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ASA Officers Respond to Attacks on Frances Fox Piven

January 24, 2011

As officers of the American Sociological Association, we express outrage at the attacks made on Professor Frances Fox Piven by Glenn Beck in his political opinion show on Fox News.

Dr. Piven, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center who holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, is “widely recognized as one of America’s most thoughtful and provocative commentators on America’s social welfare system…known equally for her contributions to social theory and for her social activism.” [Smith College, Sophia Smith Collection] She has been recognized by her colleagues around the country, who have elected her President of the American Sociological Association, as well as Vice President of the American Political Science Association, and President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Scholars of her caliber, intellectuals of her stature, and especially those who tackle social conflicts and contradictions, mass movements and political action, should stimulate equal levels of serious challenge and creative dialogue. Being called by Glenn Beck one of the “nine most dangerous people in the world,” and an “enemy of the Constitution” is not a credible challenge; it is plain demagoguery.

Despite its lack of substance, Beck’s attacks have resulted in a flood of hate mail and internet postings attacking Professor Piven, including a series of death threats. While it is true that death threats are generally only a form of extremist rhetoric, they indicate an overheated emotional atmosphere that researchers on collective violence call “the hysteria zone.” It is a zone in which deranged individuals can be motivated to real violence against those targeted by demagoguery. History tells us that such things as the attempted assassination of Representative Giffords that resulted in six deaths in Tucson, Arizona can be examples of how abundant, polarizing rhetoric by political leaders and commentators can spur mass murder.

We call on Fox News to take steps to control the encouragement of violence that has run rampant in recent months. Serious and honest, undistorted disagreement and public debate on unemployment, economic crisis, the rights and tactics of welfare recipients, government intervention and the erosion of the American way of life should be supported. We in no way advocate restricting the freedom of speech of political commentators. They in turn should recognize the right of social science researchers to gather and analyze evidence related to controversial topics and to reach conclusions based on evidence, even if such conclusions disagree with widely held beliefs. Where we all should draw the line is at name-calling and invective rising to the level of inciting others to violence.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Thus, the right to free speech does not ever include rhetoric that encourages violence against one’s opponents, especially in the current atmosphere of heated political mobilization. We call on Fox News and other responsible media to set the appropriate standards of accurate and honest debate.

Randall Collins
ASA President
Professor of Sociology
University of Pennsylvania
Erik Olin Wright
ASA President Elect
Professor of Sociology
University of Wisonsin-Madison
Evelyn Nakano Glenn
ASA Immediate Past President
Professor of Ethnic Studies
University of California-Berkeley
Sally T. Hillsman
ASA Executive Officer

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