Crow." That's technically true as a matter of history, but it's envious reversal in its effort to erase history — that is, the 60-year history of Republican attempts to gain and hold power based on white supremacy, racism and the lingering legacy of the Confederacy.

Conservative attacks on liberals often involve envious reversal, as with accusations that Democrats are the "party of slavery" and the "party of Jim Crow." That's technically true, but an obvious effort to erase recent history.

It's particularly striking when conservatives try to claim democratic socialist Martin Luther King Jr. as one of their own, based on a single out-of-context sentence about hoping for a future in which his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," as if King's idea of character were not radically different than theirs and as if King had never criticized racism as a systemic, institutionalized evil, along with militarism and excessive materialism. King's systemic analysis of America's moral, racial and political problems was squarely in line with a broad range of other Black activists, academics and theologians whom conservatives now demonize as exponents of "critical race theory" — another manifestation of envious reversal. 

Another example can be seen with Christian nationalism. While nationalism based on some form of ethnic or racial exclusion is a nearly universal phenomenon, America was explicitly not founded on religious or ethnic grounds, but based on aspirational universal principles derived from philosopher John Locke and other secular theorists. Andrew Seidel's "The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American" stands as the definitive refutation of the Christian nationalists' bogus claims. When Christian nationalists cast themselves in the image of the founders, and depict secular liberals as alien corrupters, that's a classic example of envious reversal. The battle to reclaim the true meaning of Religious Freedom Day, which I've written about multiple times, is all about combating that specific envious reversal.   

What happened at Hamline was only one example of another long-standing trend in envious reversal: portraying liberals as intolerant and close-minded and conservatives as the opposite. That's a tough sell when it comes to religious conservatives with their constant public bullying and censorship campaigns, but libertarians love this, particularly on higher education. Conservatives pour a lot of money into the narrative of a left-wing campus free speech crisis which is largely imaginary, as described in this 2018 analysis. It was largely imaginary at Hamline, too, as Perry notes: "If this story is a sign of 'political correctness run amok,' isn't it odd that all these liberal professors are clearly on the side of the instructor here?" 

Contrast what happened at Hamline with another small liberal arts college in the news in January: New College, in Sarasota, Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis staged an institutional coup, installing a slate of right-wing trustees to change the nature of the school, which has been described as "a beacon of shining success... ranked at or near the top of college listings nationwide on multiple measurements" including "74 Fulbright Fellowships over the past 15 years" and "more scholars per capita than Harvard and Yale." Those are the words, by the way, of state Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican, opposing a 2020 proposal to merge New College into Florida State University. 

For DeSantis, this was just a low-hanging piñata, a small school with a small alumni community and an ideal target for to push his "war on woke" presidential propaganda campaign. His field general on this front is Chris Rufo, whose master plan for destroying public education was described by Salon's Kathryn Joyce last April. She noted that Rufo's framing narrative was a variation on the "cultural Marxism" conspiracy theory I've written about previously. By attributing changes in public education to a sinister leftist conspiracy, Rufo justifies the right's conspiratorial takeover. 

This is all delusional, of course. For one thing, multiculturalism — a key element in the "cultural Marxism" narrative — owes nothing to the oft-vilified Frankfurt School. As David Neiwert notes, it "has much deeper roots in the study of anthropology," going back to Franz Boas and his students Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. "It became ascendant as a worldview in the post-World War II years," he writes, "after it became apparent (especially as the events of the Holocaust became more widely understood) that white supremacy — the worldview it replaced — was not only inadequate but a direct source of wholesale evil."

So what conservatives really fear is power-disrupting change — just as Perlstein describes — and that change came first from scientific inquiry, and then from a recognition of the horrors produced by white supremacy produced. Of course white supremacy has always been a key thread in American politics, but so has multiculturalism, at least in embryonic form. Thomas Jefferson, that master of contradiction, reflected both sides: a slaveowner who was also the father of religious liberty in law. As he wrote about the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, it contained "within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination." The flowering of multiculturalism over the last several decades thus represents the realization of something always present in the promise of America. When conservatives like Rufo try to portray it as an alien evil, and present themselves as true Americans, they're engaged in a particularly perverse form of envious reversal. 

Addressing systemic institutional failure

Let's return to Stoehr's observation that in "getting the liberals' ideas all wrong, the institutions end up affirming what the illiberals say about the liberals." This is reflected, I would argue, in all our institutions. We can see it most vividly in the lack of justice: in the persistent police killings of unarmed black men three years after George Floyd's murder on the one hand, and in Donald Trump's 2024 presidential campaign despite his public crimes too numerous to mention.

When right-wingers portray multiculturalism as an alien evil, and present themselves as true Americans, they're engaged in a particularly perverse form of envious reversal. 

Put simply, our institutions as a whole have ceased to work as they're supposed to. Everyone realizes this, but we disagree about what's gone wrong and how to fix it. Conservatives have a simple story to tell: Things used to work, but liberals screwed it all up. Get rid of the liberals and "woke ideology" and we can "Make America Great  Again." Liberals, by their very nature, see things in more complex fashion and vigorously dispute amongst themselves. But they all more or less agree that things didn't use to work ideally in some idyllic past. Some things were better for some people, certainly, but others were much worse. It's a complicated history, and it's going to be a complicated story as we move forward. Multiple perspectives will be necessary.

But there is a simple guidepost available: reclaiming the meaning of freedom, itself a core liberal value that conservatives have stolen in a masterstroke of envious reversal. In 2020, I wrote about George Lakoff's book "Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea," which described two models of freedom in America, the essentially dynamic liberal model and the conservative model trapped in the past:  

"Progressive freedom is dynamic freedom. Freedom is realized not just in stasis, or at a single moment in history, but in its expansion over a long time," Lakoff writes. "You cannot look only at the Founding Fathers and stop there. If you do, it sounds as if they were hypocrites: They talked liberty but permitted slavery; they talked democracy but allowed only white male property owners to vote. But from a dynamic progressive perspective, the great ideas were expandable freedoms."

On the other hand:

What makes them "conservatives" is not that they want to conserve the achievements of those who fought to deepen American democracy. It's the reverse: They want to go back to before these progressive freedoms were established. That is why they harp so much on narrow so-called originalist readings of the Constitution — on its letter, not its spirit — on "activist judges" rather than an inherently activist population.

Conservatives want to keep us tangled in the contradictions of the past, in the supposed name of  "freedom." But real freedom comes through freeing ourselves from those contradictions, even if new contradictions arise. Once we understand freedom as dynamic, the prospect of new contradictions need not deter us from moving forward. It simply presents new challenges for us to meet.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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