Last summer, professor Steven Salaita quit his job at Virginia Tech and prepared to move his family to Illinois to begin an appointment in the University of Illinois American Indian Studies program. However, before his position began he received a letter from Chancellor Phyllis Wise informing him that the offer had been rescinded – alumni and wealthy donors had launched a successful campaign to convince Wise to decline affirming Salaita’s appointment, effectively firing him. The cause cited for this action was a collection of scathing tweets Salaita had penned during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the military operation in Gaza which had marked the news cycle of the summer with reports of atrocious civilian death tolls and a feverish nationalist atmosphere in Israel.
Immediately, the academic community rushed to Salaita’s defense. In an inspiring avalanche of outrage, more than a dozen petitions, with more than 5,000 signatures, called for the reinstatement of Salaita. An academic boycott also gained steam, with many events cancelled because scholars refused to engage with the University of Illinois unless they reversed their decision. And in most corners of the academic blogosphere, articulate and impassioned essays were written arguing that what happened to Salaita was not only unjust, but dangerous.
The majority of the scholars who contributed to this outpouring framed the debate around the issues of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and civic debate. As one typical petition put it, “diverse and discordant voices that some find ‘difficult,’ are key to the survival of our schools as living institutions. Critical thinking of the kind that can lead directly to political dissent is exactly what any faculty in any college or university worthy of the name must teach.” Such an action, scholars correctly observed, set a dangerous precedent that could enable future erosions of academic freedom.
The organizing that sprung up around Salaita embraced a similar approach. One poster that circulated before the Board of Trustees met to review the decision listed the reasons why the academic community should care about the case, calling on its readers to defend the university against the violation of academic freedom, the breach of shared governance, the abuse of administrative power, and corruption.
Noticeably less common in these demands, however, was discussion of what, ostensibly, had started it all – Israel’s operation against Gaza. Indeed, what one thinks of the occupation, it was clearly argued on several occasions, was beside the point – what mattered was not the content of Salaita’s tweets but the fact that he had been unjustly fired for them.
There were a few exceptions. Corey Robin melded a defense of civil liberties with an analysis that recognized the centrality of the politics of Palestine. Of the dozen or so penned, one interdisciplinary petition also bluntly acknowledged the conflict at the root of the Salaita firing, arguing that “Professor Salaita’s expulsion from UIUC is part of a larger pattern of systematic squelching of free speech that, in effect, supports human rights violations against Palestinians.” And political theorist Bonnie Honig wrote a letter to Chancellor Wise that emphasized that any assessment of Salaita’s tweets had to make an effort at empathizing with his viewpoint – and therefore needed to consider what has actually been happening to Palestinians for the last sixty years.
These approaches, however, were clearly less popular strategies – and the reasons why are obvious. It is true that there are more academic associations, graduate students, and professors coming out in solidarity with Palestinians. Yet the issue remains a stubbornly “controversial” one, and actions such as the American Studies Association’s vote to engage in an academic boycott against Israel come under harsh criticism from within the academy. If the supporters of Salaita had organized primarily under the call to defend Palestinians’ rights – rather than academics’ rights – they would not have had such success.
Thus as a political strategy, this pragmatic move is hard to criticize. It is also understandable that many scholars, even those who support Palestinians, would want to place some distance between themselves and the harshness of some of Salaita’s tweets. Yet it leaves Salaita’s defenders open to an objection that speaks to the larger contradictions of the standard, liberal defense of freedom of speech and academic freedom: What if someone had tweeted something equally offensive about African Americans, Native Americans, or any other minority group? Would her firing have resulted in such outrage?
Of course, this classic “reverse racism” argument is, on its own terms, incoherent. It would be impossible for a theoretical scholar to compose identical tweets in relation to marginalized groups because none of the aforementioned minorities are engaged in the oppression of an entire population whose lands they have been occupying for more than half a century. Context is everything, and there is no “equivalent” of the content of Salaita’s tweets that could have applied to oppressed minorities in the United States.
Yet it is precisely in the difference of the two scenarios that the deeper logic of this objection hits its target. For although we cannot imagine comparable tweets in terms of content, we can imagine comparable amounts of offense being generated – we can imagine, in other words, African Americans feeling as threatened by someone’s tweets as Zionists apparently felt by Salaita’s tweets. Yet in this case, their outrage and corresponding argument that they were not entirely safe in the university space would be legitimate, because it would be accurate. Indeed, the thing that makes the reverse racism argument itself racist is that it implies that the offense of the privileged can be equated with the suffering of the oppressed.
Not surprisingly, such arguments get no traction in the liberal academy, for certain questions of race in America are now established historical fact and no longer dwell in the category of “the controversial.” And when apologists for Salaita’s firing deploy this talking point, they are effectively highlighting – and complaining – that anti-Zionism is not universally equated with bigotry in the same manner. Liberals like to elide this point by falling back on rhetoric about open debate and allowing dissent; yet this obscures the reality that a condition of endlessly tolerated open debate only exists when questions of what is just or unjust still remain unsettled.
For half a century ago, a professor could have, in fact, made public statements greatly offending either Southern whites or African Americans and be defended by her colleagues as simply engaging the public in “difficult issues.” But the civil rights movement succeeded in settling the question against Jim Crow, and consequentially describing Southern prejudice as bigotry is accepted as responsible scholarship, and racist flirtations are likewise no longer neutrally described as “controversial” but are condemned as shameful and unacceptable.
Those organizing against the occupation, however, have still not yet accomplished this crucial shift. Academics clearly came out in support of Salaita’s right to engage the public on this “contentious” issue, yet much fewer defended his appointment on the basis of the ultimate justice of his cause. And while much of the scholarly community is either sympathetic or in outright solidarity with Palestine, the fact that most academic workers prefer to couch their opposition in terms of defending freedom of speech or academic freedom speaks volumes about how far activists have to go in achieving this swing in perception.
Yet at the same time, supporters of BDS and other movements critical of Israel might also be encouraged that so many scholars are willing to come out in support of Salaita at all, regardless of how much the framing of that opposition avoids the fundamental conflict at hand – for in deciding to class Salaita’s statements as relating to a “difficult issue,” they are, at least, not being received by a majority of academics as clearly unacceptable. This, in turn, appears to relate back to a general sense of the accuracy of his argument that Palestinians today, at the least, suffer under an unjust occupation.
Which brings us back to the elephant in the room – despite the legitimacy of concerns about freedom of speech and academic freedom, those liberties are under threat because of a particular power struggle – ultimately, the Salaita controversy was first and foremost a conflict about Israel and Palestine. And as BDS and the movement for Palestinian liberation pushes forward, it will repeatedly come into contact with this question: How close are we to witnessing Palestine being viewed as less a controversial issue and more as a clear example of a struggle for human rights?
This is a question most liberals engaging in the discourse of civil liberties cannot ask, for they are unwilling to acknowledge that this is ultimately what is being contested. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” goes the old liberal shibboleth – yet such a blanket statement runs rich with exceptions. Although no liberal academic would advocate the application of state power to police political expression outside of the academy, nearly all academics believe freedom of speech has limits within the beloved communities of higher education. Freedom of speech, as everyone acknowledges but few wrestle with, has limits – universities do not welcome racist, sexist, or homophobic speech on their campuses, and rightly so. There is no place there for a professor defending Jim Crow or South African apartheid.
Academic institutions, moreover, are spaces that are morally policed – it is not a coincidence, nor due solely to the weak evidential basis for their positions, that only a minority of professors in the liberal arts are conservatives. Declining to hire someone, publish their paper, or chat them up at a conference are exercises in exclusion and shame which those in academia, nearly as much as any other community, participate in. Yet liberals cannot fully recognize their own moral positions for what they are, because they rely – as both a form of political protection and ideological commitment – on the belief that their commitment to pluralism is both infinite and noble.
Which creates an odd sort of handicap for those fighting for social justice. On the one hand, the cultural clout of appealing to freedom of speech and evoking the ideal of the fearlessly critical space of higher education provides powerful tools to those hoping to advance dissenting views. Moreover, the liberal university is, indeed, a space of political struggle where, historically, the voices of the oppressed have often been able to make their demands heard.
Yet at the same time this process of contestation takes place in an arena that denies it is happening at all – the university is not about advancing one cause over another, liberals insist, but creating a neutral and safe space for open debate. Thus we arrive, once again, at another example of liberalism’s ultimate, underlying contradiction: in promoting a moral vision, it denies it is moralistic; and as it exercises its ideological power, it denies it is an ideology.
Thus as academics and activists attempt to support those fighting racism and occupation, they are compelled to speak a language that adopts an agnostic position towards both these injustices, making it more difficult to demand that we no longer commit the ethical absurdity of classing systematic occupation and oppression in the sanitized category of “the controversial.” For Salaita deserves defending not merely because he was wronged, but, even more fundamentally, because he is right.
 I wrote this post last summer, and the link to the particular poster I am referencing is broken, and for the life of me I can’t find it again; but the image at the top of the post reflects the general tone I’m describing.