Troublesome Speech and the UIUC Boycott

Self-indulgently long post below. Short version: Steven Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who had been offered and accepted a faculty job at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, had his offer rescinded when the administration discovered that he had posted inflammatory tweets about Israel, such as “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Many professors in a number of disciplines, without necessarily agreeing with Salaita’s statements, believe strongly that academic norms give him the right to say them without putting his employment in jeopardy, and have organized a boycott of UIUC in response. Alan Sokal of NYU is supporting the boycott, and has written a petition meant specifically for science and engineering faculty, who are welcome to sign if they agree.

Everyone agrees that “free speech” is a good thing. We live in a society where individual differences are supposed to be respected, and we profess admiration for the free market of ideas, where competing claims are discussed and subjected to reasonable critique. (Thinking here of the normative claim that free speech is a good thing, not legalistic issues surrounding the First Amendment and government restrictions.) We also tend to agree that such freedom is not absolute; you don’t have the right to come into my house (or the comment section of my blog) and force me to listen to your new crackpot theory of physics. A newspaper doesn’t have an obligation to print something just because you wrote it. Biology conferences don’t feel any need to give time to young-Earth creationists. In a classroom, teachers don’t have to sit quietly if a student wants to spew blatantly racist invective (and likewise for students while teachers do so).

So there is a line to be drawn, and figuring out where to draw it isn’t an easy task. It’s not hard to defend people’s right to say things we agree with; the hard part is defending speech we disagree with. And some speech, in certain circumstances, really isn’t worth defending — organizations have the right to get rid of employees who are (for example) consistently personally abusive to their fellow workers. The hard part — and it honestly is difficult — is to distinguish between “speech that I disagree with but is worth defending” and “speech that is truly over the line.”

To complicate matters, people who disagree often become — how to put this delicately? — emotional and polemical rather than dispassionate and reasonable. People are very people-ish that way. Consequently, we are often called upon to defend speech that we not only disagree with, but whose tone and connotation we find off-putting or even offensive. Those who would squelch disagreeable speech therefore have an easy out: “I might not agree with what they said, but what I really can’t countenance is the way they said it.” If we really buy the argument that ideas should be free and rational discourse between competing viewpoints is an effective method of discovering truth and wisdom, we have to be especially willing to defend speech that is couched in downright objectionable terms.

As an academic and writer, in close cases I will almost always fall on the side of defending speech even if I disagree with it (or how it is said). Recently several different cases have illustrated just how tricky this is — but in each case I think that the people in question have been unfairly punished for things they have said.

The first case is Ashutosh Jogalekar, who writes the Curious Wavefunction blog at Scientific American. Or “wrote,” I should say, since Ash has been fired, and is now blogging independently. (Full disclosure: I don’t know Ash, but he did write a nice review of my book; my wife Jennifer is also a blogger at SciAm, although I’m not privy to any inside info.)

The offenses for which he was let go amount to three controversial posts. One was actually a guest post by Chris Martin, arguing that Larry Summers was right when he said that “innate ability” “intrinsic aptitude” (my mistake — see comments) was a major determinant of women’s underrepresentation in science and math. It’s a dispiritingly self-righteous and sloppy argument, as well as one that has been thoroughly debunked; there may very well be innate differences, but the idea that they explain underrepresentation is laughably contradicted by the data, while the existence of discrimination is frighteningly demonstrable. The next post was a positive review of Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Again, not very defensible on the merits; Wade’s book lurches incoherently from “genetic markers objectively correlate with geographical populations” to “therefore Chinese people may be clever, but they’ll never really understand democracy.” In a great Marshall McLuhan moment, over a hundred population geneticists — many of whom Wade relied on for the “scientific” parts of his book — wrote a scathing letter to the New York Times to make sure everyone understood “there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.” Finally, a post on Richard Feynman chronicled Ash’s feelings about the physicist, from young hero-worshiper to the eventual realization that Feynman could be quite disturbingly sexist, to ultimately feeling that we should understand Feynman’s foibles in the context of his time and not let his personal failings detract from our admiration for his abilities as a scientist. I didn’t really object to this one myself; I read it as someone grappling in good faith with the contradictions of a complex human being, even if in spots it came of as offering excuses for Feynman’s bad behavior. Others disagreed.

So SciAm decided to deal with the problem by letting Jogalekar go. In my mind, a really dumb decision. I disagree very strongly with some of the stuff Ash (or his guest poster) has said, but I never thought it came close to some standard of horribleness and offensiveness that would countenance firing him. I want to be challenged by people I disagree with, not just surrounded by fellow-travelers. I didn’t find much of interest in Ash’s three controversial posts, but overall his blog was often thought-provoking and enjoyable. SciAm had every “right” to fire him, as a legal matter. They are under no obligation to stand by their employees when those employees take controversial stances. But it was still the wrong thing to do; nothing Ash said was anywhere close to falling outside the realm of reasonable things to talk about, disagree with them though I may.

It breaks my heart. In the interminable arguments about gender and IQ and genetics, a favorite strategy of people who like to promote lazy arguments in favor of genetic determinism is to bemoan their victimhood status, claiming that even asking such questions is deemed unacceptable by the liberal thought police. (Wade’s defenders, for example, eagerly jumped on a rumor that he had been fired from the Times because of his book, when the truth is he had left the paper some years earlier.) Usually I have just laughed in response, pointing out that these questions are investigated all the time; the only real danger these people face is that others point out how superficial their arguments are, not that they are punished or lose their jobs for reaching the wrong conclusions. But I was wrong, and they were right, at least to some extent. You really can lose your job for holding the wrong view of these issues. (Sometimes the attitude is completely out in the open, as in this Harvard Crimson op-ed urging that we “give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.”) As a liberal and a feminist myself, I think we should be the ones who protect speech rights most vociferously, the ones who are happy to counter arguments with which we disagree with better arguments rather than blunt instruments of punishment. It’s a difficult standard to live up to.

The second case is less specific: the growing penchant for disinviting speakers with whom we disagree. It’s been bugging me for a while, but I won’t say too much about it here, especially since Massimo Pigliucci has already done a good job. I’m not a big fan of Condoleezza Rice’s contributions to US foreign policy, and I can understand that it might be disillusioning to hear that she was scheduled to be the featured speaker at your commencement at Rutgers. But I would advocate putting up with this mild inconvenience — unless you think that conservative students should also have the right to veto commencement talks by Democratic politicians.

I’ve expressed similar feelings before, in the even more straightforward case where Larry Summers (he keeps popping up in these conversations) was disinvited from giving a talk to the Regents of the University of California. That seemed completely wrong to me — the idea apparently being that Summers, having once said incorrect things about one topic, should be prevented from speaking to any audience about any topic. At the same time, I had no problem at all with Harvard faculty working to remove Summers as President of the university after his problematic speech. The difference being that what he said had a direct bearing on his performance in the office. He clearly misunderstood the situation of many women in modern academia, especially the sciences, and that’s something a modern university president really needs to understand. And it turns out that — shockingly, I know — the number of women hired as senior faculty under Summers was in fact noticeably smaller than it had been under his predecessors. But that, of course, doesn’t mean he should have been fired from his position as a tenured professor of economics — as indeed he was not. (Although I have to say his teaching load seems pretty light.)

The third case, most recent and newsworthy, is Salaita. The specifics were listed up at the top: he was offered a position, accepted it, and had it withdrawn before he could actually move, when the administration learned about some inflammatory tweets. I am not completely conversant with all of the details of his contract — apparently the job had been offered, and he had resigned from Virginia Tech, but the step of having his contract approved by the Board of Trustees (usually a formality) hadn’t yet gone through, giving the UIUC Chancellor an opportunity to step in by deciding not to submit the appointment to the board. (I had read about the issue in various places, but special thanks to Paul Boghossian at NYU for nudging me to pay attention to it.)

There’s little question in my mind that some of Salaita’s remarks were ugly. In addition to the Netanyahu tweet at the top, he said things like like “Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” and “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” Statements like this don’t have anything very useful to offer in terms of rational discourse and the free market of ideas. (Even if, as always, context matters.) But I’m perfectly willing to believe that his other work has something to offer. We don’t judge academics by their least-academic utterances. And one-liners like this, as off-putting as they might be when read in isolation, shouldn’t disqualify someone from participating in the wider discourse. (Salaita has also tweeted things like “I refuse to conceptualize #Israel/#Palestine as Jewish-Arab acrimony. I am in solidarity with many Jews and in disagreement with many Arabs” and “#ISupportGaza because I believe that Jewish and Arab children are equal in the eyes of God.”)

When a professor has already been vetted and approved by a department and essentially offered a position, there should be an extremely high bar indeed for the administration to step in at the last minute and attempt to reverse the decision. It would be one thing if new evidence had come to light that indicated the person would be incompetent at their job; in Salaita’s case there was nothing of the sort, and indeed he received excellent teaching evaluations at Virginia Tech. And what would be really bad would be if administrators were making decisions for non-academic reasons, in ways that threaten to truly undermine academic freedom. That seems to be the case here. It is clear, at least, that UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise was directly contacted by prominent donors who threatened to stop donating if Salaita were hired.

Most worrisome of all was Chacellor Wise’s statement about the controversy, which included remarks such as this:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

It’s easy to let your eyes glaze over that, but the statement itself is clear: the UIUC administration thinks it is not permissible to “demean and abuse … viewpoints themselves.” At Urbana-Champaign, you can be fired if you make fun of creationism, racism, or sexism. Those are viewpoints, and viewpoints cannot be demeaned or abused!

Perhaps Wise, or whoever drafted the statement, dashed something off and wasn’t thinking about it too carefully. If that’s their defense, it’s not much of one; these are crucially important issues for a university, which warrant some careful thought and precise formulation. And if they stand by it, a statement like this is straightforwardly antithetical to everything that universities are supposed to stand for.

I am therefore in support of the call for a boycott, until Salaita’s position is restored, even if (and in fact, especially because of the fact that) I don’t agree with his positions. I don’t really like boycotts in general — again, always preferring to err on the side of engagement rather than disengagement. I think the idea of an academic boycott of Israel is silly and counterproductive, for example. But a boycott is one of the few things that academics can do to put pressure on a university administration. And in this case there are signs it might actually be having an effect on UIUC — it seems that the Chancellor has forwarded the case to the Board of Trustees after all, although they have yet to actually vote on it. So if you are a science/engineering faculty member and inclined to support it, feel free to sign the petition. (There are also petitions organized by other disciplines, of course.)

Having said all that, it’s not like I’m very gleeful in my support of all these people with whom I disagree. It’s necessary and, I think, honorable, but also uncomfortable. Some people disagree with my own stance, of course: while the American Association of University Professors is firmly in Salaita’s corner, former AAUP president Cary Nelson takes a dissenting view.

One of the reasons why these issues are difficult is because of the emotional component I’ve already mentioned. In particular, it’s easy for me to say “You people who are being denigrated by these statements should just buck up and take it in the name of free speech and inquiry.” I have never personally had to suffer from sexism, racism, or anti-Semitism (or having my neighborhood bombed, for that matter). I’m a straight, white, upper-class, lapsed-Episcopalian Anglo-American male — in the sweepstakes of being privileged, I just about hit the jackpot. It’s no problem for me to sit back from this position of comfort and extoll the virtues of unfettered speech. The way our society is set up, it would be very difficult for anyone to write a blog post or series of tweets that would call into question my self-worth simply because of a group to which I happened to belong.

And yet, I don’t think that my position disqualifies me from having an opinion. It just means that I should try to be cognizant of my biases, be thoughtful about how other people might feel, and try especially hard to actually listen to what they have to say.

So to me, the most effective statements I’ve read on the Salaita controversy have been those from Jonathan Judaken and Bonny Honig. Here is Judaken:

As a scholar familiar with Judeophobic imagery, Salaita’s one-liner veered dangerously close to the myth of blood-libel. For a thousand years, Jews have been accused of desiring the blood of non-Jewish children. If the depiction of Netanyahu as savage and barbaric was applied to President Obama (as it has been) the racism would be patent.

Having grown up as a Jewish person in South Africa under apartheid — a dominant racial group and a religious minority — Judaken understands this language when he hears it. But here’s the thing: he supports the boycott, “on the basis of the principles of faculty governance, academic freedom, and freedom of speech.” Protecting the right of scholars to have an express unpopular opinions is too important to compromise. And here’s Honig, a political theorist at Brown:

I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.

That’s such a great statement of the true academic mindset. Provoke me! Say something I disagree with, even in an intentionally disagreeable way. Make me think, force me to re-examine my cherished presuppositions. Probably I will come out with my basic opinions intact — as an empirical matter, that’s usually what happens. But if you provoke me well, I’ll understand those presuppositions even better, and be more prepared to defend them next time. And who knows? You might even change my mind. One way or another, let the disagreements fly.

Very short version: I wish I lived in a world where I could spend my time disagreeing with people whose views I found disagreement-worthy, rather than fighting for their right to say disagreeable things.

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76 Responses to Troublesome Speech and the UIUC Boycott

  1. Dan says:

    While posting someone else’s opinion is admittedly lazy, Christopher Hitchens spoke pretty well to the issue of freedom of speech:

    “The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear and that it must extend above all to those who think differently is to me self-evident.”

  2. David Keys says:

    I wonder if he had a signed contract with UIUC, or only an offer? Then there is the pesky tenure question. Did he have tenure at VT? And was the UIUC offer a tenure track one? We may want to revisit Groucho Marx and update his aphorism–he didn’t want to belong to an organization that would have him. In this case have him, and then change their mind. Who does UIUC’s changing their mind say more about–him, or them?

  3. Matthew V says:

    This is appalling and scary, especially from public university! But I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly surprising.

  4. Nikita says:

    I am a female intellectual. I support free speech of opinions that I disagree with. I actually revere writers (now dead) who were sexist (but brilliant). I agree with Summers being fired by Harvard but I think he should have been appointed chairman of the Fed. But I draw a line. I draw the line when misogynists threaten (or actually attempt) to kill me. Or rape me. Or other women or men or children. So, as long as we are talking characterizations (Netanyahu wearing a necklace of children’s teeth) it is, to me, free speech that should be protected although I disagree with it. But when free speech promotes violence or murder, I draw the line and argue that it must be stopped by whatever means available. I support the boycott of UIUC and think that they should reopen their offer of employment to Salaita. However, I doubt that they will — they would rather dissolve the university than support free speech.

  5. Jason Loxton says:

    I am torn on this. The late stage of the decision is unfortunate, and the suggestion that it was based partly on external donor pressure is almost reason for me to support a boycott on its own (donor pressure is a truly dangerous threat to academic freedom), but barring those two considerations, I actually don’t see any problem with a university taking a pass on someone for interpersonal/personality reasons.

    Aside from good scholarship, a professor has to be a respectful colleague, an effective educator, and a public representative of the institution as a whole. A bad apple can make a department completely dysfunctional. If he had gotten drunk during the standard interview dinner and started spouting stuff like, “[y]ou may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” [seriously? whoa.], the hiring committee would have quietly cut him off the list: there are enough qualified candidates in the oversupplied academic market to find someone who isn’t likely to upset the working dynamic of a department. (That his comments have nothing at all to do with his scholarship, make recourse to academic freedom harder to maintain.)

    As a young academic myself (who just served on his first hiring committee), I have to say that there’s a very good chance I’d pass on this fellow if the tweets came to light during the hiring process: he sounds like the sort of disruptive hot head who I’d want to avoid bringing into my department. Is it actually that dramatically different that they came to light during the final stages of confirmation?

    I am not sure, personally.

  6. Bob Zannelli says:

    This is appalling, as are many of the actions of Israel and the Palestinians

  7. Cade DeBois (@cadedebois) says:

    I have a lot of problems with this, to be very honest. But rather than nitpick I’ll just get to the heart of what’s really bothering me.

    All through reading this I keep asking whether you regard evil as a reality or as a mere thought experiment or matter or perspective–a bias, if you will. And if you do think evil can be a reality, then I must ask, what do you think is the appropriate response to it?

    This is the problem with pretenses of civility. Civility is only truly civility if it seeks to civilize: to temper the violent, to include the exluded, to heal the wounded and sick, to protect the weak and vulnerable and of course, to right injustices. But we live is a so-called civilization that has acquired all its trapping of civilization–including science and academia–by propping itself up on the exploited, the oppressed, the excluded and the disenfranchised. This is an unavoidable, defining pattern within our society, which if we were truly civilized, we’d be addressing with honesty and courage. Yet that’s not what happens in our world. Instead, far too often pretenses of civility, including obligatory defenses of “free speech” and calls for objectivity and dispassionate discourse, really serve to protect this charade of civilization and to rationalize its injustices and its evils, rather than confront the ways our civilization is deeply, deeply uncivil.

    So I ask again, if you think evil is a reality, what should one’s response to it be? And in a world where pretenses of civlity are so often used to distract from the gravity and extent of evil being done in our world, in our time, right before our eyes, from extraordinary events to banal, everyday incidences, what is a moral person to do? What obligation does a moral person have here to maintain pretenses of civility?

    By the way, I don’t ssume to have the answer to that question myself. I just think it is a question we need to be asking, especially in regards to any issue that involves those who any society has trampled upon in its pursuit of “civilization”.

  8. Richard E says:

    With regard to the SciAm blogger, I had no problem with him being sacked — his ruminations fell far short of the standard one would expect to see associated with the SciAm brand. That isn’t about content as much as it is about competence.

  9. Caroline O'Donnell says:

    I have to agree with you totally. I do not like what he tweeted – although, I have to say, his opinion probably held some truth, from my personal opinion also, but that said, putting it out considering his position and into what could, and did, become a public forum, was not the wisest thing he could have done… But he shouldn’t lose his position over it!

  10. Sjw says:

    I’m strongly in favor of defending academic freedom, but I think in this case the university’s decision was appropriate. The trustees would not have confirmed salaita’s appointment, better to pull the offer now than after he’d actually moved there. Trustee confirmations are usually a rubber stamp, but in the end it’s their decision. Also, he would have been coming in with tenure, an important consideration. Bad choice on his part perhaps to do those tweets before the job was final. Also, I wonder if there’d be boycotts if he was tweeting “F*** Palestine.”

    If he were already teaching there, it would be a different case.

  11. Jonathan Ponniah says:

    A university has a responsibility to foster discussion and debate among a diversity of viewpoints, especially when the subject is controversial and the stakes are high. I think it’s fair to say that the provocative and incendiary statements that Prof. Sailata makes about Israeli-Palestinian conflict preempt any constructive engagement with those who hold different opinions. They only add to the entrenchment of both sides in their existing camps.

    Isn’t our world polarized enough? We don’t have shortage of people on opposite extremes of the political/religious/cultural spectrum screaming and hurling abuse at each other. We do however, lack people willing to step outside of their comfort zone and engage with their ideological opponents, in good faith.

    Prof. Salaita may have been a highly competent scholar in his particular field, which is why the department recommended tenure. But his confrontational and aggressive style doesn’t fit within the broader mandate of the university. And it’s certainly not what our contemporary discourse needs today.

    Chancellor Wise, in my opinion correctly sees the bigger picture at play here. As an alumnus of UIUC, I support her decision.

  12. Sam says:

    Why should students and faculty have to “put up with” a commencement speaker who they find repugnant? Nobody has a right to be invited to give a speech, and (unlike many other university activities) commencement speeches aren’t a public good – they are for the entertainment of those who attend and the university has no more moral obligation to bring a controversial speaker than does Disneyworld. It seems to me that the wishes of a broad majority of the campus should definitely carry some water.

  13. Roy Abrams says:

    Anyone empathetic towards Saleita’s attitude should read this transcript of Palestine’s top negotiator boasting about rejecting the two comprehensive peace proposals Israel made, in 2000 and 2008. Afterwards, it’s worth meditating on just why boycotts only seem to coalesce in matters concerning Israel, despite it’s conflict with its neighbors being the least fatal in the region.

  14. BobC says:

    A few weeks ago, in a moment of psychological weakness, I wrote and shared something that turned out to be quite abusive in a passive-aggressive way (insinuations, “helpful” suggestions, etc.). I came to my senses about 12 hours later, to be greeted by a maelstrom. I immediately fell on my sword, pleaded mea culpa, tried to explain, and begged forgiveness. None was forthcoming. The ripples affected folks I care about, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to fix the damage or undo the effects.

    This clearly is an entirely different scenario from Sean’s examples, but the common element is forgiveness: Not just of the writer, but perhaps also of those taking offense in a pejorative manner.

    It is the total lack of forgiveness in the reactions that has me floored. To me that reeks of a level of self-righteousness “ownership” of another person’s expression of their opinions.

    Ok, that’s one perspective. But let’s take another look at those who took action against the writers.

    Don’t SciAm bloggers have even a hint of editorial supervision? A quick sanity-check before posting? If not, then there should be, as an inherent and integral part of associating with the SciAm brand. If a post gets rejected, the author may post it elsewhere, well outside the SciAm umbrella.

    If anything, SciAm has failed in their responsibility to their own brand, and firing the blogger for it is inexcusable. SciAm seems to be a mess right now. I wonder if it wouldn’t be best for SciAm to get out of the blog hosting business, and instead advertise on and link to blogs they like, and simply redirect their funds and links when they see fit. No editorial responsibilities, and far clearer lines between each blogger and SciAm.

    I know little of the university faculty hiring process, but friends who have gone through it say it can be highly politicized, and the best way through it is to be aggressively apolitical and level-headed (but that’s very different from voicing no opinion – just doing so with kindness, wit and tact, like Sean).

    I’m presently going through the hiring process for a staff position at a premier research institution, and I’m aggressively self-monitoring to prevent any more “weak moments”. Not because I lack the will or right to say what I like, but because I know I can do real and irrevocable damage.

    But who gets to use a post to inflict their own retaliatory damage? Under what conditions, and with what restrictions?

    All of Sean’s examples contain reactions that appear to be the work of a single individual, possibly running scared, who has now exposed their institution to public backlash. Do the institutions have room to backtrack without being further excoriated?

    At this point, let’s not make anyone eat humble pie: Let’s be supportive instead, establish some degree of rapprochement, and give all parties room to wiggle away from the current polarization to an equitable, fair, just and (hopefully) face-saving outcome.

  15. john boguta says:

    The last great free speech case was also
    from Illinois: Nazi march in Skokie.

  16. Roy Abrams says:

    There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world (Pew Research) and 56 Islamic countries (Organization of the Islamic Conference Member States). There 14 million Jews, about six million of whom reside on a splinter of land in the Middle East, the only Jewish state in the world. Salaita’s statement is undiluted bigotry, not to mention incitement to violence–witness the explosion of antisemtism around the world. The fact that we don’t see it for what it is–insane hatred, particularly given the astronomical death tolls in states neighboring Israel–is because we are so inured to the saturation of anti-Israel rhetoric in academia. This simply would not be tolerated under similar circumstances if other minorities were involved, and it shouldn’t be now. The idea that his views can be treated discretely from his teaching, something that might sound reasonable in other, more abstract fields, is just not tenable. He has every right to express his views, but no sacred right to a job offer in what is intended to be a sanctuary for the enlightened and collegial pursuit of knowledge.

  17. Roy Abrams says:

    And I might add that the fact that comments are ‘moderated’ on this blog, perfectly appropriate in itself, just bears out my argument.

  18. John Call says:

    It seems to me that the only that makes this a freedom of speech issue is that UIUC is a public school. If it was a private university than it would be very difficult for a boycott defending a scholar’s freedoms (academic and legal) without attacking the university’s freedoms (again, academic and legal). UIUC being a public school is what makes it so hard to draw the line Sean speaks of. But a truly major question here is this, does a public university, which is an extension of the government, have the right to discriminate against someone based on that persons opinion as expressed under the protection of freedom of speech? To which I think most would answer “no.” So than the question becomes “did UIUC retract there offer because someone personally disagreed with Salaita’s remarks, or did they do so because they believe that his remarks show that hiring Salaita would be counter and detrimental to the university’s mission?”

  19. Steve Weiss says:

    I am also an alumnus of the University of Illinois, and an ex-Jew, and I would support the right to free speech, very reluctantly, in this case. The way to defeat bad ideas is with good ideas, as Ayn Rand said. I do find it inconsistent, however, that there has been a strong reaction to defensive actions taken by the Israeli government but no demonstrations against Syria, Russia, Boka Haram, El Shabab, etc., at least not on an equivalent scale. I wonder why? Would South Korea allow North Korea to launch hundreds of missiles into the South? Would any legitimate government allow it? Double standards are not standards.

  20. Joshua Pepper says:

    Based just on the material in this post, I think the UIUC administration did have cause for the job retraction. The three quoted tweets are not the same.

    “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” – This is clearly a hyperbolic statement about a public figure, even though it is insensitive, considering the resonance with the blood libel. Nothing to justify a major action aside from a snarky response.

    “Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being” – This is a nonspecific ad hominem attack. Nothing for the administration to deal with, but it does go to the question of collegiality. The faculty of the department should have the right to decide if statements like “If you believe X, you’re an awful human being” represent the kind of exchanges you want to invite into their workplace.

    Finally, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” – In the context of the current crisis, this is clearly a reference to the Israeli teenagers who went missing and were later found murdered. A statement like this is calling for the death of hundreds of thousands of people. It’s not saying that they are wrong. It’s not saying that they are awful people. It’s saying that they should die. I realize there is a difficult line to draw here, but a public statement calling for mass death seems like it crosses the line in any reasonable definition.

  21. Roger says:

    Larry Summers did not say anything about “innate ability”.

  22. scourge99 says:

    I’m divided on this issue. On principle, people should not face legal or employment consequences for having personal opinions that others disagree with. But on the other hand don’t we also have freedom of association? Can’t we choose and remove people we don’t like or want to be associated with, including in the workplace? But doesn’t having such consequences on the table effectively squelch unpopular speech?

    Take for example the recent ousting of Mozilla CEO Brenden Eich. His personal opinion about gay marriage and his support for proposition 8 seemed to play a large part in his removal from his job.

    Should we be ashamed of this happening? Was it wrong for Eich to be fired because of his personal views on gay marriage that are largely, if not entirely, irrelevant to his job’s duties? Or should public and colleague opinion chase people with unpopular views from employment opportunities? What about positions of power or positions of leadership; is it ok to remove them for unrelated personal opinions then? Furthermore, what about abhorrent personal opinions for example, what if Eich was an unapologetic racist?

    In short: If its acceptable to impose consequences on people for having personal opinions we find distasteful then to be consistent we must also accept that any of the personal opinions we have may result in those same consequences. Even if our views are indisputably superior or true. That would include views about god, gay rights, and women’s rights. On the flip side, I imagine i would find it very difficult to not object to working with someone, be associated with that person, or be under the leadership of someone whose personal opinions I find abhorrent.

  23. Sean Carroll says:

    Roger, the phrase he used was “intrinsic aptitude.” Are you seriously going to claim there is a distinction?

  24. Roger says:

    Yes, Sean, there is a difference. The word “innate” means inborn. Summers did not say that. Quotation marks mean that you are quoting someone. You misquoted him. You complain that Martin argued that Summers was right when he said that “innate ability” was a major determinant, when Martin actually said that this was a misrepresentation of what Summers said. And you complain that they are sloppy, when you are the sloppy one here.

  25. Sean Carroll says:

    If your argument relies on there being a substantial difference between “innate” and “intrinsic” … Good luck to you, mate. I’ll update the post to prevent further misunderstandings.