The Non-Persecution of Cliff Mass

Late last year, Cliff Mass, the controversial weatherman and University of Washington (UW) Professor, started a firestorm in the climate denial community and alt-right media by complaining to them that he was the target of persecution and bullying for his political beliefs and was having his freedom of speech threatened. The reasons for these bogus and unsupported claims were four main events. After listing those events, in this article I debunk Mass’s claims that he is being persecuted:

1) On November 21st, a polite letter from the Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (Ross, 2018) was sent to the department of Atmospheric Sciences noting that a recent blog with racist imagery had caused offence. The letter asked, without any sanction or punishment, for them to try and avoid racist and offensive content and reminding them of the values of the college. The letter did not name anyone in particular and did not address Mass. However, Mass responded indignantly in an email, arguing that the letter was an attack on his freedom of speech and that he had never made any offensive analogies.

2) Mass’s department head then shared a piece I wrote critiquing Mass’ arguments against Washington’s carbon fee Initiative 1631. It was shared because in response to the Assistant Dean’s polite letter, Mass shared a doctored version of his blog which did not contain an earlier image he had included, which had offensive imagery comparing union workers, communities of color and Native American tribes to pigs for advocating for investments in their communities by supporting Washington’s carbon fee initiative 1631. My blog had a screenshot of the offending imagery and was shared to reveal that Mass had indeed made offensive analogies.

A screenshot from Mass’s blog. He has since taken the picture down and replaced it with a fox picture instead, but has still issued no apology for the picture.

3) In response, rather than Mass simply apologizing for an offensive analogy, he wrote an email calling for the intervention of UW HR and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for a lack of “civility” and “tolerance” against him. This led to the decision to have a department meeting mediated by a university ombudsman.

4) Mass’ department had their meeting mediated by a university ombudsman wherein, according to several individuals present, a number of graduate students raised concerns because Mass had repeatedly contributed negatively to the inclusiveness of their community, the latest instance of this was his blog post which had racist imagery that they felt was not only inappropriate but was also representing them and their department in ways they didn’t support.

After the meeting, Mass went to the climate denial community and alt-right media to make his exaggerated claims of persecution, arguing that his department was targeting him for his views around Initiative 1631, when in fact he was being called out for his non-inclusive and offensive behavior. Rising to his defense, prominent climate skeptic Judith Curry chimed in all the way from Georgia to claim there was a campaign of persecution against Mass for his political views.* She exaggerated and distorted facts around the Mass case. She also singled me out for “dishonorable mention”, for being “slimy” and writing a so-called “hit piece” against Mass. Providing a text book ad hominem attack, she never bothered to engage with or even mention any of the arguments I made, or even link to my piece, she just slung those labels against me without any reasoning behind why. Then based on Curry’s distorted version of the facts, one of the world’s most prominent climate deniers Anthony Watts called for people to rally behind Mass and push back against the UW’s supposed “mob attacking” of Mass. Watts claimed that my piece instigated the persecution against Mass.

In response to Mass, Watts and Curry’s cries of persecution, their rather vicious fan base sent me a range of threatening emails, including ones wishing for me to be “slaughtered”. Unlike Mass though, I am not going crying to the media saying I am being bullied or persecuted, because I accept that being a public figure and making arguments comes with the possibility of being critiqued, even by climate deniers calling for my death. I’m simply posting this on my own blog to defend myself and colleagues against these ludicrous charges, and show why Mass is not being persecuted, and why his claims and those of his defenders are so problematic and misguided.

Firstly, as the events above show, Mass is not being persecuted for his political beliefs, and simply had a meeting wherein students expressed dismay about his repeated non-inclusive behavior. However, as I will point out below, Mass has been engaging in problematic political activities which arguably merit investigation, but for which he has received no repercussions. Secondly, it was not my piece that instigated this mess, it was Mass’s problematic behavior, arguments and offensive analogies. All I did was point out how bad Cliff Mass’ arguments are, debunk them, and highlight the problematic nature of his offensive analogies. What neither Mass nor any of those who accuse myself and others of persecuting Mass have been able to do is to show where my arguments against Mass are incorrect. Instead, they accuse me of engaging in hit pieces, character assassinations or ad hominem attacks, but their accusations typically have no substance or supporting reasoning, and are themselves mostly just ad hominem attacks.

In several philosophy courses that I have taught, I teach what an ad hominem attack is, so let me refer to a definition. “An ad hominem is a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself”. In relation to this definition, if you read the piece in question you will see I do not avoid “attacking the substance of the argument”. Rather, I engage in a substantive, point-by-point argument to debunk Mass’s position against 1631, which as I pointed out was “weak, wildly exaggerated, often inaccurate, and if successful would lead to climate inaction and rob Washington’s most needy communities of much needed funding” (Lenferna & Silesky, 2018).

Mass complains that the cartoon I created for the article, which I paste alongside for reference, is totally inappropriate. But it is satirical and meant to reflect Mass’s close relationship with the oil and gas industry. Mass was working alongside the ~$32 million No on 1631 campaign, which was over 99% funded by oil and gas companies and the Koch Brothers, although as I have stated before, he was not paid to do so as far as I am aware. Additionally, as FOIA requests of Mass’s emails have shown, Mass used University of Washington resources to coordinate with the predominately oil and gas funded No On 1631 campaign, thus violating ethics codes for employees at state universities. As such, I do not see the cartoon as being “inappropriate”. It’s a satire reflecting a close relationship with the oil and gas industry. Rather, the inappropriate matter is Mass’s illicit dealings with the fossil fuel industry. It is also odd and hypocritical to be reprimanded for a satirical cartoon by those unapologetically defending pictures comparing communities of color to pigs.

False Flags of Free Speech Violations

In response to the Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for the College of the Environment’s very politely worded memo encouraging faculty not to engage in racism, Mass and his defenders claim that those who ask for civility and to avoid racism are somehow violating his free speech and acting “like big brother”. As someone who has lectured on topic of free speech at the University of Washington, I would like to point out that freedom of speech does not equal freedom from consequences, critique or reprimand. Within certain limitations, you are free to say what you want, but people are free to point out if that is problematic. That is not a violation of free speech, it is in fact an exercise in free speech in response to problematic speech.

Additionally, as a university professor, you have certain responsibilities to create an inclusive work environment, which Mass’ offensive and non-inclusive behavior arguably runs foul of, hence why students expressed frustration with Mass’ continued non-inclusive behavior. Furthermore, Mass’s appeal to free speech is often hypocritical and self-serving. In one email he warns of a chilling effect on free speech if the department is merely politely asked for some civility. In the very next email, he calls for those who share articles critiquing him to be silenced and wants HR and AAUP brought in simply because my article critiquing his arguments against Initiative 1631 was shared.

In the spirit of loosely throwing around accusations about chilling effects on free speech, perhaps it is worth considering how as a graduate student, a junior lecturer and young scholar in environmental ethics, I cannot raise ethical questions about Mass’s analysis without him getting on Twitter, calling me Trumpian, accusing me of “destroying democracy”, claiming that my article needs to be referred to HR and the AAUP, and then crying wolf to the climate denial community and the alt-right media. How was my free speech respected and dealt with in a civil manner in that treatment? How was my free speech respected when the climate denial community singled me out, engaged in ad hominem attacks against me, and their base sent death wishes my way.

Additionally, how was my free speech protected when Mass’ friend, the former Dean and Vice Provost of the Graduate School at the University of Washington, abused his position of power, and emailed me threateningly to demand I apologize to Mass and that if I did not then I “do not deserve to have the recognition and honor of being a UW Graduate Student”. (There is a screenshot of that email alongside and you can view my responses to his email here).

I’m far from the only one who Mass has responded to so aggressively for critiquing him. As a number of graduate students and professors I have spoken to have pointed out, Mass has a pattern of intimidation and aggression against those who disagree with him. It also seems there is an odd conflation where Mass characterizes those who critique his arguments as engaging in “harassment”. Critique does not equal harassment. However, some of Mass’s behavior towards other members of the university community has arguably entailed actual harassment as other students and faculty have detailed, but which I do not detail myself here.

Mass’s claims of persecution reflect a trend within the climate denial and skeptic community. They argue that they are somehow being persecuted and having their free speech violated by those who critique them, who do not take them seriously, who do not promote them or their views, and/or who do not agree with them. But to critique, to ignore, to disagree and to not promote are not the same as persecution. In accordance with the alongside meme, what the climate skeptic community seems to rage against, falsely using the banners of free speech and persecution, is that their poor arguments and bad science is rejected for being bad or perhaps mediocre at best, and they conflate such rejection and critique with persecution.

I am also aware that many climate scientists and members of the public argue that the media should not give Mass a platform to share either his political views or his views on climate change which many see as problematically downplaying the impacts of climate change and misrepresenting the current state of science. I foresee that Mass will also see such calls as an attack on free speech, but he would again be wrong. The right to freedom of speech does not entitle a right to speak on a particular platform (see Cross, 2017). You have a right to speak, but not a right to have a platform to speak on. Being on the radio or in a newspaper is an earned privilege to a platform, and if the media and the public determines that Mass is not worthy of air time, then they are revoking that privilege, not denying him a right to free speech. It is important that we and the media understand the difference between a right to free speech and the privilege to have a platform. They are not the same thing, and there is no right or obligation to give climate skeptics or problematic professors airtime.

Likewise, we can consider Mass’s role as professor and the platform he is given, as a privilege and not a right. If he is creating a hostile, non-inclusive work environment, harasses other academics and students, and/or violates state ethics codes and uses UW resources to engage in political campaigns to try and kill a state ballot initiative in collaboration with the fossil fuel industry, then we may conclude that he has violated the terms of agreement of his professorship and has thus voided the terms which grant him his privileged platform as a professor. Such behavior is not protected by tenure either. The Faculty Code section 25–51 has provisions for the removal of tenure on grounds of scientific and scholarly misconduct, and the intentional and malicious interference with the scientific, scholarly, and academic activities of others (University of Washington, 2018).

The Race Card?

Mass and his defenders have accused me and others involved in the so-called persecution of Mass of playing the race card. Mass claims that when writing the blog comparing communities of color and Native tribes to pigs, he had no intention to demean a particular group, and thus it was not racist. In moral philosophy and ethics we teach the difference between intention and effect, and show that racism is not just about intent, but is also about effect. Such a distinction is explained in this University of Calgary’s Anti-Racism Education (2018) passage:

“In discussions about the definition of racism, white people will frequently argue that a particular statement or action does not constitute racism because racism was not intended. As noted elsewhere, in Human Rights law and anti-racism education, [intentionality does not define whether something is racist or not]. It is the effect/impact of the action on the target person/group that is to be considered and takes precedence. In addition, people may argue that they had never been taught the correct or appropriate information — “I didn’t know” — and therefore they cannot be racist. However, while their statement may be factually correct, ignorance does not justify racism or mitigate the effects of their actions; it can be another form of defensiveness”.

Similarly, while Mass may not have intended to be racist, the impacts of his speech were insulting and racist to those he compared to pigs for merely advocating for investments in their communities, some of Washington’s most vulnerable and marginalized groups. It is that impact which should take precedence not Mass’s defensive denials of intent.

Mass may deny that he made such a comparison and say that it was merely a figure of speech, but a figure of speech is still a comparison, particularly when supplemented with such vile imagery, and when such images are targeted particularly at “Indian tribes” and “minority and ‘vulnerable populations’”. I would ask Mass to consider, as a Jewish man, what would occur if we were simply to insert the word Jewish people in place of the other social groups he compared to pigs. I do not think he would appreciate such a line of thought, and rightfully so.

Additionally, racism is not just about the conscious intent of an individual, but also about power structures and histories of oppression. On the structural front, there is a long history of attacks on communities of color for advocating for investment in their communities to help address the structural inequalities created by America’s racist history (Burnham, 2007; Carten, 2016). Recognizing these structural inequalities, climate justice policies, principles, and advocates argue that such communities should be prioritized and invested in as part of a just transition away from fossil fuels, but Mass dismisses this as mere “greed” and “selfishness” (cited in Lenferna & Silesky, 2018).

A white male professor from the University of Washington using his position of power and influence to tell some of Washington’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities that they are “selfish”, “greedy” and comparable to pigs for advocating for investments in their communities not only dehumanizes them, but also reinforces that ongoing history of racism. While Mass may not be aware of such histories, his ignorance does not excuse him, especially not for reacting so angrily, indignantly and unapologetically to those who try to shed light on such matters. Our university’s motto Lux sit (let there be light) calls on us to push back against such ignorance.

To conclude, Mass and his (predominately climate denying allies) are engaged in a campaign to falsely claim that Mass is being persecuted, but there is no there there. Mass made problematic arguments and offensive analogies, and students have expressed frustration at his non-inclusive behavior. Far from persecuting Mass, arguably the UW has been too lenient and failed to take appropriate action. He has had no repercussions for his problematic political activities, and the only repercussions for his repeated non-inclusive behavior and harassment of others, is a politely worded letter which did not actually address Mass, and a meeting wherein students expressed frustration about Mass’ behavior, hardly a campaign of persecution.

Personally, I am sick and tired of having to deal with Mass, his allies both inside and outside of the climate denial movement, and their problematic behavior and harassment. It has detracted from doing meaningful work, and I would rather not have written this piece, but I must defend myself and my colleagues against false accusations. If Mass insists that this matter be taken to HR and AAUP, then I request that this article form part of the record, and that part of that investigation also examines Mass’s broader problematic behavior and misuse of university resources to coordinate with the fossil fuel industry and kill climate policy. In fact, such investigations are probably warranted regardless of whether Mass attempts to pursue action in response to his false claims of bullying and persecution.

As the former Dean and Vice Provost of the Graduate School’s letter to me illustrates, for too long problematic behavior like Mass’ has been protected by high up individuals at UW. Instead of calling out racism and non-inclusive behavior, a former Dean and Vice Provost of the Graduate School is intimidating those who try to shine a spotlight on it. Rather than universities being a hot bed of intolerant leftist politics as Mass would like us to believe, it is a place where institutional powers not only fail to discipline but rather aggressively protect those who engage in all forms of problematic behavior. It’s long past time we changed that.

Update: In August 2020, there has been a growing call by students for Mass to be fired from the UW, following more problematic behaviour on his behalf. More details available here.

— Alex Lenferna, PhD (focused on climate ethics), University of Washington, Department of Philosophy.

References:

*I do not link to Watts or Curry’s pieces, as I do not want to give their problematic climate skeptic websites further hits, thus elevating their digital footprint and profile, but their articles are available with an easy search for those that must read them, something I do not personally recommend.

Burnham, L. (2007). Racism in United States Welfare Policy. Reimagine. Retrieved from http://www.reimaginerpe.org/node/858

Calgary Anti-Racism Education. (2018). Intention vs Effect. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.ucalgary.ca/cared/intention

Carten, A. (2016, August 22). Racism Has Shaped U.S. Welfare Policy Since 1935. U.S. News. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-08-22/how-racism-has-shaped-welfare-policy-in-america-since-1935

Cross, K. (2017). What Liberals Don’t Get About Free Speech In The Age Of Trump. The Establishment. Retrieved from https://medium.com/the-establishment/what-liberals-dont-get-about-free-speech-in-the-age-of-trump-5aeadc4e9543

Lenferna, A., & Silesky, B. (2018, October 20). If You Care About Climate Change, Don’t Listen to Cliff Mass, Vote Yes on 1631. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@AlexLenferna/if-you-care-about-climate-change-dont-listen-to-cliff-mass-vote-yes-on-1631-d61b2631226b

Mass, C. (2018). If You Worry About Climate Change and Care About the Environment, Vote No on I-1631. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2018/10/if-worry-about-climate-change-and-care.html

Ross, T. (2018, November 21). Letter to Members of the Atmospheric Sciences Community. College of the Environment. https://drive.google.com/open?id=1j_cF8lZmgoyO9DSdG4lQ24QA8KcOrocd (Link shared with permission)

University of Washington. (2018). Faculty Code and Governance: Faculty Code, Chapter 25. Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.washington.edu/admin/rules/policies/FCG/FCCH25.html

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with 350Africa.org. He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.