Over the past few weeks, I’ve read about and even participated in some heated debates about the University of Illinois’ unhiring of Steven Salaita because of a series of offensive tweets he wrote regarding Israel and Zionists.
Here’s what I wrote when I first became aware of the whole nasty affair:
I’ve been known to write strongly worded criticisms of elected officials, for example, because of their position on the death penalty, on immigration, or even on university budgetary matters. And I’ve occasionally disagreed with colleagues in online discussions, sometimes quite vigorously, on a wide variety of topics. But I don’t imagine for a moment that any of us would want the university to weigh in on those discussions to tell us who is in the right and who’d better watch what he says.
I still feel this way, even as people have uncovered other offensive things that Salaita has written on other social websites. A number of people have suggested that they’d be uncomfortable in his classes because of his comments and I take them at their word.
But I have to wonder, as a professor who blogs and who is active on Twitter, whether this holds true for other issues … or just when it comes to Israel.
Let me try out an example:
I write quite often about the death penalty. I argue that it’s terrible public policy and that support for the death penalty is predicated on a lack of knowledge about how it works, as well as on a series of unfounded ethical presumptions. I don’t pull a lot of punches when it comes to my opposition to state killing and so, if you happen to strongly support the death penalty, you might find my arguments unpleasant, troubling, or even offensive. If you’re a student, maybe you’d feel uncomfortable in one of my classes, especially if the topic of the death penalty comes up. I wouldn’t be actively trying to make you uncomfortable … but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t feel that way.
Should I lose my job? Should donors write letters in opposition to keeping me employed?
I could do this with a host of other issues, including the Israel/Palestine issue. Maybe a Palestinian student would feel uncomfortable in my classes? Maybe a Zionist would? I know I’ve written things here, on the topic of Israel, that many people think are wrong-headed, dangerous, idealistic, foolish, and so on.
At what point or on which issues is it acceptable for a professor to make a strongly-worded argument, or even to engage in name-calling, and have it “count” as part of the broader academic freedom package? I mean, it might be beneath me to call someone a troll or a cretin or a moral monster or whatever else, but we know too that sometimes writing on the internet emboldens people to say things they wouldn’t say in person. Do we want to suggest that there’s no point where that’s acceptable?
That’s what seems to be at stake here. One lesson to learn from the Salaita affair is that civility now matters a great deal, at least in certain places and on certain issues. We don’t yet know how far this goes, which issues it touches, and what sorts of words are too uncivil to be tolerated. So, in the meantime, should we all just keep our mouths shut about everything if we don’t have anything nice to say?