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Analysis: Free speech vs. freedom

Oct. 18, 2014 4:42 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 24, 2014 2:32 P.M.)
By: Heike Schotten
Heike Schotten is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she teaches political theory, feminist theory, and queer theory (her work is available here). She has been active in the Palestine solidarity movement since 2006.

I am going to use this space once again to talk about the despicable un-hiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois (I wrote about the Salaita case and what I called The Incivility of Palestinians, last month as well).

I am going to do this because, despite the fact that the academic boycott of the University of Illinois continues apace (there is even, it seems, the rise of a progressive Jewish-identified contingent championing Salaita), facile comparisons of Salaita's case and circumstances with those of various unsavory others are also proliferating.

These comparisons are so thick-headed, so tin-eared, so ham-fisted, that they nearly defy imagination.

And yet -- they are so revealing of American culture in their epistemological and political presuppositions that their clumsiness subsequently fails to impress, confirming rather the ineffable liberal imperialism of the new American way.

The first comparison, drawn by persistent academic freedom watchdog John K. Wilson, is between Salaita and University of Illinois adjunct professor of Religion Kenneth Howell. In emails to students as well as in class, Howell disparaged homosexuality as contrary to nature. In the wake of student complaints, Howell's department chair opted not to rehire him. The U of I's Board of Trustees overruled the decision, however, saying that students have no right not to be offended.

In this case, it is not Wilson's comparison that is the problem; he accurately notes the profound hypocrisy at work in the Board’s subsequent un-hiring of Salaita on grounds that his tweets on social media (outside the classroom) were "uncivil" and might make potential or future students uncomfortable (inside the classroom) in the wake of its decision to retain Howell.

Instead, what's striking about the Howell comparison is how it makes sense of U of I Board member Patrick Fitzgerald's otherwise totally bizarre comments at the meeting wherein Salaita was voted down.

Fitzgerald prefaced his vote against Salaita by stating that he could not vote to appoint anyone who engaged in hate speech and, choosing a specific example, said he could never approve someone who made homophobic remarks.

But, of course, Salaita was never accused of homophobia, nor does homophobia seem -- necessarily -- to have any bearing on his case.

The other injudicious association was made by Michelle Goldberg in her now-notorious Nation article wherein she compares Salaita with infamous Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In a wince-worthy set of sentences, Goldberg concludes,

The fact is, both Salaita and Hirsi Ali are complicated, inflammatory figures who have, in the face of shocking moral outrages, said outrageous things. They will make some students intensely and understandably uncomfortable -- some might even say "triggered." If you're going to argue that students have a right not to be so discomfited, then you'd have to take a stand against both of them, which would be a stand in favor of a grimly censorious, anodyne university climate. The alternative is to defend free speech and academic liberty, and not just for those whose views seem righteous.

Leaving aside the ongoing controversies about "trigger warnings" in the American college classroom, what is remarkable about Goldberg's argument here is her easy ability to equate someone who defends a colonized people in the throes of an ongoing massacre (Salaita) with someone who supports colonization of those same people and defends that ongoing massacre (Hirsi Ali).

If we recall that Salaita was un-hired on the basis of the incivility of his speech, however, these preposterous comparisons begin to make more sense. They make clear that, as many anti-racist queer studies scholars and activists have argued, being "pro-gay" and "anti-Islam" are not simply acceptable forms of speech in the US but, more trenchantly, they define the very contours of American exceptionalism, civilizationalism, and imperialism.

Indeed, although Trustee Fitzgerald was not on the Board at the time of the Howell decision, it's no accident that the example of unacceptable hate speech he reached for was homophobia.

As Fitzgerald suggests, defending the lives, existence, and rights of Palestinians is akin to homophobia -- it is hate speech. It violates the intensified, post-9/11 patriotic imperative to profess allegiance to the project of pacifying Muslims both at home and abroad.

In that sense, Fitzgerald is right. Championing gay rights -- much less making them the litmus test for Islam's civilization -- is part and parcel of this late day American update on the mission civilisatrice.

Standing staunchly on the free speech soapbox, by contrast, Goldberg finesses her equation of Salaita and Hirsi Ali by saying we can't distinguish between the two on the basis of "whose views seem righteous."

And yet, it is plainly obvious that we can.

While people like Goldberg may be unclear about such matters, I myself find it not terribly difficult to distinguish between Steven Salaita and Ayaan Hirsi Ali or, for that matter, between Steven Salaita and a homophobic Catholic. I know with which person I want to be in a room, on a committee, designing a curriculum, or evaluating colleagues for personnel decisions. I know which person I'd prefer to have in a classroom and which person I'd want in my own department.

I want the one who is committed to liberation, the one who speaks and thinks and hears with and from those from below, the one who understands that freedom isn't a matter of choosing from a diversity of options in a "marketplace of ideas" but rather a reaching toward the fulfillment of justice and freedom for all people(s).

It's also clear which person university administrators, the state, and those in significant positions of power would like in our departments and classrooms. To suggest that these differences are merely matters of opinion or undecidable controversies characterized by two equal sides evacuates them of political content and veils the hierarchies at work in determining which views are deemed "controversial" in the first place.

In his essay for the recent edited volume, The Imperial University, Vijay Prashad writes:

The struggle over "academic freedom," as it is generally constituted, is more than that of a principle, but it is over ideas. The principle is against the creation of the very social force that would allow our ideas to have cultural valence. That is what makes its defense insufficient.

As I argued last month, the un-hiring of Salaita is both an example and a perpetuation of colonialism. This means that, as Prashad makes clear, defending Salaita on the basis of academic freedom alone is not enough, since that very framework is the one which renders equivocal the difference between racism and anti-racism, hate speech and solidarity.

In silencing and exiling Salaita, the neoliberal American university has engaged in one of the most egregious acts of colonial silencing to date, all the more shocking for its unabashed nakedness.

But make no mistake: this is not simply a denial of academic freedom (although it is that). It is also an attack on the very people, forces, movements, and ideas that seek to upend the imperial university and the empire it serves.

This is why the attack on Salaita is an attack on all of us, and not only in the sense of the solidarity statements we put on our signs at marches declaring "We are all Palestinian."

The attack on Salaita is an attack on all of us in the sense that it is an attack on the great majority who stand outside the halls of power or even, in the case of academia, within them, but in an oppositional stance toward the machinations of those in power.

The silencing of Salaita is thus far more profound than a mere silencing of speech – it is an attack at the very heart of freedom for all people(s). That is why -- and how -- we must continue to oppose it.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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