In Defense of Steven Salaita

My initial reaction upon hearing about Steven Salaita’s “unhiring” at the University of Illinois this week was shock.

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:

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."
Source: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/06/u-illinois-apparently-revokes-job-offer-controversial-scholar#ixzz39iMwwYtd
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:


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: 

This comment seems pretty hard to defend. But of course it looks a little different if we put it in the context of Salaita's many comments about what he sees as distortion of the discourse of anti-Semitism in recent months. 

So there is a line of defense here: that Salaita is perfectly aware of and does not condone anti-Semitism. But he feels that its overuse by people he feels are apologists for Israeli military actions strains credulity. (Go back to the first Tweet: the word anti-Semitism is in quotation marks. He doesn't support anti-Semitism, but if his opponents feel any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, that "anti-Semitism" may in fact be honorable.)

Moreover, Salaita has 9600 Tweets. The vast majority take a humanist line against what he sees as Israeli settler colonialism. They advocate compassion and peace. In context, if you take the time to work through his full Twitter stream, it's pretty clear that Salaita is no anti-Semite. He is just very angry and frustrated, and letting that anger show.

* * * 

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. 


Unknown said...

Hi Deep--
Thanks for offering such a careful and nuanced analysis. I’ve been silent thus far on the Salaita issue, because it seems to me complicated in so many registers, not least of which regarding its status as an issue of Salaita's academic freedom. I’ve come to the conclusion that while there are serious issues of academic freedom at stake, they are the hiring department's, not Salaita's. I don't know that there is a logic by which academic freedom could be invoked to offer blanket protection for the tweets of academics: if Salaita had tweeted a photo of his erect penis, to offer a not entirely random counter- example, would we be defending it on the grounds of academic freedom? If he tweeted such a photo, but somehow framed it in a way such that it was understood to function as some sort of performative satire, would that be protected? Maybe. Would it matter whether the tweets in question have some sort of relation to a person's academic work? It seems a hard case to make that academics, simply by virtue of being academics, have the freedom to tweet whatever without any consequences, no matter what those speech acts have do with the academic work. Academic freedom was a principle invented to protect academics to do the work they do free from government interference. Anthony Weiner was forced to step down from office not because he wasn't free to tweet whatever photos he wanted to tweet, but because his decision to do so made his employers and colleagues doubt his fitness for the job: he seemed out of control and incapable of wise judgment. Certainly, Salaita's right to express himself freely is constitutionally protected, but that protection does not mean that there will be no consequences to the expression.
All that said, I do think there is potentially a serious breach of academic freedom in this case, and that breach involves the overriding of the evaluative process of the hiring department. There are lots of things about Salaida's tweets that make me concerned about his fitness to do his job -- I'd worry about how he'd function as a teacher in a classroom, most obviously -- but the task of weighing the various qualities Salaida has to offer most definitely ought to fall to department doing the hiring. That department presumably has in place processes for evaluating scholarly work, for deciding whether the worries I might have about Salaida's teaching are born out in his actual classroom behavior (or are even their own worries). Those processes could presumably be adjusted to allow for conversations about whether a tweeted penis is satirical or not, or whether or how tweets ought to be understood to frame or extend academic work. We don't know if the administration's decision to override the department's hiring decision was the consequence of external political pressure exerted by right-wing Jewish individuals or groups -- it would certainly not be unprecedented for this to be the case -- but if indeed there was that sort of interference, and it was animated by the tweets, that too needs to be made explicit, which is why I think it behooved UIUC to make its own process more transparent.

Irene Tucker (UC Irvine)

electrostani said...

Hi Irene,

Thanks for your comments.

I do think I covered your Anthony Weiner example with my reference to the AAUP statement on academic freedom vis a vis electronic communications. Their suggestion that extramural speech ought to be protected unless it rises to the level of "disciplinary incompetence" would seem to cover a situation like that, wouldn't it? (Unless it was performance art etc.)

I agree with you that all this would be easier to stomach if UIUC had made its decision process more transparent. Was this Phyllis Wise's decision alone? Who wrote to her? Who did she consult? I don't think it's likely we'll hear more about that anytime soon.

That said, I think we might disagree on whether the content of Salaita's tweets suggests he might not be effective in the classroom. I think he may have been exploring a persona online that might not necessarily resemble his "campus" persona, and that moreover, the kind of thing he was doing -- posting 200+ tweets a day at the peak of the Gaza military action -- is something he might only do during summer.

These are speculations of course (I wonder if there's anyone at Virginia Tech who knows him & could speak to some of this?). But I am partly basing those speculations on myself; I've also gone through periods where I was cultivating an online persona who didn't perfectly line up with the person my colleagues and students know. Perhaps I'm inclined to err on the side of generosity to Salaita because of my own parallel experiences.

electrostani said...

One other quick thing I wanted to add, in case it wasn't clear from the original post:

If Salaita's online writings did reveal him to be in fact virulently anti-Semitic, I think that would also rise to the level of disciplinary incompetence. Some people might still intervene on his behalf in a parallel situation in the interest of academic freedom, but their numbers would be fewer. And I personally would not be among them.

Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for this post. I think there's actually been a bit too much defense of Salaita as a matter of procedural form, dismissing the substance of his remarks or conceding that it's offensive, "... but I will defend to the death his right to say it," etc.

That's a very familiar stance on issues of academic freedom, and it has value, but it can't be our only response -- because in the end, if *everyone* agreed that idea X was wrong and offensive, we *wouldn't* defend it. So those of us who believe Salaita's tweets don't actually deserve vigorous condemnation need to stand up and say so.

Ethnic prejudice of all kinds is wrong. Condoning ethnic prejudice *would* be wrong. But I think what we observe in this case is that some people believe it's also wrong to say anything that might seem to belittle or undermine *accusations* of ethnic prejudice in the abstract. To do that is, they infer, implicitly to condone prejudice. I think that's a dangerous inference, because it's unfortunately true (as this case dramatizes) that accusations of prejudice can be used as an unfounded but very effective smear tactic. The tactic is not unique to questions surrounding Israel and Palestine, but it certainly happens a lot there! I would say we need to preserve a space of critical indepence, where we neither condone prejudice nor automatically give claims of prejudice a special moral sanctity that immunizes them from critique and belittling.

Unknown said...

Just to clarify: I don't know, or claim to know, that Salaita would be bullying in the classroom. He may well me cultivating a different persona online than his pedagogic one. The tweets do make me wonder, and if I were I member of the hiring department, the existence of the tweets would make me look more carefully at student evaluations than I might otherwise do, not in the hope of catching him out, but so as to make as certain as I could that students feel as if a variety of positions on a variety of subjects might be ventured. My point is simply that the job of evaluating the degree to which the tweets are representative of the scholar/teacher/colleague is the department's, not the administrations or some kind of outside group.
I have to say I'm finally less at peace with some of the individual tweets than you are, but I'm so unfamiliar with how the seriality of tweets functions for people who receive them that I'll defer to you on that.

Professor Glenn Hendler said...

I think Irene's statement here--that "the existence of the tweets would make me look more carefully at student evaluations than I might otherwise do, not in the hope of catching him out, but so as to make as certain as I could that students feel as if a variety of positions on a variety of subjects might be ventured"--is a very reasonable one, especially since she phrases it from the perspective of a hiring committee. I have a great deal of confidence in the members of the American Indian Studies program at UIUC, and assume they did carefully assess his student evaluations and other teaching materials. I'd add that evidence of ideological bullying in the classroom almost inevitably shows up online--on ratemyprofessors and similar sites. Indeed, it often shows up when the charge is not merited. I can find nothing on those sites that even hints that Salaita has problems there. (Not that I'd rely on such sites for anything substantive; it's just that students don't tend to be shy about posting such complaints anonymously, and I haven't found any--though I have found a lot of enviably enthusiastic reviews of Salaita's teaching).

To repeat, I have a great deal of faith in the members of that department and their rigor in assessing candidates for the position. I know at least one of them, and know the work and reputation of others. Clearly their chancellor does not have such faith. If I were at UIUC, and especially if I were in that department, I'd be very disturbed by that fact.

Anonymous said...

What about the comments advocating that. Jeffry Goldberg be stabbed, that he wishes all the settlers would disappear, and that he can't mount a defense of the distinction between Israelis and their government. All these tweets are available to see and they are heinous.

Michael Rectenwald said...

I'm a staunch defender of Palestine and strongly oppose and abhor the slaughter of innocent Palestinians, not only the current onslaught, but all former ones as well, beginning with 1948.

That said, I do think that some of Salaida's tweets do raise the question of his competency, in the sense that one wonders whether or not he has endorsed or at least offered an apologetic for antisemitism. To declare that "antisemitism" is "honorable," even while placing scare quotes around the word, certainly suggests that reasonable, decent people may rightly, or even "honorably" embrace antisemitism. As I say, if that is not an outright endorsement of antisemitism, it is at least an apology for it.

I did notice your point about the scare quotes as suggestive of the notion that he wasn't really talking about antisemitism as such. But one might as easily interpret him as saying that what others call antisemitism is not really antisemitism. The question then becomes, who are these others who might call this perspective "antisemitism?" Israel only, or other reasonable people who might think that calling for the disappearance of 3,000 Jewish settlers (in another tweet) was quite over the top and suspicious.

In short, I think that Salaida should have been entitled to his own defense in a university hearing. But his tweets did rise to the level that administrators take notice of, and not necessarily because they were intimidated by outside pressure groups. Given that he has educated and concerned leftist academics wondering about his expressions, the idea that he should simply be granted his job without qualification or a hearing is ludicrous. I strongly defend academic freedom, within and beyond the confines of the classroom. I support the free expression of opinion. But I"m with Sartre in holding that antisemitism doesn't represent a defensible opinion and to suggest that it does it to legitimate it. I'm also with Marcuse in his argument against "pure tolerance," which is a liberal fantasy and cannot be defended wholesale. Some views cannot be tolerated if life is to be tolerable for all people.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Prof. Rectenwald above. The failure of Salaitas defenders to grapple with his more violent tweets is inexcusable. But more than all this, his appointment had yet to be confirmed, and frankly he comes off here as not a very smart or thoughtful individual. Perhaps Illinois decided they'd rather have someone else teach these classes.