Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Text and the Context

On twitter I flagged this post by my former colleague Rob Kar as a truly superb piece of work on the Steven Salaita controversy. I wanted to place that endorsement here as well, because it earned it. And in addition to being stellar on its own merits, it also is a great exemplar of how someone can write a piece I endorse without reservation even where I don't actually agree with all of its points. As should be clear by now, I absolutely agree with Kar's analysis of the academic freedom issues and I think he has a lucid and empathic take on the motivations of all the various players. Since I have taken the position that some of Salaita's tweets are anti-Semitic, while Kar disagrees, that is the topic of this post -- but I don't want that in any way to detract from my admiration for what Kar wrote here or the points he is making (in fact, if I didn't want to have an excuse to praise Kar I probably wouldn't even be using his post as an example -- in the blogosphere no good post goes unpunished, I'm afraid).

Rob's analysis with respect to anti-Semitism focuses considerably on the need to read Salaita's words "in context", agreeing "that reading these [tweets] alone, and out of context, did give me some cause for concern." He is joined in this refrain by, among others, Scott Lemieux ("[W]e should not read the tweet in isolation but in the context of his other writings.") and Dan Filler (Salaita's tweets "must be read in context, rather than individually, if one wants to claim any insights into what he is thinking...."). I am pro-context. I agree with these statements. Though perhaps in context I do not, because I do not have a clear sense about what the speakers mean by the word "context."

Typically, when folks say Salaita needs to be read in "context", they have been contending we must read all (or a representative sample) of Salaita's tweets, not just those that seem to be him in a worst light. At a superficial level this could be read as the anti-discrimination version of the proverbial plagiarist who seeks to defend himself "by showing how much of his work he did not pirate." But I take the exponents of this argument to actually be saying that the meaning of Salaita's tweets should be inferred by reference to his other statements (especially those which immediately surround the offending ones), which cast light upon how best to interpret other such utterances. For example, seeing that Salaita has found certain Jews praiseworthy, has condemned anti-Semitism (albeit in broad strokes, and without any acknowledgment that Jews might have a privileged or even particularly useful understanding of what anti-Semitism entails), and has stated that he views "anti-Semitism" (as he understands it, rather than as Jews do) to be a very grave wrong indeed, should color our read of his tweet contending that "anti-Semitism" (in quotes) has become honorable.

This argument is correct, as far as it goes. All of those facts should be taken into account. I agree that they do imply that Salaita is talking about "false" or "erroneous" charges of anti-Semitism; specifically, his belief that the typical or paradigm case where something is called "anti-Semitic" (at least by a Zionist) is false or erroneous. And I agree that Salaita probably views whatever narrow instances of anti-Semitism he concedes to be "true" charges to be grave sins (though in terms of specifics we basically have ... Macklemore). Yet even with all of that "context", it hardly compels the conclusion that Salaita's statement is unproblematic and that any read of it which views it as anti-Semitic is nonsense. Everyone at least proclaims opposition to various -isms; the existence of such statements is at this stage such a platitude that it scarcely seems relevant, much less dispositive, regarding any analysis into whether a given set of statements implicates a particular -ism. And even taken on pro-Salaita terms, the formulation he used -- which functionally accuses the overwhelmingly majority of Jews of being such pathological liars with respect to their purported oppression that people should be honored if we claim to feel threatened by them -- is problematic in its own right and is utterly toxic to the possibility that any Jew (outside the narrow band that Salaita deems acceptable) who wants to have a serious discussion about the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism will get a fair hearing.

For this, too, is context. Part of the context of Salaita's tweet is a context in which "as usual, Jews are lying/suppressing free inquiry/insane" is considered a valid response to literally any rendition of anti-Jewish hate or violence, anywhere, in any circumstances. What the argument misses, in other words, is that context is not limited to that which Salaita himself creates. Being aware of the salience of the context I mentioned but consciously choosing to ignore it (if not actively trade on it) is a valid consideration in appraising whether something is hateful or not. Indeed, since I don't think the fundamental inquiry here is whether Salaita has a bad heart; I would suggest that it is actually irrelevant whether Salaita was aware of that context (though in this case I think there is little doubt that Salaita is aware of, and agrees with, the prominent trope that Jews routinely make false accusations of anti-Semitism to "silence" all criticism of Israel).

"There is no outside-text", as the deconstructionist mantra goes -- or as I prefer it: "there is no text, only context". The call for context tends not to actually take itself that seriously -- it does not actually want the totality of context to come into play, it wants to arrogate to Salaita and his supporters (political supporters, that is; obviously I am a "supporter" in the limited sense that I think his offer should be reinstated) the exclusive right to define the relevant reality and exclude competing counter-narratives. We are obligated to accept as "context" not just what Salaita says about himself, but what he says about the majority of world Jewry. Context does matter, and it matters when it provides evidence that Salaita does not conceptualize himself as a Jew-hater and does not view his project as one that is designed to demonstrate antipathy towards Jews. But that's not the only context that matters and it is not the only context that is relevant. Equally meaningful is the cultural meaning of what Salaita says -- social contexts which deny that Jewish voices are credible, social contexts which may be perfectly polite to good Jews, respectable Jews, so long as they remain good and respectable and approved by folks like Steve Salaita.

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