Monday, September 07, 2020

Leila Khaled, Academic Freedom, and Hypocrisy Traps

Some of you may have heard that Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who became (in)famous for a series of plane hijackings, was invited to speak at a roundtable event hosted by San Francisco State University (lest one think "roundtable" implies that Khaled represents one edge of a wide spectrum of views being aired -- no, that's not what is happening here). Unsurprisingly, inviting a known terrorist to speak at a university which only a few years ago settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by Jewish students is proving controversial. The University has stood behind the invitation, cited norms of free speech while emphasizing that permitting a speech to occur does not entail endorsing its content.

I'm a pretty staunch academic freedom absolutist, so in one sense this is not a difficult issue for me. Khaled was invited by a member of the university community in good standing, hence, she has the right to speak. I'd say the same thing about an invitation extended to anyone else. That doesn't mean the invitation is a good idea or even defensible one; it is entirely appropriate to subject it to withering criticism (there might be a narrow range of circumstances where it would be academically appropriate to converse with someone like Khaled -- a seminar on terrorism, or a history on Palestinian terror activities in the mid-20th century -- but again, this roundtable isn't that). There is a difference between what one has a right to do and what it is ethically proper to do; that distinction is essential to any notion of academic freedom, and is one I laid out and defended in my short essay "Academic Freedom vs. Academic Legitimacy".

Nonetheless, a skeptic might wonder whether this absolutist stance on free speech and academic freedom really would apply if a different faculty member or student group did invite, say, a "price tag" terrorist who had attacked Palestinian persons or property in the West Bank. How can we be sure that this alleged principle is being applied even-handedly?

The easiest way to do it would be to invite such a speaker to campus, and see what happens. But the problem with that is twofold. First, I don't want to invite someone like that to campus. I think it would be an abuse; an abdication of my responsibilities as a member of the academic community. Second, if I did invite them to speak, it would open me up to a hypocrisy charge insofar as I've publicly stated inviting someone like this to speak is contemptible and an abdication of one's duties as an academic leader. The consistency on the axis of legal right would be paired with a seeming inconsistency on the axis of moral responsibility.

So there's a trap. One wants to drive home the point that Leila Khaled's presence on campus as an academic speaker is exactly as legitimate as Meir Kahane's would be -- no more, no less. But one can't invite the likes of Kahane to campus -- it would be hypocritical, and one has no interest in presenting Kahane as a legitimate academic voice. But the sorts of speakers one does want to invite wouldn't present a parallel case to that of Khaled. Worse, to the extent they were presented as the "anti-Khaled", it might suggest that the spectrum of "legitimate" opinion runs from "pro-Palestinian terror" on one side all the way to "moderate Israeli" on the other.

It is possible that the only way to drive home the irresponsibility of hosting a Leila Khaled is to host another speaker who is as objectively indefensible and as alienating to students on "the other side" -- a potential detente via mutually assured destruction. But engaging in that sort of brinkmanship isn't really compatible with having a principled objection to inviting terrible speakers to campus. It's also not exactly a pathway of dispute resolution that's likely to yield a healthy university environment.

What can one do instead? I'm not sure. Ideally, one would see university-level condemnation (that, again, comes alongside recognition of the "right" to invite the speaker). There's also the possibility of being more creative in come up with responsive events. For example, many of the victims who were on the planes hijacked by Khaled and other members of the PFLP are still around -- a roundtable detailing their experiences would be very stimulating and offer a potent counternarrative to the Khaled event (I actually am part of a discussion group with one such survivor who had been on the plane Khaled hijacked along with her six-year old daughter. I won't repeat her story -- it's not mine to tell -- but it was absolutely gripping).

Ultimately, though, this is one of the problems with relying on norms. When they're abused or exploited, it's really hard to respond without setting off a runaway train in motion. There's little that can or should be done to stop the event at SFSU from occurring. All we can do, and should do, is be crystal clear at just how inappropriate it is.

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