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Strategic (Mis)Uses of Academic Freedom

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Liel Leibovitz has an extended defense of UIUC’s firing of Steven Salaita. Let’s start with this:

Another tweet applied just as much nuance in declaring, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” Subject that last utterance to a close reading—an exercise that passes for rigid and original thinking in most American universities these days—and you learn that the author approaches anti-Semitism with the one-two punch of unreality: It doesn’t exist—hence the quotation marks—and if it does exist then it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Given the unoriginality of Leibovitz’s misreading, I would have let it slide had he not patted himself on the back for his “close reading” (while, paging SEK, criticizing people who think this is a real skill.) Even looked at in isolation, the “close reading” is somewhere between “uncharitable” and “inept.” The designation of anti-Semitism as “horrible” makes it pretty clear that Leibovitz is wrong to say that the quotation marks around “anti-Semitism” are an argument that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. Rather, the most natural reading of the tweet is that conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is cheapening the latter term, which describes a very real and very serious problem. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that this is the only possible reading of the words in isolation — we’re talking about a medium that limits communications to 140 characters, after all. But I would say that Leibovitz is not very well-positioned to be accusing others of lacking “nuance.” (As I’ve said before, I do agree that Salaita’s tweet wishing that the settlers would vanish is entirely indefensible, although to imply that it’s a literal incitement to violence is silly.)

And, of course, it’s worse than that. Since we’re not fanatical opponents of the ACA trying out any legal argument that might convince the right majority of hacks, we should not read the tweet in isolation but in the context of his other writings. Doing so makes it abundantly clear that while Salaita is a strong (and at times uncivil and even crackpottish) critic of Israel on his Twitter feed, he believes that anti-Semitism is both very real and very deplorable. And since Leibovitz has no actual evidence that Salaita is an anti-Semite, his “replacing references to Jews and Israelis with blacks, gays, or women” analogy is specious.

Let’s move on to the other bad argument at the core of the op-ed:

And it’s tempting, in analyzing this situation, to focus on its minor irritants and point out, for example, how deliciously ironic it is that the champions of academic freedom riding to Salaita’s defense did it by boycotting his university, a blunt tactic that, in this case, causes much more harm to the principle of academic freedom than the incident it wishes to protest.

I’m mystified by how scholars declining to make appearances at UIUC as a protest — the very minimalist boycott most of the disciplines are engaged in — damages academic freedom at all. Leibovitz doesn’t explain, and I’ve never heard of the idea that academic freedom requires accepting all speaking opportunities. (It seems obvious to me that cancelling appearances is itself a form of speech, not a suppression of speech.) There are certainly forms of boycott that could be inconsistent with academic freedom — blackballing UIUC scholars from conferences or publication, for example — but as far as I can tell nobody is advocating this.

Even if we were to assume that there’s an academic freedom problem with refusing to take UIUC’s speaking space and/or money, I’m really baffled how this could be more damaging to academic freedom than firing a tenured faculty member for expressing political views. (McCarthyism: no real threat to academic freedom, so long as the faculty willing to take loyalty oaths never turn down a speaking gig!) I think I can understand why there’s nothing but bare assertion on offer for this proposition.

Actually, there’s another reason why Leibovitz hasn’t thought very clearly about what the principles of academic freedom mean. Namely, he’s against them:

Some, of course, may argue that the answer is still yes, and that subject-matter expertise ought to be the single and sacred standard by which we hire, reward, and promote our professors. But many more believe, like Chancellor Wise, that while we ought to fiercely insist on protecting our scholars’ freedom to say whatever they please, we should also insist that speech, like action, have consequences. In some cases, we may listen to scholars speak out on unpopular subjects and reward them for their insight and their courage; in others, we may hear things so vile that we decide the speaker, no matter how well-versed in his or her discipline, has no place in an institution that depends on the unfettered exchange of ideas, and that scholars who cannot translate their passions into well-reasoned arguments are better off opining on Twitter rather than in the classroom.

Until academics live up to this obvious condition, until they realize that, like the rest of us, they operate in a community and enjoy no special license to speak and act with utter impunity, until they understand that public engagement is not a privilege but a responsibility, they will continue to find themselves marginalized. It’s a price that neither they nor we can afford to pay.

This argument is at least more honest than those of Wise, since she claims to support academic freedom in principle. The argument that firing faculty members solely for expressing disagreeable political views is perfectly OK is at least a real argument. (And remember that it’s wealthy and/or politically connected donors and trustees ultimately policing the bounds of acceptable discourse once the principles of academic freedom are abandoned.) If you think that Coke Stevenson’s Texas is as good a way of organizing a university as any other, that’s your privilege. I strongly disagree, but it’s good to have the stakes made clear.

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