Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Timothy Burke on Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Regulation

Timothy Burke has an absolutely superb blog post on the latest flare-ups about cultural appropriation and his concerns about how some student activists are unwittingly reinforcing a project of bureaucratic regulation of cultural expression. It's definitely a "read the whole thing" bit, but here's a taste:

The concepts of appropriation and ownership.... is where moves are being made that are at least potentially reactionary and may in fact lead to the cultural and social confinement or restriction of everyone, including people of color, women, GLBQT people, and so on. In some forms, the argument against appropriation is closely aligned with dangerous kinds of ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism, with ideas about purity and exclusivity. It can serve as the platform for an attack on the sort of cosmopolitan and pluralistic society that many activists are demanding the right to live within. 
Appropriation in the wrong institutional hands is a two-edged sword: it might instruct an “appropriator” to stop wearing, using or enacting something that is “not of their culture”, but it might also require someone to wear, use and enact their own “proper culture”.
When I have had students read Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which was basically the operator’s manual for British colonial rule in the early 20th Century, one of the uncomfortable realizations many of them come to is that Lugard’s description of the idea of indirect rule sometimes comes close to some forms of more contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalism. Strong concepts of appropriation have often been allied with strong enforcement of stereotypes and boundaries. “Our culture is these customs, these clothing, this food, this social formation, this everyday practice: keep off” has often been quickly reconfigured by dominant powers to be “Fine: then if you want to claim membership in that culture, please constantly demonstrate those customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices–and if you don’t, you’re not allowed to claim membership”. 
And then further, “And please don’t demonstrate other customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices: those are for other cultures. Stick to where you belong.” I recall a friend of mine early in our careers who was told on several occasions during her job searches that since she was of South Asian descent, she’d be expected to formally mentor students from South Asia as well as Asian-Americans, neither of which she particularly identified with. I can think of many friends and colleagues who have identified powerfully with a particular group or community but who do not dress as or practice some of what’s commonly associated with that group. 
What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression. 
One of the things that I heard coming from a substantial wave of student activism here several years ago was that they held themselves to be already knowledgeable about all the things that they felt a good citizen and ethical person should know. It was the other students, the absent students, the students who don’t study such subjects, who worried them. And some of the activists had a touching faith in a way in the power of our faculty’s teaching to remake the great unwashed of the student body. If only they took the right classes, they’d do the right thinking. As one Swarthmore student in spring 2013 said in the group I was in, “I can’t believe there are students here who graduate without having heard the word intersectionality.” 
This moment worried me, even though it is important as always to remember: this was a young person, and I said things under similar circumstances that I would be deeply embarrassed to hear quoted directly back to me. It worried me because I hear that same concern a lot across the entire space of cultural activism, both on and off-campuses. 
It worries me first because that student and many similar activists are wrong when they assume that what they don’t like in the culture is a result of the absence of the ideas and knowledge that they hold dear. Far more students here have been in a course where concepts like “intersectionality” come up than this student thought. All political ideologies in the contemporary American public sphere, from the most radical to the most reactionary, have a troubling tendency to assume that agreement with their views is the natural state of the mass of people except for a thin sliver of genuinely bad actors, and therefore where a lack of agreement or acceptance holds, it must be because the requisite knowledge has been kept from the masses. This is a really dangerous proposition, because it blinds any political actor to the possibility that many people have have heard what you have to say and don’t agree for actual reasons–reasons that you’ll have to reckon with eventually. 
It worries me second because I think some activists may be subconsciously thinking that if they can sufficiently command custodial or institutional power, they will not have to reckon with such disagreement. Not only does that mistake custodial power as permanently and inevitably friendly to their own interests, it is where the temptation to use class power against other social groups will enter in, has already entered in.
This is what worries me most. The thing that I wish that student had recognized is that some of the people that he wishes knew the word intersectionality already know the reality of it. They might not have the vocabulary he does, but they have the phenomenology right enough. Perhaps more right than the student did.
That is, I concede, a pretty long taste. But the whole thing is nonetheless worthwhile. Timothy Burke was one of the very first bloggers I read, and for whatever reason he had kind of fallen off of my radar screen. This is a mistake on my part, and one I will hopefully remember to correct in my reading habits.

JVP Just Can't Quit Alison Weir

Hey remember that time that Jewish Voice for Peace cut ties with Alison Weir due to her anti-Semitism due to her not bothering to hide the obvious fact that the totally-not-anti-Semitic positions she shares with the JVP are also widely-beloved by neo-Nazis? Well, that lasted all of six months.

Who could have predicted!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump: United in Grievance

The claim that Bernie Sanders is the left-wing equivalent of Donald Trump has always been absurd. The real parallel is newly-minted UK Labor chief Jeremy Corbyn. Like Trump, Corbyn appeals to a really nasty id deep inside their party's base, who are delighted that someone is finally saying aloud the extremist things they've thought for years but have not dared say until recently. And like Trump, Corbyn's base is driven by a sense of grievance and victimization, allowing him to defy predictions that he'd fade once the media took their more fringe-y (or outright vicious) positions and placed a spotlight on them. Indeed, such attention is an aid rather than a hindrancethe media pointing out Corbyn's extremism only fuels his supporters' sense that its them against the evil powers-that-be. Which pretty much has been the story of Trump's campaign, when you think about it: the media just assuming the fever would eventually break, and being ever-more dumbfounded when it doesn't.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

At the Margin of the Margin

Zachary Braiterman has an interesting post providing some historical context to the recent vote by the American Anthropological Association favoring a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Anthropology, as a discipline, has had a troubled history when encountering Jews -- "troubled," here, being a nice way of saying "they don't really like to encounter Jews." This doesn't surprise me, not because I have a particular familiarity with anthropology as a discipline (on the one hand, my partner did graduate work in anthropology which gives me a favorable disposition; on the other hand, anthropology ranks very highly on my list of 'disciplines which produce absolutely wretched academic writing.'), but because it fits with the general erasure of Jewish experience from large swaths of the humanities and social sciences.

Braiterman links to an extraordinary article by Marcy Brink-Danan which goes into more detail.* The founding figures of modern anthropology including a strong Jewish contingent, but paradoxically this did not lead to sustained interest in studying Jewish culture for two main reasons. First, because the primary late-19th/20th century strategy for combating anti-Semitism was to stress Jewish similarity and assimilation into mainstream culture, Jews seemed to offer little to study that differed from the majority. Second, continued currents of anti-Semitism dissuaded many Jewish academics from pursuing identifiably "Jewish" topics, for fear of being typecast, pigeon-holed, or worse. The result is that Jewishness occupied an intellectual "no-mans land", where it was not accepted as a true outgroup (either by insiders devoted to that project or, later, minority scholars seeking to change the conversation from below) while also not being incorporated inside the dominant narratives.

This basic narrative is one I have observed in quite a few other disciplines (Evelyn Beck compelling documented it in women's studies, for example). Jews occupy a space that is, if not entirely unique, then certainly unfamiliar in the public imaginary.  They are at the margins of the margins; the outgroup that's in. Thought of as too mainstream to be studied as an outgroup, Jews are likewise too differentiated to have their experiences adequately captured by the ubiquitous majoritarian discourses that more critical commentators claim to be interested in undermining. This is buttressed by the more classic anti-Semitic trope of Jewish hyperpower: it's hard to conceptualize Jews as a "real" outgroup because the idea that Jews are super-privileged, world-dominating figures is deeply woven into the public conceptualization of Jewishness. The old anti-Semitism and the new work in perfect harmony. And so anthropologists (and others) don't see the need to encounter Jewish specificity because they assume that Jews are anti-discrimination winners -- they've already "made it" and the discipline can accordingly move on to look at the "real" victims (of which Jews by definition are not). Jewish voices are assumed to have been already heard -- if not overheard -- even in spaces when they actually have been largely silenced.

One upshot of this outlook is that Jews occupy a peculiarly vulnerable space on the left (the also are vulnerable from the right for other reasons). The left project is intensely concerned with normative change, but is deeply skeptical of its ability to do so in a non-oppressive, non-imperial way across cultures. The natural inclination, then, is to engage in self-critique -- but of course, such criticism runs the risk of undermining very real privileges that progressives in the west enjoy and take for granted. Enter the Jews. They are the outgroup you're allowed to target because they're not "really" an outgroup; even though the tactics employed against them only work because of their marginal status. Jews are marginal like other outgroups (though not necessarily in the same way as other outgroups), can be dominated like other outgroups, but they lack the standing to assert claims as an outgroup (demanding, for example, degrees of deference or heightened protection or acknowledgment of difference) that the left is, in other contexts, willing to recognize. It's a move of projection -- Israel is the bad us

The boycott campaign, for example, depends precisely on a massive asymmtery of power even as it self-constructs as resistance to power (Jewish power -- Jews are inherently powerful, after all -- but also "our power", since the Jews are simply a transplanted and slightly quirky iteration of "us"). It leverages anti-Semitic domination even in the course of denying it (in the process of denying Jewish specificity altogether). A counter-boycott by Israeli academic groups of American anthropologists, for example, would have less than no impact -- materially, it's limited by the raw fact that there just aren't that many Israelis, and symbolically it lacks any real punch because hearing less from those overbearing, superprivileged Jews is a feature rather than a bug. This is why a boycott of Israel "works" in a way that a boycott of, say, Chinese universities wouldn't; in addition to simply being in a better position to fight back, if Chinese voices expressed a sense of alienation or disregard then American academics would experience that as a meaningful loss in a way that they don't when it comes to the Jews. What "loss" is there, when Jews already (we're told) have their stories woven into the dominant narratives we hear every day?

All of this reminds me of how one British writer reasoned through his particular emphasis on Israeli human rights violations as compared to those of other nations; since it (obviously) wasn't anti-Semitism (it never is), he settled on the sense that Israel was basically "an English county planted on the Mediterranean shores." Having erased Jewish differentiation entirely, targeting Israel becomes not the delicate project of assailing an embattled other, but the noble and virtuous project of self-critique. As I put it: "It's all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body."

* "Anthropological Perspectives on Judaism: A Comparative Review," Religion Compass
2/4 (2008): 674–688,

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Anthropologist Boycott and National Origin Discrimination

The question of whether anti-Israel boycotts violate American anti-discrimination laws (prohibiting, among other things, discrimination on basis of national origin) is an interesting one that is surprisingly underexplored. We're starting to see a little bit of it in the administrative ruling that Kuwaiti Airways discriminated against an Israeli passenger by refusing to board her on a flight to London, and of course American anti-boycott laws and regulations continue to lurk in the background.

Much of the debate is a specific manifestation of a much broader problem lying at the intersection of freedom of association and anti-discrimination norms. This has long been a vexing problem for liberal anti-discrimination theorists: how can we force someone to associate (contract with, work alongside) someone that they do not want to? In this case, if an academic does not want to collaborate with one of her fellows (or a particular institution), isn't that their free choice? But what if the decision is taken on basis of a protected characteristic like race, religion, or national origin? Still, it seems profoundly illiberal (and probably unenforceable) to force them to engage in collaborations that they do not wish to do. Yet one could level that same objection to the application of anti-discrimination laws in any context -- and people have done just that. Compare Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984) (freedom of association rights of Jaycees were not violated by enforcement of an anti-discrimination law requiring that they admit female members) with Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000) (freedom of association rights of the boy scouts were violated by enforcement of an anti-discrimination provision requiring that they cease discriminating against gays).

The hard case, it seems, is one where we're talking about individualized collaborations with a given other. The easy case, by contrast, is in everyday commercial dealings: "I will not sell to you on basis of your race/gender/national origin", where such sales are otherwise made generally available. And on that note, I want to flag a provision of the pro-boycott resolution passed overwhelmingly by the American Anthropological Association last night (the resolution passes on the question to the full AAA membership):
Israeli universities would not be allowed to purchase access to a database of anthropology journals maintained by the AAA.
Whether or not the boycott generally runs afoul of American anti-discrimination law, this particular clause, at first glance, seems to do so openly and obviously. I could be wrong about this, but it seems entirely open and shut -- the free association claims in this context are pretty weak, and it just is an open admission that a given class of potential customers defined on basis of nationality will be excluded from access to a given commercial service offered by the AAA.

I'm sure the inevitable litigation will be a joy to behold.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Generosity for Thee....

Jonathan Haidt has a post in the Heterodox Academy arguing, in response to student protests at Yale and other colleges, for "generosity of spirit." This is how he characterizes this virtue:
Philosophers often advocate what they call “the principle of charity.” It means that in any discussion we interpret others people’s statements in the way that makes their argument strongest, not weakest. We give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than trying to twist their words to support the ugliest possible implications.
I don't have any intrinsic objection to this. In fact, I rather like generosity of spirit in this respect. I think we should try to encounter other people on their strongest terms, and that we shouldn't reduce conversation into a search for bad motives.

But I do have to ask if this is a virtue Haidt embodies when it comes to his "others." For when Haidt talks about the current generation of students and the grievances they air, he does not seem particularly generous. They are presented as spoiled millennial brats, perpetually making mountains out of molehills, incapable of grasping basic concepts regarding freedom of speech, willfully ignorant of what "real" oppression is, unable to handle any dissonance to their worldview penetrating their perfectly serene and coddled "safe spaces", and so far removed from  civilized modes of reasoning that they've created an entirely new "culture of victimhood" to inhabit. Is this "generosity of spirit"? Is this an genuine effort to "make[] their argument strongest, not weakest"?

We can push further to see a more fundamental problem in Haidt's outlook: it comes with an implied "unless the argument is about racism, sexism, or other like -isms" exception. These arguments are viewed as inherently violative of a "principle of charity"; simply by invoking them one steps outside the boundaries of "generosity of spirit" and therefore forfeits the right to receive due consideration. This is what allows such claims to be responded to in ways that, on the face of it, in no way can be harmonized with principles of charity. I tried to make this point in my Playing with Cards article:
The bad faith charge [leveled against discrimination claimants] ... is precisely an allegation that the claimant is engaging in a deceptive, malicious, and opportunistic game designed to browbeat her interlocutor into agreement. And contrary to the respondents’ allegation, this same sin is not (or at least not necessarily) fairly attributed to those who claim discrimination. A claim of racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism need not come attached to any assertion of insincerity or bad faith. This is because the contours of discrimination are not exhausted by the intentions of the speaker. It is a perfectly valid discursive request to interrogate potential injustices lurking within positions honestly taken and passionately felt. To reduce such inquiry to a mere search for hidden motivations is to dramatically circumscribe justice-talk generally.
Were Haidt serious about applying his generosity of spirit principle evenhandedly, I think he'd arrive at a very different descriptor of what is motivating the student protesters at various campuses. It would concede the possibility that the students are responding to genuine, not overwrought, feelings of alienation and discrimination. It would acknowledge the possibility that they had in fact grappled with the standard academic arguments in the relevant areas, and that perhaps they had endeavored to articulate their concerns within the standard deliberative language and had been stymied. It would not race to the conclusion that they were only acting the way they were because they were sociopathic or sadistic; that they enjoyed heaping angst on others for its own sake or that they are presenting their claims in this particular way because they are too unsophisticated to do so in any other way.

None of this, it bears noting, requires endorsing any or all of the actual stylistic or substantive choices the protesters are making. Indeed, there are quite a few of them I have serious problems with -- I have deep skepticism about the some of the rhetoric surrounding free speech, and as a rule I don't like political discourse taking the form of surrounding a target and screaming at them. This is a tough line to walk: it's what I tried to get at in my Yale reconsideration post. The defect of my original post was not that I failed to endorse particular tactics or conclusions of the Yale protesters, it's that I jumped from "I don't endorse particular tactics or conclusions of the Yale protesters" to "they must have arrived at those conclusions because they're intellectually sloppy." The generosity of spirit, which I tried to embody in the follow-up, would be to explain why I had reservations regarding their positions without relying on an uncharitable assumption that they were simply bad at reasoning for disagreeing with me.

Now, one could charge me with that old paradox of "tolerating the intolerant": I'm saying we must give the student protesters the benefit of charitable interpretation even as they allegedly display no such generosity towards the targets of their investigation. I say "allegedly" because I do not think such ungenerousness is present in all cases; as the quote from my article suggests I think it is quite possible to argue that a given belief or practice is oppressive without suggesting that the holder of it is being dishonest or unthinking in adopting it, and I think frequently the claim that such arguments constitute a personal attack is in fact a defensive move designed to remove such claims from the ambit of legitimate discussion deserving reasoned responses. But certainly, I agree that some of the claims do seem to evince a lack of charity, so no more on that.

Yet even here, note how one-sided the complaint is. After all, the argument of the protesters is identical in structure: "why," they ask, "should we have to 'tolerate' the intolerance of persons making racist remarks or employing crude racial caricatures?" There, of course, the response is to say that liberalism demands that we defeat their bad claims with good ones, and moreover, that we assume that their bad claims aren't simply a matter of irredeemably defective souls but perhaps come from good intentions and good places that can be reasoned with. So it seems a similar degree of "tolerance" should be extended to those students who are, at least some of the time in my view, making bad arguments -- the response shouldn't be to intone portentously about how kids these days don't understand the importance of free dialogue (much less to scream about how maybe they'd like things better in North Korea). Here, too, we could say that bad claims should be met with good claims, even as free speech allows them to make bad claims (as my former professor Geoff Stone rightly observes, it is a bedrock principle of free speech that even arguments demanding the curtailment or abolition of free speech are nonetheless protected by free speech, so long as they stay in the realm of arguments).

Again, it's not that I don't like generosity of spirit or interpreting with charity. I think they're both good values, and I think they're underappreciated values. But they are values whose absence is very easy to see in our adversaries but difficult to recognize in ourselves. I certainly wish that many of the students in question showed more charity towards their interlocutors; but that same principle advises that I should assume that maybe the reasons they're not being so generous in spirit is more complicated than raw defects in character.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Israeli Court Affirms Transgender Woman's Request To Be Cremated

The Forward reports on an interesting and heartening case out of Israel involving a transgender woman's request to be cremated. Cremation is generally prohibited under traditional Jewish law (a prohibition which predates, but was emotionally strengthened by, the Holocaust), but for a variety of reasons some secular or Reform Jews prefer it to a traditional burial. Among them was a transgender woman who requested in her will that she be cremated because she was worried that in a traditional burial her status as a woman would not be honored by her family. As if it to vindicate those fears, the woman's mother sued contending that her "son" was "undergoing a deep mental crisis and was not capable of drawing up a will."

A Jerusalem court, however, rejected the mother's suit and allowed the woman to cremated according to her wishes. This of course seems morally correct and important both as an affirmation of transperson's rights of self-identity as well as a rejection of the notion that such self-identity is simply a "mental crisis."

May her memory be a blessing.

UPDATE: The Israeli Supreme Court just affirmed the lower court decision.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Trading a Vice for a Virtue: A Reconsideration

The post I wrote earlier this week on the Yale controversy has gotten a decent amount of positive feedback. And while I'm grateful, I also am a bit surprised, because -- oddly enough -- I didn't really like that post. I wasn't comfortable with it when I wrote it, I hesitated greatly before publishing it, and I continue to have misgivings about it now. It's not exactly that the takeaways were wrong, but I wasn't satisfied with how I expressed them and there was some hiding of the ball -- even from myself -- on what was motivating me to focus on what I did. And while I imagine some will think that I received some blowback or critical response that is provoking this reconsideration, I can honestly say there was none (though perhaps one would have been deserved). This was internally-motivated, and hopefully gets across better what I want to think about on the subject.

I've noticed in all the (good) articles on this subject, there's a fair bit of "to-be-sure"ing going on, whereby the writer critical of the student protests acknowledges, "to be sure", that racial harassment is a very bad thing when it happens, or the writer defending the protests agrees, "to be sure", that it is inappropriate to call for "muscle" to evict a media photographer. Given these overlapping "to-be-sures", one could wonder what all the fuss is about -- but it's clear the question is on emphasis: is the important issue ingrained racist practices at many of our colleges and universities (with suppression of dissident views a real but side issue), or is the important issue incurious and intolerant millennials (with ongoing racial harassment a real but side issue)? Clearly there is a problem of caring equally here. But on reflection, it's unclear why I should have taken the focus that I did (incurious millennials, while to-be-sureing racial inequities).

One of the arguments I did try to make with some level of clarity was that this entire discussion is ill-served when it is grouped-in as a question of free speech. Kate Manne and Jason Stanley have a very thoughtful article on this point that I largely agree with* noting that for the most part "free speech" is being used opportunistically to privilege particular speech-instances while condemning others that are structurally identical. The Yale controversy, after all, essentially broke down as follows:

  1. Yale administrators say that one shouldn't (not mandate that one can't) wear ethnically offensive Halloween costumes (because that's part of being respectful of one's peers on a diverse campus);
  2. A Yale dorm master says that they shouldn't have sent that email (because one shouldn't need administrators to make such recommendations and in any event a little bit of offense is not the worst thing in the world);
  3. Yale students say that the dorm master shouldn't have made that argument (they find the argument risible, beneath the standards of good argumentation, or not in keeping with the master's mission).
  4. Various commentators say that the students shouldn't  have condemned the dorm master for writing the email (they should be tougher, they should be open to diverse views, etc.).
All of this is speech and counter-speech, structurally identical to one another. And moreover, I've been quite consistent in arguing that it is a legitimate move (from both a "counterspeech" perspective and a good citizen perspective) to argue that certain arguments should not be made (the "academic legitimacy" argument), though I've also implied that I think one should be very judicious in making such claims -- there should be a very wide gap between "claims I think are wrong" and "claims I think should be explicitly discouraged from being considered in the deliberative space". My contention was essentially that the Yale students made that gap too small -- and while I still think I'm right about that, there are some serious shortcomings in how I framed it. 

For starters, believing that the Yale students drew the line incorrectly does not necessarily suggest that they simply lacked curiosity about an alternative view -- indeed, it seems overwhelmingly likely that they have thought about this issue plenty and were just tired about having to retread plowed ground again. Potentially, such retreading is nonetheless necessary -- but failure to do so is at least a distinguishable vice from a lack of curiosity. And to the extent I implied that there was a more general failure of curiosity at work here, that seems on reflection difficult to infer as well given that I acknowledged that this email almost certainly did not occur in isolation but rather was the straw that broke the camels back (and of course individual straws look insignificant). On this score, Kevin Drum got it exactly right when he said that "fixating on a single incident like this is as silly as trying to figure out why all those European countries really cared so much about Archduke Ferdinand." Finally, you'll note that this concern about having a strong default in favor of considering arguments qua arguments did not come into play in my assessment of the master's email vis-a-vis the Yale administration email. Why wasn't I also rattled by the idea, forwarded by the master, that it was a bad (not impermissible, but bad) deliberative step for the administration to proffer its ideas regarding what one should (but was not obliged) to do? It's not that there aren't arguments to be had on this score, and I think the master raises a legitimate point when she asks why the students lack confidence in their internal ability to create tolerant norms but do have confidence in the administration's capacity for doing so, but those are significantly more complicated points that seem not to explain the disparate treatment between arguments that structurally adopt the same pose.

So that's the reassessment. But I also think it might be valuable, for me at least, to try to unpack what was going on in my head that was driving my thinking on the matter, the focus that I took and the conclusions that I arrived at. The basic argument -- which I still think is right, though more on why in a moment -- is that while it is certainly not a free speech violation to argue that certain other arguments should not (not cannot, but should not) be made or taken seriously, we should be exceptionally judicious in taking such stands. It's not that they're never warranted (an obvious example is a claim that the earth is flat -- I don't want to ban the view, but I do think it shouldn't be taken seriously. "Black people are scum" would be another), but we should be exceedingly cautious and default strongly in favor of at least listening to arguments and disagreeing with them on their merits.

The salience of that position, for me at that time, came out of a post I didn't write -- one about the objections by some progressives to having Bibi Netanyahu present at CAP. This, of course, occurred in the broader context of efforts to boycott -- or otherwise refuse to listen to -- Israelis more generally, and to me exhibited a true lack of curiosity that was deeply disturbing. There was no chance, after all, that Netanyahu would be (as one blogger put it) "feted like the Queen of England and subjected to no challenging questions." And since I am no fan of Netanyahu, I very much liked the idea that he would be subjected to challenging questions. But it seemed to me that the objections to him speaking were predicated less on the prospect that he'd say something outrageous in response than that he'd say something that was not so clearly off-base -- those who wanted not to listen were afraid that he'd give them something that seemed to warrant being listened to, and thus disturb the much more comfortable presumption that any decision he makes or any position he takes is based on such obviously atrocious arguments that they need not even be considered. More broadly, effort to disinvite him exists as part of a larger cultural moment whereby the very legitimacy of (most) Jews' perspectives -- the idea that this entire outlook can be casually dismissed as having no value, deceptive when it isn't oppressive, distracting when it isn't made in bad faith altogether -- that is deeply worrying to me and really does negatively impact my ability to proceed with confidence in deliberative spaces.

In short, I was in a place where I was keenly attuned to the very real equality risks that can emerge when people try to assert the illegitimacy of given perspectives. As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 

But the bigger issue is this. I'd like to say that I take the position that I do -- a strong default in favor of accepting arguments into the deliberative space and against preemptively screening off even those I passionately dislike -- for  "neutral" reasons (respect for pluralism, the importance of experimentation, epistemic humility, whatever). But if I'm being honest, I think a large part of my position flows from my awareness that the check these activists wish to write is one that I'm not entitled to cash. The principle that we should (through social if not de jure pressure) seek to tamp down on speech that alienates people or makes them feel unsafe or disrespected is not one I'm allowed to invoke; indeed, it doesn't seem to occur to people that I'm the sort of person who ever could invoke it

One Yale graduate student (I lost the link) wrote an open letter to the dorm masters which presented his perspective on how white privilege and the perspective of persons of color should have played into this debate. Included in his argument was a pretty strong claim that only the oppressed can truly know the nature of their own experience and thereby they deserve deference when making such assertions. And then turning to the "free speech" claim, he asked the master where their free speech commitment was when Steven Salaita was denied his position at Illinois.

Had that question been directed to me, of course, I could have responded that I was quite explicit in declaring Salaita's academic freedom had been violated. But what I really wanted to say was that Steven Salaita is not your standard-bearer; Steven Salaita is your victim. What, exactly, do you think the Illinois decision was except an assessment that in deriding the legitimacy of anti-Semitism allegations as being worthy of concern (he said he took them with "bemused indifference"), in comparing Zionists to vermin or a pox ("scabies"), in celebrating violence against Jews and wishing more to fall upon them, he was making the space unsafe for Jews on campus? I could lob right back -- where was your epistemic humility about your ability to understand their outlook and what they've gone through? Where was your concern about respecting oppressed peoples' right to name their own experience when you erased their stated concern about anti-Semitism and substituted in a supposed inability to tolerate criticism of Israel? It doesn't even ring a bell. 

Now it's not the case that everyone is a hypocrite here. As I mentioned, despite absolutely believing that Salaita's tweets were anti-Semitic, I still thought his academic freedom was violated -- for me, the free speech issue trumped. And I had a wonderful train ride last year with a colleague who is both far more harsh in her assessment of Israel than I am and more favorably disposed to the "safe space" concept than I am, and she took the exact opposite view: She thought that Salaita's tweets raised serious questions about his ability to foster a safe and inclusive space in his classroom, and therefore was not convinced that the administrators were necessarily unjustified in revoking his appointment. Thus we had the strange experience of the Zionist defending Salaita's academic freedom rights and the anti-Zionist suggesting that maybe the administration had a point in keeping him off campus.

Still, that I think is the exception and not the rule. I have an admittedly deep-seated suspicion of the argumentative line be taken here, and I think it results primarily from the fact that I don't think I'd be allowed to access it. And in this, I'm reminded of Patricia Williams' defense of formal legal rights as against the challenge of Critical Legal Studies professors who'd prefer more informal norms of relations. Williams liked rights not because they were ideal, but because she couldn't count on informal communal norms to be inclusive of her. The thin, threadbare, dispassionate, anemic rights-talk still gave her at least a bare foothold for asserting claims; the rich, casual, everyday modes of informal discourse often times would just casually and informally exclude her. And so it is with my instincts of discourse -- my preference to let as much as possible be admitted to the space of arguments that demand reasoned responses does not come from a belief that most arguments are worthwhile, it comes from a lack of confidence in the institutions -- be they college administrators or public legislators or, unfortunately, idealistic campus activists -- that are tasked with deciding what is drawn in and what is drawn out.

* I have to observe, though, that there is in fact no "hate speech" exception in First Amendment doctrine. This is a widespread misconception, and while I'm not sure from where it derives, it is unfortunate that it was forwarded here.