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Money where your mouth is: Salaita, freedom of speech, and the new market of education

I'd like to unpack the widespread idea that one's freedom of speech is relinquished when it is used in the form of “hate speech” or to “spread hate.” Hate is a legitimate and reasonable response to certain morally reprehensible realities.

Courtesy Meda4Salaita Student support (left) as Steven Salaita holds a press conference (right). Courtesy Meda4Salaita

For many of us, this was an indoor summer. Hunched over computers or glued to televisions, we watched numbly as Israeli forces decimated the Gaza strip, murdering over 2000 Palestinians, leaving a quarter of a million displaced, destroying half of the already feeble medical facilities, and then using the distraction of peace talks to illegally appropriate a thousand acres of Palestinian land in the West Bank. The people of Gaza were already living in cramped, squalid, impoverished conditions thanks to a seven year illegal blockade, and the damage to infrastructure in this latest campaign of destruction will take at least two decades to rebuild. Steven Salaita, who had just left a permanent position at Virginia Tech, and was about to start his new tenured job as a professor of indigenous studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), responded as many of us did. He took his anger and frustration to the public sphere, and throughout the offensive used Twitter to passionately condemn Israel's heinous conduct, employing strong language to express his despair at the impunity of the Israeli government. The focus of his rage was the murder of over 500 children, and the misuse of claims of anti-semitism to fend off criticism and claim moral immunity.

Two weeks before Salaita was due to start, the University of Illinois revoked their decision to hire him, leaving him jobless. Chancellor Phyllis Wise cited his “disrespectful words” as the reason for this sudden change of heart. Steven spoke out earlier this month about the personal impact of this decision: “my family has no income, no health insurance, and no home of our own. Our young son has been left without a preschool. I have lost the great achievement of a scholarly career – lifetime tenure, with its promised protections of academic freedom.”

Salaita is an anti-Zionist who has published widely regarding Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and ongoing genocide of Palestinian people. He was hired because of his scholarly views on these important matters, not in spite of them. His “uncivil” tweets indicate a wariness of the way in which new minefields of so-called “anti-semitism” are created by Israel's conflation of Judaism with the Israeli state. That is not an anti-semitic view, it is a recognition of the evil of racism, along with the insistence that, to the extent that anti-semitism may be defined as a misrepresentation of Judaism, so too should we hold the state of Israel to account for its misrepresentation and appropriation of Judaism, and its reckless wielding of the iron dome of anti-semitism as a way of stymieing debate in a fog of guilt and confusion. In other words, to answer criticisms of Israel's slaughter of Palestinians with charges of “anti-semitism” is to claim that the slaughter of the Palestinians amounts to Judaism, or a component of Judaism. If that were true, we should all be anti-Semites just as we are anti-racists (the first would be necessitated by the second). But it is not true, and so what could be more anti-semitic than such a slanderous claim?! To criticise Israel is to call out a powerful, aggressive state, hell-bent on the destruction of Palestinian identities; it is to criticise the colonialism that led to its creation and that now readily comes to its defence.

Zionism and the public intellectual

If Steven Salaita did not condemn Israel, who would have done? Evidently other employees of the University did not do so, or if they did, they did so less vehemently, or more covertly, otherwise they too would have lost their jobs. (Or perhaps everyone would have kept their jobs, and the norms would have shifted a little.) If he had not done so publicly, where else could he have done so? His decision to use the public sphere was undoubtedly a conscious one. We academics spend too long in closed dialogue with one another, our arguments snagging on minor technicalities and the straitjackets of civilities. Breaking out of those elite circles is both a relief and a moral obligation. In his 1993 Reith lectures, Edward Said sang the praises of the amateur intellectual, where “amateurism means choosing the risks and uncertain results of the public sphere - a lecture or a book or article in wide and unrestricted circulation – over the insider space controlled by experts and professionals.” Already, so many of us feel stifled by the dispassionate, tightly-constrained academic spaces of ideas, and find ourselves better homes in the fray of public discourse, where matters are almost always less “civil” but also tend also to be more honest and practical.

As educators, we must strive to provide pastoral support and a sense of communality whilst simultaneously inculcating deliberate intellectual discomfort. Our duty to create an inclusive learning environment necessarily requires us to present students with challenging ways of understanding the world that outreach the corridors of tradition and reveal the rust and rot of scaffolds of power. The world as it stands is stacked in favour of certain discourses. Free speech surely does not mean allowing those discourses to persist unchallenged; rather, it means the freedom to express alternative views. From an epistemological perspective, it is a way of diversifying knowledge.

The complicity of "civility"

There are, of course, rules of engagement, but I'd like to unpack the widespread idea that one's freedom of speech is relinquished when it is used in the form of “hate speech” or to “spread hate.” Hate is a legitimate and reasonable response to certain morally reprehensible realities. To forbid hate speech is to ask us to be silent, or, worse, to be “civil” about hateful things, which is a way of asking us to endorse them. Rather than forbidding hate speech, let us forbid any speech that creates, condones, or fortifies systems of oppression. That leaves the possibility of using hatred, or anger, as a weapon against oppression, which seems reasonable to me. Public discourse is populated with unchallenged narratives about the legitimacy of certain powers, and leads to the marginalisation of certain groups. Such views are the storefronts of political and financial agendas, and are writ large in the information that reaches us involuntarily every day. These narratives, and those who espouse them, are worthy of nothing but our visceral, unfiltered hate speech. We should see it as a duty to provide platforms to those whose words and actions disrupt these currents.

Yet if academics believe they can protect their jobs by keeping a low profile in public spaces such as social media sites, they should think again. Earlier this year, Shannon Gibney, Professor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, received a formal reprimand for making three white male students “feel uncomfortable” during a class on structural racism. Apparently they were upset to keep hearing about bad things that white people had done. The students lodged a complaint which was upheld by the College administration, and resulted in a formal reprimand for Gibney, who was accused of creating a “hostile learning environment.” The reprimand has since been dropped, but not without a fight. (As an aside, earlier this month the Economist were pressured to retract a book review in the same vein, which pondered why white slavers are always painted as villains: we can rest assured that white privilege is alive and well.)

It pays to reflect on the racialised identities of professors Gibney and Salaita. Both are people of colour expressing views about people of colour. Steven Salaita is a Palestinian man challenging the oppression of Palestinians. Shannan Gibney is a Black woman challenging structural racism in the United States. The anger of a person of colour—its legitimacy, its right to violence—poses an existential threat to white-supremacist states, who find the grateful, assimilated, patriotic person-of-colour to be a more pliable civilian. Racalised peoples are held to exacting, encumbering standards of civility in all areas of their lives, lest they be seen to justify the stereotypes that delimit the lives of communities of colour. Their anger is summarily made invisible, dangerous, or ridiculous. Far from what we should be doing, listening carefully to the standpoints of those who have personal experiences of oppression, they are instead being singled out to be silenced and stripped of their academic privileges. In punishing them for speaking out on behalf of these issues, we are not only refusing to acknowledge their experiences, and therefore to take seriously the pain of those situations, we are denying ourselves, as a society, the unique epistemological privilege of their expert views.

For all that I believe that Salaita and Gibney were acting within the remit of healthy, critical academia, the details of what they said and did may be bracketed in the discussion about the status of academic freedom. Whether we agree with them or not, there should at least be a commitment to the principle that external factors, namely, finanical considerations, should not infect and dictate academic governance.

Critical academia vs. the market

In her statement concerning the rescindment of Salaita's position, University Chancellor Phyllis Wise disingenuously claimed that the administration's decision was not based on the views expressed in Salaita's tweets, but rather stemmed from a concern about the “uncivil” manner in which those views were expressed. We all know Twitter is not exactly a nuanced, polite public forum; it was precisely the content of the posts that concerned the administrators. And no matter what high-ground they claim, this was no moral crusade either; the University was looking after its financial interests, not its political consistency. It has since transpired that multiple wealthy financial donors complained to the administration and threatened to cease making donations if the University went through with its plan to hire Salaita. Chancellor Phyllis Wise changed her schedule in late July in order to meet with venture capitalist Steve Miller, who as well as being a major donor to the UIUC is also on the board of the Jewish United Fund, Illinois's most active and visible pro-Israel organisation.

In Salaita's case, the problem is not that nothing was done. So far fourteen departments of the University of Illinois have backed a motion of no-confidence in the administration, eleven scholarly associations have written open letters in support of Salaita, 550 philosophers have announced an academic boycott of the University of Illinois, and 100 members of the Jewish community of UIUC have issued a powerful defence of Salaita. More could have been done, and more could still be done, but the decision of Board of Trustees last Thursday to vote in favour of the chancellor's decision eight-to-one indicates that the prospects of getting the university to reconsider are bleak. The new academic managing elite are as scared of setting a precedent as we are scared of the precedent they have now set. It could not be clearer that the debate is no longer about democracy. UIUC ejected Steven Salaita because his unwillingness to tow the line was a threat to the relationship the university has with its funders, some of whom are Zionists who evidently have no qualms with investing in censorship. In this new culture of academia, money speaks. Shannon Gibney was reprimanded because her students were dissatisfied customers. The decentralisation and marketisation of higher education has left universities as anxious businesses, balancing the desires of their financial stakeholders at both ends: the private donors whose vested interests dictate the directions of academic research and the students who have no choice but to buy themselves a chance to earn a living.

Freedom of speech is a tradeable commodity in the new market of education. In this case, the University of Illinois exchanged the freedom of speech of a faculty member for the security of their private donations. And like any other commodity, academic freedom of expression will be expended with entirely when it begins to be unprofitable to support it.

For as long as we live in broader societies whose ubiquitous, divisive fault-lines are those of white-supremacist, patriarchal capitalism, our universities cannot, and should not, be idylls of calm, “rational” dialogue. Rather, our discourse should be rumbling along those very fault-lines, they should be epicentres of grave intellectual and moral unease: where unpopular, uncomfortable, proudly uncivil ideas grant the status quo no rest. They should be the very places where resistance is dreamed up, ready to be fought for and won in the world we are yet to build. As Judith Butler—yet another anti-Zionist academic who regularly weathers accusations of anti-semitism—said in an interview in 2013: “maybe one of the jobs of theory or philosophy is to elevate principles that seem impossible, or that have the status of the impossible, to stand by them and will them, even when it looks highly unlikely that they'll ever be realised. […] What would happen if we lived in a world where there were no people who did that? It would be an impoverished world.” The administators at the University of Illinois have done an ugly thing. They have impoverished their academic community by shooting down he who stuck his head highest over the parapet, and they have left the landscape of academia flatter, bleaker, and less hospitable. 

About the author

Arianne Shahvisi is a writer, academic, and activist, focusing on gender, class, race, and borders. She has research interests in the philosophy of science and feminism, and works as an assistant professor of philosophy at the American University of Beirut.


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