Steven Salaita (Uncivil Speech, Obnoxious Speech, Abusive Speech)


Regarding the matter of Steven Salaita, I’ll agree that UIUC should have honored the contract with Steven Salaita and “welcome” him to campus, if only for the contractual reasons as argued by many faculty colleagues and friends. But the case is far more complicated. In addition to [1] legal-procedural considerations, there are also [2] political and [3] moral ones that complicate the case. These three issues are separate, but not completely separable. They are further complicated by questions regarding social media presence of university faculty, and the fine degrees that distinguish free speech, critical speech, uncivil speech, obnoxious speech, and abusive speech.

For whatever reason, the supporters of Steven Salaita have not discussed the content of the tweets that have caused so much trouble, except to sometimes concede that they are, indeed, obnoxious. At the core of the tweets is the painting of Israel, Zionism, and the American Jews who support them as genocidal, racist, settler colonial, child killers. Given the nature of the medium, the tweets contain no core of argument apart from the graphic presentation itself, based as it is on images and slogans. One retweet caught a lot of attention, suggesting that an argument by journalist Jeffery Golberg belong on the sharp end of a shiv. Salatia’s is the kind of rhetorical violence that gins up the discourse about Israel and Palestine, makes it coarse, uncompromising, reactive, and unthinking. There may be nothing anti-Semitic per se in any of the tweets. But there seems to be a lot of Jew-baiting. Examples would include the challenge to American Jews to own up to “genocide,” mocking American Jewish volunteers in the IDF who were killed in the fighting with Hamas, associating Israel and its leaders with infanticide, or the quip that Israel makes “anti-Semitism” respectable. Many of the rhetorical barbs directed at Jewish supporters of Israel and Zionism have a “have you stopped beating your wife” kind of character to them.

[1] Re: legal due process, it has been argued, correctly but with more conviction than I can muster, that the decision by Chancellor Wise not to send Salaita’s contract to the Board of Trustees, indeed, the decision to terminate his hire, violates the principle of faculty governance. The action against Salaita has all the appearance of being arbitrary, and it’s my guess that the administration should have allowed this hire to go through, if not for the professor’s sake and for the politics he represents, then for the sake of the university-institution itself. Just like when Nazis marched in Skokie, perhaps now this should be a matter left for the courts to decide.

[2] Politically, it’s unsurprising that the hire got gummed up and terminated. While, normatively, the process should have been separate from the professor’s obnoxious political presence on social media, the obnoxious content is not wholly separable in practice. No doubt there was intense donor pressure on UIUC, about which you can read here.  But supporters of BDS cannot readily complain when donors, in this case Jewish ones, threaten to stop contributing financially to universities for political reasons. The donors are only doing with greater economic muscle and political effect what Salaita and his many of his supporters would like to do in terms of impacting university discourse about Israel-Palestine, and trying to hold an administration to account.

[3] Morally, I would not want to overlook the bright red lines against abusive speech that contributes to the coarsening of public discourse and to the creation of hostile intellectual environments. While the reflex to defend Salaita as a free speech principle is understandable, it may be hard to work up any broad sympathy beyond a relatively limited circle of faculty colleagues opposed politically to the Chancellor’s decision and of free-speech purists arguing the controversy on its legal merits. But these don’t touch upon the other question, which I think is moral. If anyone wrote this way about or addressed Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinians, vilifying broad sectors of an entire community for its political commitments, he would have found his head on a platter, and rightly so. The offer and then revocation at Brandeis University of an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who tars with a harsh broad brush Islam as political ideology and as culture, would be a recent and relevant example.

The Salaita case brings up important questions about online media and legal-moral discourse. To what degree can it be said that a person’s tweets represent a persona in some sense separate from his professional behavior? And to what degree is an online persona fundamentally inseparable from one’s professional life? The way in which Salaita has comported himself online throws down all kinds of red flags, for which he himself is ultimately responsible, morally if not legally and politically. While much of the debate has centered around civility and skewering Chancellor Wise’s remarks about civility, I think the more pertinent question has to do with abusiveness, which was also included in Chancellor Wise’s statement, but which has gone largely ignored. What are the lines drawn, the lines we draw between free speech, critical speech, uncivil speech, obnoxious speech, all of which it is our obligation to protect, versus abusive speech and hate speech?

It’s for these reasons that I would leave this decision about Salaita’s employment to the courts. Politically and morally, I think he is the wrong person to get behind, and in the end his expression does a lot of harm to the cause of Palestine and to the cause of faculty governance. While I understand that personally one might want to have nothing to do with UIUC until this case is resolved in a way one finds satisfactory, I do not see how this scandal should rise to the level that would of necessity justify either the boycott of UIUC as an institution or, for that matter, the decision by supporters of Israel to stop donating to the university.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Steven Salaita (Uncivil Speech, Obnoxious Speech, Abusive Speech)

  1. Also, it seems wrong to me to boycott everyone in the university because of the actions of the chancellor. Other professors are not responsible for her actions, nor are students.

  2. where and when was that photo taken?

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