In the summer of 2014, an American scholar named Steven Salaita who was a tenured member of the faculty at Virginia Tech was beginning the process of his move to a new position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He had given up his post at Virginia Tech, believing that his offer at Illinois was secure. He was wrong. A number of faculty, students and donors took note of a series of tweets he had written about 2014’s outbreak of conflict in the Gaza Strip and brought them to the attention of the then-Chancellor at Illinois, Phyllis Wise. Wise rescinded the job offer on the grounds that Salaita’s tweeting demonstrated that he would be unable to be professionally open to all students in his courses and that his messages were demeaning and abusive to opponents of his views. Wise and her supporters argued that this did not violate tenure protections as Salaita’s offer had not yet been formally affirmed by the Board of Trustees.
I thought then that this was a very bad decision by Wise and her administrative colleagues and I still think so. I think it’s important not to assume that what an intellectual writes is necessarily demonstrative of their professional conduct as a teacher. Folks who seem the essence of restraint and decorum in their scholarly writing can be the opposite as colleagues and teachers, and vice-versa. I think that social media is a different kind of public sphere, with a different set of local rhetorical norms, and there needs to be space to allow faculty who are active users of social media to explore those evolving norms.
Here’s what I didn’t say then, however, because you don’t want to kick a person when he’s down. I also thought that Salaita showed a lack of awareness of something that his scholarship professed a hyper-awareness of, namely, that he had enemies both because of what he had said and because of who he was. That Salaita could know as much as he did, as much as his work testified to, and yet not seem to think that the intensity of his tweets would draw a matching intensity of enmity to him, and that to tweet in that way at that moment of special professional vulnerability was to play with fire in a way that was woefully unstrategic? That was peculiar, not to understand that. The defense that he himself made was that the events in Gaza had overwhelmed him emotionally, and that’s important. Being an intellectual or a professional shouldn’t mean losing that kind of human vulnerability. However, speaking from an emotional place today, in the wake of the 2016 election, I still can’t help but think that he showed signs of a contradiction, one that I’ve come to think of as characteristic of progressive academics in the humanities and social sciences. That he demonstrated a belief both that he operated as an intellectual under conditions of profound threat from hostile sociopolitical power and that he had a kind of innocence about the actuality of that power. A trust that the system would actually protect him, an almost-privileged taking-for-granted that conventional representations of tenure and academic freedom would actually hold true.
I say this is characteristic, and perhaps of more than academics in the United States. I feel more than ever this morning as if this is one of several hugely consequential blindspots of college-educated, more-or-less liberal or progressive Americans, that were brutally revealed yesterday. I do not mean simply that oh-my-god-we-have-always-been-wrong, they really are out to get us, that any feeling of safety or security in institutions and rights that have ever been felt were nothing but illusions. Quite the contrary. I think Salaita was right to feel basically secure about tenure. That if he felt comfortable to say strong things in a public forum, that was a diagnostic sign of the actual security felt by fully employed professionals in the current economy. They may be surrounded by perimeters of specific precariousness. The lawyers sidelined by their profession’s specific form of recession, the tenurati surrounded by pervasive adjunctification, doctors finding themselves increasingly under the authority of non-doctors who dictate every discretionary decision involved in health care, journalists watching their industry fail, and so on. And regardless, professional work of all kinds is not what it once was: the pace, intensity and psychological unease has increased steadily with no end in sight. However, we still are better off by far than people with no specific professional credentials trying to keep their jobs and lives together. This is an economy that may work well for almost no one, but it works more poorly by far for some, including some who have felt in their own lives to have once had a better situation. We are not wrong if we think (but not admit, because we still want change) that we feel safer within some of our institutions and our social worlds. We are!
So some of us write and speak as if the power we anatomize and critique might only touch us specifically under unusual circumstances, whatever privilege or lack of privilege we hold in our racial and gender identities. We write of fearful power as if we have no reason to fear from writing about it. Even when we know we have special enemies who have a particular lack of regard for the professional scruples of academia or of the fashionably progressive middle-classes. We expect that power to produce a kind of diffuse, distributed injustice that might strike us arbitrarily rather that a specific threat that bears us an intimate, purposeful malice.
More importantly by far in terms of understanding what just happened in the United States, we demonstrate flashes of startling ineptitude in terms of understanding how what we say or write or do will be seen by others, how it will circulate and disseminate, how it can be used and misused. Humanist intellectuals ought to excel at that kind of understanding: it should be the essential proof of their expertise. We should both have the craft to say what we mean and mean what we say, and to understand precisely how our own social positionality, our own economic status, our own histories and identities, will inflect what we say and do. Not perfectly, never so: action and representation have an inevitable and often beautiful contingency to them. But we should not be as tin-eared as we sometimes seem to be, as frequently surprised and stunned at how we sound, or are made to sound, in social worlds other than our own. So many of the claims we make for liberal arts education are at stake here, and so much of its value potentially (I’m sorry to say, not so potentially this morning) cast into doubt. We should be beautifully multilingual in a range of nested, situated ways of talking and being–a good humanist should be able to walk into a room of advertisers, a room of Hell’s Angels, a room of soldiers, a room of drag performers, a room of hiphop artists, a room of soybean farmers, a room of car salesmen, and adapt to the conversation given time and opportunity. Not master it, not own it, not remake it as a knowledge product–but to understand what flies and what doesn’t, what’s being said and unsaid, what’s sayable and unsayable. We’re plainly not able. Perhaps less able than an advertiser, a Hell’s Angel, a soldier, a hiphop artist. The kind of understanding that is possible if we’re far from home, in Bali or Botswana, or deep in the past, in the Civil War or the Punic War, closes sharply the closer we are to where we live.
Not just academics, but well-meaning liberals of many kinds in many jobs. People who could make you a wonderfully authentic taco or show you how to kill your own urban artisanal chicken, people who volunteer in the soup kitchen or minister to the sick, people who could explain the finest details of Game of Thrones or do a great play-by-play of the last drive in a football game. We are or have been a lot of kinds of people with a lot of complicated social histories, but we’re also increasingly made over into the same kinds of people, with an increasingly predictable relationship to the economy, living in an increasingly small (if densely populated) number of places, holding to an increasingly constrained range of conventional sentiments. We are locked into who we are, and yet understand so little of what that is relative to others, despite our liberal arts educations and our unworldly worldliness. We have a long list of things we believe in and fight for and yet it’s not a list we can explain well in any deep sense, much of the time. We decry “neoliberalism” (often not knowing quite what we mean by that) and yet perform many of its operations as if they are the sun rising in the east. We explain things to each other as an affirmation of our mutual virtue and signal our virtue in the face of wickedness, in coded language and shorthand. We didactically explain our politics with the lonely desperate intensity of a missionary any time we think we’re in a crowd of heathens. We lecture about allyship without having an even minimally fleshed out conception of the social structure of possible alliances that we might be making. As our social worlds have become smaller and more specific, our lived sense of our own sociality has been fading into abstraction and vagueness, into us-and-them.
Which has become, perhaps, self-fulfilling prophecy: we may have been dialectically producing the generalized social antagonism we have so long invoked. 2016 may be the last stop on a journey that began in 1968, when any number of legitimately righteous crusades to change the world for the better, to make good on the promise of American freedom, began almost from their beginnings to curdle ever-so-slightly (and then faster and deeper for a few) into messianism. When the laws changed, that didn’t save everyone. The American promise went unfulfilled, injustice still sat on its throne. So policy–because it wasn’t enough to think that in the fullness of time, a change in the laws might produce a change in the society. When policy didn’t do it, civil society, culture, consciousness, speech. And each of those moves mobilized a countering constituency, often people who might have let the last move slide but who felt intruded upon by the next one. They learned the same routes for social change: law, policy, civil society, culture, consciousness, speech. But the more messianic the sentiment among those who felt born to change the world for the better, the less able they were to comprehend where they might have trespassed, where they were accidentally recruiting their own opposition. If I tell that story about something else–say, American military and diplomatic action in the world during the Cold War and after–progressives are well able to understand the basic sociopolitical engine involved. When you even tentatively tell that story here, about us, it’s hard even to get to a point where you might have an actual disagreement about the specific facts involved in that account. We absolve ourselves both of actually having social power and of aspiring to have it.
I have for over a decade been forecasting a genuine crisis if we could not change some of these directions. It has unmistakeably arrived. I have no more forecasts. The question is no longer, “Is there a different future that we could find our way to?” The question is now only, “How will we live in this crisis, with this crisis, through this crisis?” Not as prediction but advice I suggest the first answer is that we at last need to start using what we know in our professions and our divergent histories of life. We need to understand ourselves and the histories of our becoming without assuming that this inquiry will always and inevitably vindicate us as the agents and inheritors of progress.