One reason for that is that I can see myself in his shoes. I have been involved in sometimes vehement arguments online for more than a decade. In some rare instances (mostly in the first months I was online), I let my emotions get the better of me. Arguing with people with radically different political views, I at times said things that were snarky, rude, and dismissive. Some of these intemperate comments are buried deep inside long comments threads on blog posts, and probably pretty hard to find; I doubt anyone cares today. And the vast majority of my writing online has not been like that. But I can definitely understand how a person engaged in online arguments could find themselves carried away by passion and a feeling of anger towards one's rhetorical opponents. I have been there.
With the Steven Salaita situation, there are two dimensions that I think need to be talked about. One is the nature of Professor Salaita’s Tweets. Are they largely defensible, if at times over-the-top? Or do they reveal the true colors of a person who might not be a desirable presence on a college campus? The second question is whether UIUC’s decision to unhire Salaita after he had already been sent a contract for a tenured position is a violation of academic freedom. Everyone agrees that academic freedom should protect unpopular views (here: deep dislike of the state of Israel and Zionist ideology), but does it also protect a rude or intemperate mode of public expression? Is Salaita being unhired because of what he thinks, or because of how he said it?
Let’s start by considering briefly what Stephen Salaita actually posted on Twitter for a minute. I think this is important to do – it’s one thing to defend freedom of speech and/or academic freedom in the abstract, but as people like Stanley Fish have pointed out over the years, “freedom of speech” is by no means an absolute concept. People who express really extreme views may have the “freedom” to say them, but other actors can choose not to help defend that right. If Salaita's statements are really "loathsome," as Cary Nelson has suggested, I personally wouldn't be quite as concerned about his being fired without due process from a position he had been offered. I wouldn't be writing this blog post.
Here are the three Tweets quoted initially by Inside Higher Ed. They seem representative of the more provocative kinds of comments on Salaita’s Twitter feed:
From the above three examples, it seems to me the second comment might be defensible if argued in a more reasonable and respectful way. In fact, a recent example of a Jewish New Yorker (Jane Eisner) making a more sophisticated, nuanced, and thoughtful version of exactly this argument can in fact be found in the Jewish Daily Forward here:
For instance, there is this tweet: "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza." Or this one: "By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror." Or this one: "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already."
Of course, compressed into 140 characters, it doesn’t sound like Salaita is calling for diasporic Jews to rethink their premises and unthinking loyalty to Israel. It sounds, rather, like he’s blaming the victims of surging European anti-Semitism for provoking hatred against themselves. We can’t really know exactly how he meant this Tweet without further context. So part of the problem here is the medium of Twitter activism – which rewards stark and aggressive statements (they make for good retweets), and mostly shrugs at nuance or caution.
The first and third Tweets are less defensible along these lines. They reflect a person who has in effect given up on the idea that Israelis are approaching their conflict with the Palestinians with anything like good faith. Salaita evidently believes that there is a kind of bloodthirsty demon within Benjamin Netanyahu and other Zionists, and that these Israelis actually relish taking the lives of Arab children, but mostly conceal those sentiments in public.
Given the course of recent events, and especially given the seeming impunity with which the IDF has repeatedly bombed private houses, schools, hospitals, and shelters in the recent conflict -- and subsequently, refused to apologize for or explain those actions -- one can understand how a Palestinian American writer might come to feel this way. But ultimately losing faith entirely in the humanity of the other side in a conflict such as this is a recipe for only further perpetuation of that conflict. It’s not constructive, and it doesn’t help you change anyone’s mind. And most importantly perhaps for our purposes, one can’t imagine that spelling out the premises behind these statements in a longer essay would lead Salaita to explain his point of view more cautiously and respectfully. So we can’t blame the medium or lack of context for the “intemperate” quality of these comments.
Admittedly, there is one Tweet of Salaita's that really does give one pause at first. This is where Salaita posted:
Zionists: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible into something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 20, 2014
@talkingproud I'd say this is probably a different discussion than the one we're having. Anti-Semitism certainly exists, though.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) May 20, 2014
Anti-Semitism: 1. racism against Jews; 2. criticism of Jewish racism against Arabs. #RealDictionary
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) February 20, 2014
#Israel blows up toddlers in #Gaza and then demands that everybody stop the condemnation and ruminate on antisemitism, instead. Seriously.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) July 15, 2014
The Pavlovian effect of Zionist whining is that my immediate reaction to claims of anti-Semitism is not horror, but bemused indifference.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) June 25, 2014
* * *
The second question is whether Salaita’s statements on Twitter should be protected under “academic freedom.” Cary Nelson has argued that Salaita’s statements aren’t part of his academic work, and therefore don’t need to qualify (“If Salaita had limited himself to expressing his hostility to Israel in academic publications subjected to peer review, I believe the appointment would have gone through without difficulty”). Moreover, the problem Nelson has with Salaita’s Twitter feed is not the “what” (Salaita’s views about Israel) but the “how.” Are the Tweets cited above extreme enough that they disqualify Salaita from participating in intellectual life on an American college campus?
The problem is this: if we place both of those arguments in sequence, they cancel each other out. If we say that Salaita’s Tweets aren’t academic and therefore aren’t protected by academic freedom, it’s not clear why a university on the verge of hiring him has any interest in considering them, especially if the content of the Tweets falls short of the “so extreme they’re disqualifying” standard.
This morning, while publicly posting the letter he sent to the Chancellor of UIUC protesting this decision, Michael Bérubé quoted a couple of paragraphs from a recent AAUP recommendation on how universities should handle “extramural” comments from their faculty. The paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
"As Committee A previously noted regarding extramural utterances, 'Professors should also have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic, or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint, save in response to fundamental violations of professional ethics or statements that suggest disciplinary incompetence.'
"Obviously, the literal distinction between 'extramural' and 'intramural' speech— speech outside or inside the university’s walls— has little meaning in the world of cyberspace. But the fundamental meaning of extramural speech, as a shorthand for speech in the public sphere and not in one’s area of academic expertise, fully applies in the realm of electronic communications, including social media."(Update: here's a link to the full document.)
Many of Salaita’s Tweets are, I have suggested, not admirable. Some are not defensible. But I don’t think any of them rise to the bar of “disciplinary incompetence.”
The spirit of the AAUP’s policy might be this: Academics ought to be allowed to express their opinions in public, as long as it doesn’t interfere with or damage their ability to teach the subjects they are hired to teach.
The phrase “academic freedom” might in fact be a red herring here – and in that sense Cary Nelson actually might have a point in saying that his position against Salaita doesn’t violate the principle of academic freedom Nelson himself has championed throughout his career. What we are actually talking about is Salaita's right to speak not as an academic, but as a writer and public figure outside of his academic context. The bar for that "outside" expression to interfere with his employment status ought to be very high; in my view, nothing he has said rises to that level.