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Tech who had been offered and accepted a faculty job at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, had his offer rescinded when the administration discovered that he had posted inflammatory tweets about Israel, such as “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace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.
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.