Saturday, September 06, 2014

Witch-Hunting in the Digital Age

Much to my own embarrassment, I've neglected to post here on the Steven Salaita controversy thus far, an affair with far-reaching implications not only for how we determine what constitutes both the civic and academic limits to the "right to free speech," but also for a number of hiring-and-firing practices that are customary within the Academy but verboten (if not also illegal) under almost any other employment conditions.

The facts of the Salaita case are, minimally, as follows:  Steven Salaita, tenured Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, was offered a position at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (henceforth, UIUC), which he accepted.  As is customary in academia, Salaita's new position came "with tenure" (after already having been thoroughly vetted for and awarded tenure at Virginia Tech) and, as is also customary in academia, Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech at the end of the last school year in advance of taking up his position at UIUC in the fall.  In the interim, however, and as a consequence of a number of tweets that Dr. Salaita posted over the summer in response to the increasingly violent Israeli-Gaza conflict, UIUC withdrew its offer of employment to Dr. Salaita (who is Palestinian and whose tweets were critical of Israeli state policy).  only two weeks before the he was to take up his new position at UIUC  According to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise's official statement, the offer was rescinded because Dr. Salaita's tweets constituted a violation of UIUC principles, i.e., Salaita's tweets "demean[ed] and abuse[ed]" those whose views disagreed with his and, consequently, that they also constituted sufficient evidence that Salaita would be unable to discharge his duty to "allow new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed inside and outside of the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner."

As is the case with many, if not most, of our contemporary political conflicts, the nuance and complexity necessary to adequately comment upon them cannot be articulated exhaustively in 140 characters or less, which is (for better or worse) the limit imposed by the forum that is Twitter. The tweets by Salaita that have garnered the most attention/criticism, largely (if not entirely) a consequence of the limits of the fora in which they were expressed, perhaps lack the nuance and complexity that a longer consideration would provide.  Nevertheless, with regard to what ought be considered (by any self-respecting academic) a fair reading of Salaita's more so-called "inflammatory" tweets, most of which have been promulgated completely out-of-context, please see Phan Nguyen's excellent analysis of them here.

For my part, I want to state my unequivocal support for Salaita, for his civic and academic right to express the political positions he did, in the fora that he did and in the manner that he did.  Of course, that is a merely formal endorsement, so let me also for the record that I also support the content of Salaita's positions, namely, that the current Israeli state policy vis-รก-vis Gaza (and Palestinians, more broadly) is morally objectionable and ought to be opposed/criticized by people of good conscience.

That said, the motivation for my post today is not primarily demonstrating the merits or demerits of Salaita's case for reinstatement, a case which (if you're interested in doing so) you can follow on Corey Robin's excellent (and exhaustive) blog.  Rather, I'm interested calling attention to what I see as an implicit technophobic prejudice or, more importantly, a technophobic ignorance that I 've seen evidenced in the Salaita controversy.

Twitter--like Facebook, like the blogosphere and like every other digital space of similar ilk-- is a forum of/for "public"speech. It is distinct from and remains irreducible to the academic space, though it obviously influences and is influenced by what goes on in academia.  What we must remember, if we care at all about free speech, is that all public spaces are, constitutionally and by definition, mutually contaminating, but also that each of them have different (more or less official) rules of engagement, different reaches and consequences, different ways of determining acceptable or unacceptable participation. The rules and values of one domain are rarely translatable to another domain without some significant loss. To the extent that one does not understand fully the (more or less official) governing "rules"of one domain-- in this case, Twitter-- one ought not presume that speech-acts in that domain are justifiably condemnable according to the rules of another domain (in this case, academia). To employ an entirely common and mundane example, I could not justifiably expect that reporting the offensive-to-me speech of one of my colleagues, even if it their statements were structurally analogous to Salaita's tweets, which I overheard in a bar or in my church or on my daily jog or in any other public space, would or should be an actionable (i.e., fireable) offense.

To wit, I am especially sympathetic with Feisal Mohamed's argument in his most recent post at the Chronicle of HIgher Education that the opposition to Dr.Salaita and the support of what is, in effect, his firing from UIUC constitutes nothing short of a witch hunt.


One might wish that witch-hunts were as ridiculously comical as Monty Python depicts them, but one would be, regrettably, wrong.

Why do witches burn?  Because they're made of wood.
If she weighs the same as a duck, then she must be made of wood.
She weighs the same as a duck.
Ergo, she is a witch.

Poor, poor Salaita if this counts as a both a sound and valid argument.  And, if it does, a pox upon all our houses,

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