Remain in Light

I don’t know what there is to say when you “read the comments” as it were. It feels hopeless.

My colleague Sa’ed Atshan is profoundly committed to trying to get out of the standard confinements of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the least if one were going to disagree with him–or accuse him–you would want to contend with the ethical biography he sets out in his Feb. 14 piece for the American Friends Service Committee. Contend with it in its particulars: that’s what he says he believes.

Instead, here’s what we have: anonymous sites that use innuendo and arguments-by-association assembled by cowards then being used by parents at Friends Central School to manipulate its principal into declaring, “This person shouldn’t be giving a talk at our school”.

And before you say a damn thing, I don’t like it when similar conduct is used by someone that’s “on my side”. I didn’t like it one bit when one of our students used the same kind of soft lies and pollution-by-contagion to argue against a possible graduation speaker at Swarthmore. I don’t like it period.

I am ambivalent at best about the BDS campaign, and frankly, in the conventional terms that many arguments on all sides often take, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. At times, I dislike the bullshit that strident partisans in that conflict on any side pull more than anything else, and find that a reason to keep my distance. Which is what I think strident partisans on any side intend: to make their conflict so poisonous that none but the poisoned dare speak with any intensity about it, and none bother to learn more.

That is not my colleague. The people, anonymous or otherwise, who imply that he is such are drinking deeply from the cup of “alternative facts”, and dividing all the world into complete enemies and pure friends. My colleague is a thoughtful, subtle person reaching for complicated truths and for hope. If you want to argue honestly against him, you can–and he would welcome a conversation with you if so. If you want to learn from him, you’ll invite him to speak, or take a course with him. A Quaker school in particular has no business refusing that opportunity. A thoughtful person has no business refusing that opportunity.

If you want to argue against someone, argue against what they’ve actually said, actually done, to their face. Read what they say, take the effort to engage. Don’t rely on third-hand reports, fake news and deliberate misrepresentation. Mere advocacy of any particular sanctions against Israel or any particular actions against militancy is no reason to regard someone as beyond the pale. (A view that Professor Atshan shares: he has supported talks at Swarthmore by individuals like the current ambassador of Israel.) Someone can argue for BDS or for the legitimacy of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, and I will in neither case regard that person as someone I must not hear nor speak to. If you want to argue someone’s anathema, you’d better have more than an argument that’s just “they’re wrong” or “I disagree”. Some people might be anathema in an educational institution but that ought to hard to achieve; it should take a rare combination of bloody-minded stupidity, malice, insincerity and all-around worthlessness to achieve. Some people in our public culture, maybe more people now than ever, manage to scale those heights. But if you can’t keep clear the distance between the few awful climbers gulping for oxygen at the peaks and those of us milling around the valleys and lower slopes, you’re no friend to knowledge, freedom, fellowship–or peace.

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5 Responses to Remain in Light

  1. Alice says:

    Surely that’s not true though?

    “Mere advocacy of any particular sanctions against Israel or any particular actions against militancy is no reason to regard someone as beyond the pale.”

    If I said, the Palestinians should be exterminated so that the Jewish people can have Israel as wholly theirs. Or if I were to say that the Jewish people should be all of them killed as retribution for the many crimes of Israel. What would you have to say to me other than “what you demand is a grotesque crime against humanity” what argument or dialogue can follow?

    I guess, it seems that you insist on not only malice, but also stupidity and insincerity. Which seems extreme to me – stupidity alone (in an academic context) makes it permissible to dismiss someone and shameful to invite their comment. Likewise insincerity – a researcher who fabricates or plagiarized is easily wholly discredited on those grounds alone. If malice must be melded with these other traits to be disqualifying, then you are denying that malice is at all disqualifying, since these traits already are. I think instead that malice should join these other vices – one who speaks only to wounds ought not be given opportunity or audience.

  2. Alice says:

    Additionally, to be invited to be a graduation speaker is a great honor that must be positively earned – having avoided censure is far from enough. A graduation speaker ought to excel in virtue – whether, compassion, insight, or courage to justify 2,000 people yielding 30 minutes of their life to hear their words – the equivalent of a thousand hours – half of the work of a full-time job for a year – that is how valuable their words must be for their invitation to be justified.

    I agree with you that objectionably deeds and words should be clearly identified, although I maybe disagree with you in seeing association also a choice and therefore something that one may be judged by.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I’d be ok with saying that the open advocacy of genocide is simultaneously malicious and stupid, and that sincerity or the lack thereof does not meaningfully modify that combination. (e.g., whether one is advocating it to be get attention or advocating it with a sincere desire to see it happen doesn’t modify whether it’s anathema or not.)

    The problem in this particular area of discussion is that strongly committed partisans on both sides then tend to argue that all other arguments are tantamount to advocacy of genocide–that arguing for sanctions against Israel is the same as advocating for the destruction of Israel which is advocating for genocide; that arguing for retaliatory strikes against militants in Gaza is advocating for the genocide of all Gazans, and so on. So as soon as you say, “openly genocidal people are anathema”, you will quickly have strong partisans saying, “everything on this issue that does not completely endorse our own views is openly genocidal against us”.

    There are multiple ways to understand what’s going on when that happens. It might be a sign that the person who is arguing that genuinely feels that way–that they are so passionate and so intense in their views that they feel as if all disagreement has a murderous intent. Or it’s people being consciously manipulative and trying to ‘reframe’ the debate–or people who are honestly trying to drive every imaginable middle ground or subtle reading out of the room. But it’s that kind of move that I think we have to refuse. You let people redefine positions which are not advocacy of genocide or murder as “tantamount”, you end up having to ban everyone. I may strongly, intensely, disagree with a defender of contemporary Israeli policy who believes that massive retaliation against missile attacks is proportionate and legitimate, but I think advocacy of it is not definitionally malicious (or stupid). I may far more modestly disagree about the usefulness or wisdom of BDS, but someone who wants to tell me that it is the same as calling for the destruction of Israel as a state needs to fuck right off. Frankly, I can and ought to listen to reasonable arguments about whether there should be a Palestine or an Israel, or neither: those are not by definition murderous arguments either. States are states: they do not intrinsically stand for or against justice simply by having lines on a map and a government to rule within those lines.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think we should be inviting people who are basically villainous or infamous to speak at graduations–it is an honor of some kind, and it is also a moment where we hope for such a speaker to deliver some sort of wisdom.

    But I would settle for people who are interesting, intelligently provocative, and so on, without asking them to be extraordinarily virtuous in every respect. Many writers, artists, performers, scientists and other thinkers would fail other kinds of tests of virtue if we were scrupulous in reviewing their lives before inviting them. Many political leaders or heads of organizations have some opponents or critics who might maintain that their decisions were morally questionable. I don’t want graduation speakers to be limited to Fred Rogers or his equivalent. Which means deferring at least some of one’s own personal views of virtue when considering candidates.

  5. Alice says:

    This is fair (both replies). I think that in some sense our views are close to each other, but which aspects we find important to emphasize are different. Also, I believe that on the Palestinian – Israeli conflict all have lost the right to the presumption of good faith and I don’t feel comfortably asking that anyone make that leap to be open and trusting again.

    Likewise, we agree that the infamous should not be invited. But who is infamous? The argument “if we use your standard, there are no villains” is (to me) simply not an argument. I don’t assume that a definition of villain that leaves us with only villains is wrong therefore wrong. If the proposed standard of judgment sounded at all plausible, the concern that we live in a world of villains should instead give us pause and prompt us to question if we are in fact living our values. If we value our values. Surely the desire to be entertained by a fascinating speaker is less important than embodying our ethics?

    I also think that you are wrong? I think that at the low rate at which graduation speakers are selected their is in inexhaustible pool of people who have needed wisdom AND are not implicated in crimes against humanity or human rights violations. I don’t value interesting as much as you perhaps, holding it our duty to be interested in wisdom, and provocation I disvalue but will tolerate in service of truth or another virtue.

    I guess, overall, I wonder if we shouldn’t strive more for righteous consistency, or at least, if we have the moral authority to condemn those who advocate for orthodoxy?

    But I’m just a timid woman at whose heart nibbles the fear that she misspends her days abetting evil, and so hesitates to condemn those who seem so certain that they know Right and act accordingly.

    I also want to be clear that I know Sa’ed and find the behavior of Friends Central shameful. I just think it is shameful because to choose to be disassociated with him his shameful, not because acting to preserve ones reputation by association is shameful – I consider THAT quite proper.

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