The notion that words such as “civility” and “divisive” have clear definitions is under attack by academic moral relativists who grant themselves the right to twist words to mean whatever aids their quest for power. A recent Stanford University lecture co-sponsored by the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and titled “Academic Freedom in the Context of the Israel-Palestine Conflict: A Talk by Steven Salaita,” illustrated the point. Salaita—the former Virginia Tech professor and author of Israel’s Dead Soul currently suing both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and unnamed donors after his offer of a tenured professorship in American Indian studies was withdrawn due to his vitriolic, Israel-bashing, anti-Semitic tweets—delivered another in a series of nationwide lectures in which he portrayed himself as a martyr, valiantly battling the forces of “civility.”
The mostly professorial crowd of about sixty, including several sporting keffiyehs, crowded around a long table and spilled into the hallway. Regarding Salaita’s case, moderator and comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu referred conspiratorially to “wealthy donors [who] campaigned to kill the appointment . . . based on distorted and partial readings of his work and pronouncements,” including “some remarks [by Salaita that were] highly critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza.” Far from simply criticizing Israel, however, Salaita tweeted: “I wish all the f***ing West Bank settlers would go missing”; “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948”; and “If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
Lamenting the “new conditions of outside threats and censorship” now “threatening” the “rights of . . . scholars,”—or, rather, the fact that actions have consequences—Palumbo-Liu displayed academe’s moral bankruptcy by introducing Salaita as a “composed, decent, dignified scholar” who has displayed “such class, honesty and courage under unimaginable pressure,” and whom he was “proud to call . . . a friend.”
Salaita began by praising the Stanford Undergraduate Senate’s recently passed, faculty-supported “resolution to divest from the occupation of the Palestinian Territories,” before claiming disingenuously, “I don’t really want to engage in any fisticuffs over the Israel-Palestinian conflict; that’s not the way this event was pitched to me or that I agreed to participate in.” He then elaborated:
My main argument is that even if you are adamantly pro-Israel, and even if you are repulsed by my political viewpoints, then you still oughtn’t to take the university’s side on this matter. The main reason is that it is never a good idea to voluntarily concede power to those above us on the hierarchy.
Salaita claimed this “hierarchy” is spellbound by the “whims of donors” and, worse, “boards of trustees [who] come from the business or legal world.” “If they are given the authority to begin meddling,” he added, “we will see an inevitable decline of academic freedom.” He defined the latter as the “need to protect faculty who deal with controversial ideas from administrative, social, or cultural recrimination,” because “a functional education will always involve a disruption of preconceived ideas.” Therefore, he concluded with a bit of sophomoric insight: “If you leave college holding the same ideas and ethics that you had when you entered into college, you did not get educated.”
Regarding his hate-filled Tweets, Salaita said, “I don’t actually teach the Israel/Palestine conflict. . . . I got caught up on this because of things I was tweeting.” (Or perhaps because of what he has written: all of his six books deal with modern Arab studies, Arab Americans, or Israel, a fact that makes his would-be appointment in American Indian Studies peculiar.) He conceded that, “Twitter is a kind of a cesspool of anger and racism,” but applied this judgment only to “people who are calling me horrible racist names on Twitter,” never to himself.
Salaita displayed his moral relativism when he addressed “the matter of civility,” which he called a “sprawling and ambiguous word . . . that has a moralistic undertone” and is “not inherently neutral.” “To be called uncivil is automatically a bad thing,” he admitted, before emptying the term of meaning by asserting, “Civility like any other discourse or vocabulary doesn’t arise in a vacuum, but in particular historical and political and cultural conditions.” Examining “civility in the context of the field of American Indian studies,” he claimed that:
[S]uch terms have particular meanings that attach themselves to profound forms of colonial violence. In fact, anywhere where settler-colonization occurred, the colonizer went forward with a distinctive binary of civilized vs. savage, so deploying a terminology such as civility . . . is deeply problematic and illustrates the ways a particular colonization can reassert and reinscribe itself without our conscious acknowledgement.
In Salaita’s self-serving postmodern ideology, one who insists on maintaining “civility” is guilty of imposing “settler-colonization,” whether intentionally or subconsciously.
Salaita’s final jargon-filled diatribe took aim at the word “divisive”:
Divisive is a term that has meaning, but not a neutral meaning, and it is inscribed very deeply in disparate conditions of power. . . . So if the result is going to benefit, if only symbolically, a group of people that is always oppressed, I say then divide this house.
By claiming words have no meaning beyond what serves his immediate purpose, Salaita—the self-styled victim of the “hierarchy”—spoke the language of tyranny. It is an Orwellian tactic that allows adherents to claim that good is evil, freedom is slavery, and oppressors the oppressed. There’s no reason to trust any claims made by these dissemblers and sophists, but that won’t stop Salaita’s pity party from rolling on.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. Stillwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.