11 September 2014

Not Too Refined to Say This, Anyway.

The truth is, it's hard to take a stand on the Salaita de-/un-/re-hiring without wanting to throw up.

Parsing whether "I wish all the settlers would go missing" constitutes a death-threat or not makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Listening to the rhetoric about "wealthy Jewish donors" influencing this decision scares the hell out of me.

Wondering where the line falls between scholarly inquiry into the conditions of settler colonialism and indigeneity around the world and a deeply politicized agenda rife with foregone conclusions makes me want to change the subject.

I try to avoid talking about Israel at all.  My views put me out of step with many of my friends at the temple (yes, I converted).  Learning more from within the faith has only made them more complicated, not less.

Watching a highly ranked woman of color, who has done a great deal to advance the role of women and underrepresented minorities on campus, become the focus of faculty and student anger has been excruciating.

Watching the concerns of Palestinian and middle-eastern students get erased from the the conversation has been deeply dismaying.

It's hard to cheer when I learn that another department has voted "no confidence."  I understand it has to happen--I voted "yes" in a no-confidence vote myself--but it doesn't feel like positive step.  It feels like breaking something that has to break, but with no certainty that the thing that takes its place will be better.

Yet there I was today: holding a sign, posting photos and commentary on social media, chanting, clapping, swelling the pro-Salaita crowd.  The thought that my--or anyone's--discomfort should axiomatically put an end to these--or any--important conversation sickens me, too.

The public university can be a place where the difficult conversations about race, justice, equality, ethnicity, religion, and politics take place and matter, or it can be a place where those difficult conversations are identified, performed in the point/counterpoint theater of neatly opposed views, and then shelved while the talk that matters (money, influence, power) goes on elsewhere without regard to those who don't have money, influence, and power.

Photo by Anne Dietz-Lavoie
Behind the talk of "civility" is a determination to have only the latter kinds of conversations. "Incivility" is necessary for some voices to be heard, for the stakes of any particular debate to be apparent, for conversations to result in meaningful change. A colleague supportive of Salaita, who has served in administrative positions for several years now, posted this morning on Facebook, "People in upper admin with whom I've worked closely for years are now unwilling even to make eye contact with me. Inclusive Illinois." That right there is the problem with making "civility" the boundary of conversation.  "Civility" only works if both parties are already operating from a position of equality and already in mutual agreement on the need for the conversation.  It doesn't work if a powerful participant refuses to acknowledge that that the less powerful participant has an issue that needs to be discussed.  It also doesn't work when only the powerful participant gets to define where the outer bounds of civility lie.  Civility commits us to a university where existing injustices remain entrenched and silenced voices stay that way.

How do you know if you're taking part in a conversation about race, justice, equality, etc. that matters, versus one that doesn't?  If you feel like you want to throw up but you also have to go on talking, chances are you're in it.


  1. Well said. I'm particularly disturbed about the not-meeting-eyes part. In academia, as in our legislative bodies, we somehow need to (re)master the art of disagreeing over deeply-felt and important matters, and still being able to have a pleasant social conversation about more trivial ones, preferably over beer or coffee or whatever. It's not easy, especially once the power dynamics you describe come into play (I fear some of the policing of speech from the left of the last few decades -- which has always worried me, even as I sympathized with the underlying desire to make universities a safe space for people from a wide variety of backgrounds -- is now going to come back to bite us, in the form of administration-enforced "civility," or not hurting the brand, or whatever).

  2. The silences rife in this post are extremely disturbing. The limits of what sorts of things are recognized as injurious and what sorts of bodies and people are deemed capable of injury (and which aren't), are so tightly circumscribed in your post. That you are so quick to recognize and acknowledge anti-settler sentiment as "violent" betrays such a deep ignorance of anything remotely resembling the reality of Palestinians in the West Bank who have had to deal with settler violence every day for decades. That these settlers, expansionist land thieves even by the standards of the US government, armed to the teeth and backed by the IDF, the people who scrawl "death to the Arabs" on the walls of Palestinian homes, daily harass Palestinians, physically attack them and their houses, livelihoods, and property with absolute impunity don't figure into the debate at all speaks volumes about the terms of the debate itself. Apart from the fact that it is ludicrous by any standard to characterize a tweet by an English professor in the US against half a million heavily armed settlers in the West Bank as a "death threat," the silence and lack of acknowledgement by Americans of the settler violence that has led to such anger does so much more to sustain actual, real life violence than some anti-settler tweet ever could. And yet, people sit back in their relative comfort and decry anger that is wholly justified as “unproductive” at best and as "violent," or better yet, as "death threats” at worst. It is always, always, the rage of the oppressed that is called to account, and never the violence underpinning that rage. It is an implicit impossibility for black rage in Ferguson and across the country to be heard, not because of the manner in which it is expressed, but because in a white supremacist society, it just doesn’t count. The same is true for Palestinian rage. These are the deaths that are seen as irrelevant to the debate, contingent, circumstantial, not even worthy of mention and certainly not the core of the issue. The problem, of course, lies in how we react to the death and violence inflicted on our communities daily. What for you is an abstract “deeply politicized agenda rife with foregone conclusions,” is for us about our lives and our thousands upon thousands of unacknowledged deaths.

  3. I found the original blog post and Ameer's response to be very helpful. And it is was particularly helpful to read them in that order. Thank you both.