Protesting an honorary degree for Judith Butler

The poster for Butler's lecture (copyright unifr.ch)

The poster for Butler’s lecture (copyright unifr.ch)

Judith Butler is a well-known American scholar and political activist. Her work on gender and sexuality is widely cited, and her book Gender Trouble was something of a best-seller. She has influenced scholars in a number of disciplines beyond feminist and queer theory and cultural studies, and is well known in educational studies. Her work on the gendered body has been taken as a sharp tool for understanding educational identities and purposes. Researchers in adult learning citing her work include Barbara Merrill, Valerie-Lee Chapman and André Grace.

Given Butler’s fame and standing, I was slightly surprised to discover that the Anglophone media had ignored the kerfuffle over her recent honorary doctorate. The University of Freiburg/Fribourg awarded Butler her degree on the recommendation of its philosophy department, and the Berkeley scholar duly collected her award. But she did so amidst a storm of fury from conservative Catholics, objecting to her views on family life and gender construction.

Butler’s formal lecture (on non-violence) was given with security guards at the doors, while some thirty Catholics audibly protested outside with hymns and candles. The university’s professor of dogmatic theology (let me know if you come up with a better translation of ‘Professor für dogmatische Theologie’) announced that he disapproved of the honorary degree and was boycotting the lecture.

This was relatively a small and generally polite protest. The lecture hall was full, and the only anger was apparently shown by latecomers who were refused entry. An alternative event, with mulled wine and bible readings, attracted a negligible audience. Meanwhile, the university’s rector received dozens of angry emails, and the local Bishop was urged to withhold his usual mass during the University’s ‘Dies academicus’.

Butler is, of course, no stranger to controversy. She has been particularly criticised for her views on Israel and once won fourth prize in a competition for bad writing. I haven’t heard of religious fundamentalists taking any particular exception to her previously, though I can see that her views on the social construction of gender might offend those who believe that the two genders were made by God. So I found it rather odd that the national broadcaster quoted Barbara Hallensleben, professor of theology at Freiburg/Fribourg, as saying that Butler’s view of gender was consistent with creationism.

Given that the controversy passed off safely, I would imagine that Butler rather relished the whole experience. It’s only slightly surprising that it wasn’t picked up by at least some specialist journalists in the Anglophone media; I only came across the episode because I was working in Hamburg and saw it reported very briefly in the press. Academic fame can impress insiders like me, for better or for worse, but out there it remains a very small niche.

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