Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Academic Freedom vs. Academic Legitimacy: Williams College Edition

Williams College has a group called "Uncomfortable Learning", which "aims to encourage students to understand and engage with often provocative and uncomfortable viewpoints that oppose perceived popular opinions at the College." They invited a Suzanne Venker, a prominent critic of feminism and feminists, to deliver a lecture entitled "One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: Why Feminism Fails". Many students protested the decision, and the organizers canceled the lecture.

I read the article, and was actually very impressed, because what I saw was students living out the distinction I drew in my Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy article (previously blogged about in reference to Steven Salaita, the University of North Carolina, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement). Take a look at what the student protesters said:
Emily O’Brien ’18 created another Facebook event, “One Step Forward and We Keep Going,” on the same day in order to organize protests to the talk.

O’Brien emphasized that the goal of the protests was not to have the event shut down, but rather to express dissent from Venker’s ideas. According to her, many protestors had planned to attend the event and to engage with Venker during the question-and-answer session.

“The point of the event was not to censor her beliefs,” said O’Brien. “It was our rightful emotional and political reaction to something that has been harmful to many groups of people.”

Sam Alterman ’18 helped organize the protest and participated in discussions on both Facebook event pages. He said that the protestors were not seeking to censor Venker but rather disagreeing with the decision to provide her with a platform.

“No one has asked for her writing to be blocked on Purple Air [campus internet],” he said. “We were dissenting from the idea that she is someone we should elevate to a level where we feel that her point of view is relevant enough and intellectually rigorous enough to bring to campus, associate [the College’s] name with her, and give her money.”
Gerardo Garcia ’16, another student who was vocal in protests against Venker, said “While I do not agree with the decision for Suzanne Venker’s visit to Williams, I also acknowledge that people are within their right to request for such a speaker. But I also believe we should be able to freely criticize the reasoning for this decision when we invite someone who only spews hate in her talks and in her writing, while providing no concrete evidence to defend her claims. Venker tells women to become subservient to men, while completely ignoring the issues of domestic violence, equality, and much, much more … Personally, I have no patience to learn about a perspective that has no evidence, attacks women and demonizes the queer community.”
The students all make it abundantly evident that they respect the right of Uncomfortable Learning to invite Venker, and were not demanding that the college "ban" her (Williams administrators confirmed that there had been no such request). There were no misguided quotes about "free speech not including hate speech" or anything of that sort. Rather, their criticism was of the idea that Venker represented the sort of speaker whose ideas were intellectually sophisticated enough to be legitimate entries into an intellectual discussion. Presumably this idea is entirely uncontroversial in the abstract: if a student group invited a young earth creationist to lecture on geology, or a Klansman to speak on racial justice, most people would I hope hold the group's decision in contempt (even while not challenging their "right" to do it). As I observe in my article, the decision to invite a speaker to campus signifies something less than "I agree with the speaker" and something more than "the speaker is capable of forming words into grammatically intelligible sentences." The concept of academic legitimacy reflects an appraisal of the boundaries of reasonable scholarly discourse, and it is perfectly fair game to criticize a group for (allegedly) straying beyond those boundaries so long as this criticism does not demand bans or sanctions as a remedy for the breach.

Now, of course, we can argue about whether Venker's arguments really are academically illegitimate or not. The organizers argued that her views are popular ones amongst many segments of the population and that it is therefore worthwhile to engage with them. This has some purchase for me, though it's not a knockout argument (a not-insignificant number of Americans oppose interracial marriage, but it seems like a waste of time to bring in a speaker urging that Loving v. Virginia be overturned). Obviously, the contours of academic legitimacy are open to debate same as anything else; maybe it's wrong to place someone like Venker outside of them (not being familiar with her work, I'm in no position to judge). But so long as that debate occurs as a debate -- free from using the coercive power of the state or college administration to enforce one side's views upon the other -- then academic freedom isn't breached. Say what you will about their substantive evaluations, but as a procedural matter the Williams College protesters did everything exactly as they should, and that's worth commending.

Thank Heaven for Small Victories

So UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural agency, passes a one-side resolution blaming Israel alone for "“aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s attempts to break the status quo since 1967.” It also labels two Jewish holy sites -- Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- as solely Muslim holy sites. But since the resolution dropped prior language that also would have denied Jewish connection to a third holy site (the Western Wall), it's being portrayed as a moderate position. Because, you know, UN.

Incidentally, the "status quo" on the Temple Mount being referred to is one where Jews aren't allowed to pray there. On that point, I observed the following last week:

In moderate counterpoint, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel in American (an Orthodox Jewish umbrella group), has an excellent column on the issue of incitement and worship surrounding the Temple Mount. One thing he observes is that, under traditional Jewish law, Jews really shouldn't be praying at the Temple Mount (and the Orthodox establishment in Israel has accordingly come down hard against it). It is a nationalist move to do so, not a religious move to do so; and Rabbi Shafran says we should have no sympathy for nationalistic provocations (to forestall "one sided leftist!" comments, the bulk of his column focuses on the inexcusability of Muslim terror attacks purportedly "caused" by Jewish incitement).

It's not that I disagree with Rabbi Shafran. I don't have any desire to pray on the Temple Mount, in large part because I don't have a gratuitous desire to inflame tensions. That said, it is up to Jews to decide how to express their religion, and I don't accept that Jewish religious ritual (even that which is not Orthodox-approved) should in a just world be a per se inflammation of Muslim religious sensibilities.

The sad thing (well, one of many sad things) is that the fact that Jews and Muslims share so many holy sites could, in a different world, be a locus point for unity and solidarity. It is, after all, the sign of a common cultural heritage. Instead, we get comments from Mahmoud Abbas saying that Jews "desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet"; because instead of finding joy in shared history, he finds Jews disgusting and their presence contaminating. This is the incitement driving the current wave of violence: the view of Jews as dangerous contagions.

This is hardly the only driver behind the press to erase Jewish connections their own religious holy sites, of course. The ancient character of these sites is also an embarrassment to those who view Jewish presence as purely colonial in character -- as if Israel came to be when a bunch of Germans with "Stein" in their name threw darts to pick a pleasant-seeming summer home. That there are identifiably Jewish sites predating the 20th century belies this narrative; it presents a different one of a common homeland to which Jews and Palestinians alike have a valid claim of patrimony towards. There are various ways to elide this, none of which are anything but historical travesties, but the end result ultimately is flat erasure -- when Jews claim that they find the Cave of the Patriarch's holy, they're just lying. As they do.

In any event, that UNESCO only considers Rachel's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarch's part of the lie, and not the Western Wall as well, is apparently a big concession from them. Thank heaven for small victories.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Quote of the Day: Rawls on the Human Good of Instrumental Value

I've been reading A Theory of Justice. Turns out this Rawls guy is pretty smart. I'm glad he didn't die in the Pacific Theater in WWII:
[I]f some places were not open on a basis fair to all, those kept out would be right in feeling unjustly treated even though they benefited from the greater efforts of those who were allowed to hold them. They would be justified in their complaint not only because they were excluded from certain external rewards of office such as wealth and privilege, but because they were debarred from experiencing the realization of self which comes from a skillful and devoted exercise of social duties. They would be deprived of one of the main forms of human good.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard UP 1971) (2005), p. 84.

This would have fit in great inside my Racism as Subjectification article, which concerns how people "want to be wanted" and consequently how they are damaged when social structures deny them instrumental, objective value -- value in terms of their usefulness to the projects of others. That article is forthcoming in the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, and should be coming out ... well, it should have come out months ago, actually. I'm not sure what the hold up is. Maybe I could still slip it in yet.