Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Playing with Cards: Malia Bouattia and the Double Down

Perhaps the single most ubiquitous response to a claim of discrimination or other biased treatment is to allege that the claimant is proceeding in bad faith. "You're just playing the race card!" "Stop hiding behind your gender!" "Yet another case of Jews crying anti-Semitism to stifle criticism!" This retort is notable because it does not listen to the claim and then provide a substantive, on-the-merits response -- "I actually don't think you were discriminated against for X, Y, and Z reasons". Rather, the response is a statement that one will not even entertain the claim in question. It is so transparently ludicrous, or so obviously made with illicit, instrumental motives, that it is not even worth considering.

Earlier this spring I published my first peer-reviewed article, Playing with Cards: Discrimination Claims and the Charge of Bad Faith, on this topic. I argued that the "bad faith" response is problematic for a host of reasons: For one, it disrespects the discrimination claimant by presenting them as presumptively untrustworthy and not worth engaging with, often implicitly or explicitly because of their group membership (those people are always crying discrimination). For two, it evinces far too much faith in our prediscursive intuitions regarding what does and does not constitute "discrimination" (or "bias", or "oppression"), particularly when dealing with marginalized outgroups. And for three, it is far too tempting of a well to draw upon for persons with strong psychological or ideological motives to think of discrimination as rare, aberrant, or uncommon. If we want to believe that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia (or what have you) is not a major problem in our community or does not implicate our own commitments, one way of protecting that belief is to preemptively write off such claims as bad faith hogwash. The "bad faith" response, after all, is typically the retort of first resort -- it does not come after we have fully and charitably explored the allegation and ultimately found it lacking, it comes as an initial gambit designed to delegitimize the claim as one worth thinking about at all. And so I conclude that we should not dismiss discrimination claims by arguing that they're leveled in bad faith. We should instead give them full and fair investigation. The conclusion of that investigation, of course, might still be that the argument was wrong, even bogus. But there is a marked difference between reaching that conclusion at the end of an inquiry versus at its beginning.

Last month brought an interesting permutation and difficult test case for my theory, when the UK's National Union of Students elected Malia Bouattia as its new president.Ms. Bouattia has a history of statements and positions that at least create a reasonable inference of anti-Semitism, including condemning her home Birmingham University as a "Zionist outpost in higher education" because it has "the largest J-Soc [Jewish Society] in the country," attacks on "mainstream Zionist-led media outlets," and a tepid endorsement of BDS -- tepid because she worried it would supplant and delegitimize violent "resistance" by Palestinians against Israelis. As a result of these statements and others, 57 leaders of UK university J-Socs signed an open letter expressing concerns over Ms. Bouattia's views, and several universities are contemplating disaffiliating with the NUS (Lincoln University became the first to do so today, though student leaders denied Ms. Bouattia's election was the precipitating cause of the move).

Ms. Bouattia's response to these claims has generally been to contend that the Jewish student leaders have falsely conflated Zionism and Judaism, crafting a "false" claim of anti-Semitism that is really about insulating Israel from criticism. We can of course quibble with whether that's true (particularly when part of the objection was to the number of Jews at Birmingham), but for present purposes the more interesting issue came at the end, where she -- the first Muslim and first black woman to be elected president of the NUS -- said "I am deeply concerned that my faith and political views are being misconstrued and used as an opportunity to falsely accuse me of antisemitism, despite my work and dedication to liberation, equality and inclusion saying otherwise." In effect, she accused the Jewish students of Islamophobia in the course of their anti-Semitism allegation.

And that presents a very interesting permutation of the phenomenon I'm talking about: Ms. Bouattia used a discrimination claim (Islamophobia) to try to delegitimize another discrimination claim (anti-Semitism). My initial instinct, of course, is to roll my eyes and think that her response was, well, made in bad faith -- a way of avoiding reckoning with serious complaints registered by the Jewish student community. But of course, that response -- "oh, she's making the charge in bad faith" -- is precisely what I claim is illicit in my article. Hoisted by my own petard!

On reflection, I've fallen back into line with the argument my article makes -- namely, that Ms. Bouattia's should not be dismissed as bad faith posturing and should be considered seriously (just as the Jewish students' claims of anti-Semitism should likewise be taken seriously). Before I go into why, though, I want to quickly dispense with one argument one might use to distinguish Ms. Bouattia's discrimination claim -- to wit, that she was using it to respond (or perhaps more accurately, avoid responding) to another discrimination claim. We might say that in such circumstances the discrimination claim is being leveraged as a means of avoiding other discrimination claims and thus ought to lose its protected status. But I don't think that argument works, because I don't think our deliberative obligation actually depend upon what order various claims and counterclaims are made. If we tweaked one of Ms. Bouattia's original statements a little so it said something like "large Jewish societies like the one at Birmingham are the main purveyors of Islamophobic sentiment in higher education today," then she would have gotten off the blocks first but I nonetheless would not want to say a Jewish response that called such a statement anti-Semitic should be viewed as prima facie illegitimate. Going down this route ends up arriving at something like the "doctrine of the preferred first speaker" -- whoever claims discrimination first gets protection -- and that just isn't tenable.

With respect to Ms. Bouattia's claim, it actually seems quite plausible that currents of racism and Islamophobia are playing a role in how the controversy shakes out. It hardly seems unfeasible that someone with her background might be viewed with extra suspicion. Ambiguous statements might not be given benefit of the doubt, or nuances presumed not to exist. We might be more stingy with forgiveness or recognition of evolving views. Ms. Bouattia has reported facing a barrage of violent threats online, and given the fact that she's a woman of color on the internet her account seems almost assuredly accurate in this respect. Notably, while Ms. Bouattia frames all of this in terms of a "false" accusation of anti-Semitism, it is equally important to engage in these interrogations even if the claim is a true or reasonable one. Prejudice doesn't only afflict saints; an important of egalitarian treatment is how we treat persons who are accused of or have actually committed moral or social wrongs. In the discussion over Ms. Bouattia's attitudes and behavior towards the Jewish community that we find oppressive, we should absolutely be thinking about how racism and Islamophobia can channel the discussion. Likewise, in discussions regarding Israeli behavior that we think worthy of scorn and condemnation, we should absolutely be thinking about the ways in which anti-Semitism may affect or interact with our evaluations. Instead of thinking of the one as falsifying the other -- if the anti-Semitism claim is valid than the Islamophobia one is false, or vice versa -- we should think of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as part of the broader discursive current which inescapably channels how issues related to Jews and Muslims are understood and are cashed out in public settings.

Put another way, we often frame the question as "Is criticism of Israel or Zionism anti-Semitic," a question which is ridiculous for the same reason the question "Is criticism of Malia Bouattia Islamophobic" is ridiculous. They're both ridiculous because the answer is both (a) obvious and (b) near-universally agreed-upon: "Sometimes -- it depends." Whether or not a given criticism of a Jewish person or institution is anti-Semitic or a Muslim person or institution is Islamophobic can't be answered universally; it depends on the particular criticism in its particular context, and so should analyzed and evaluated on its particular merits (which was, of course, the basic demand of my article). But there's no way to talk about any Jewish body or institution in a way that wholly extracts it from a system of anti-Semitic domination, just as there is no way to talk about any Muslim body or institution in a way that wholly extract is from a system of Islamophobia. So we can say that while it is obviously true that there are plenty of criticisms of Israel that are not anti-Semitic, there is no worthwhile, non-trivial statement one can make about Israel (positive or negative) that does not take seriously anti-Semitism as a central facet of its analysis; and likewise no statement one can make about the first black Muslim woman to lead the NUS that does not take seriously the impact of Islamophobia and racism. This was in many respects the point I was trying to make in my post on Mizrahi Jews and intersectionality -- not that any opposition to the political desires of the Mizrahi community is racist, but the more mundane point that if you're talking about Middle Eastern Jewish institutions and history inside and outside of Israel without grappling with the particularities of Mizrahi Jewish oppression and marginalization (by both Ashkenazi Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians), you're probably talking these things poorly.

So where does this all leave us? Ms. Bouattia did not really "respond" to the anti-Semitism claim against her in a meaningful sense, instead seeking to traverse the issue by suggesting that there is a hermetical seal between anti-Semitism versus speech that attacks Zionism or Zionists. This is a non-response: since any reasonable person must agree that some anti-Zionist speech is anti-Semitic, the operative question is whether hers, specifically, was or was not. And while I think one can colorably answer that question in the affirmative, the far more productive angle of approach is to consider how her rhetoric and positions -- with talk of Zionist-run media and hordes of Jews taking over certain universities -- interact with and leverage anti-Semitic structures in ways incompatible with equal Jewish standing in the British and global community. And in terms of Islamophobia, I think it is pretty clear -- particularly in light of the broader scandal over anti-Semitism in Labour and several other goings-on at the NUS (delegates applauded a proposal for the union to stop commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, though ultimately did not vote for it; earlier this year the union eliminated what had been the solitary guaranteed spot of Jewish representation on a union committee) -- that the Jewish community is equal-opportunity in finding remarks such as Ms. Bouattia's objectionable and views her election as part of a broader wave of social marginalization that is not attributable to a particular color or creed. Likewise, I did not see anything in their statement that seemed to leverage Ms. Bouattia's faith against her or play upon traditional stereotypes regarding either Muslims or people of color to accentuate their arguments (though I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong here). That notwithstanding, it remains important, valid, indeed essential to situate the progression of this discourse inside patterns of Islamophobia and racism, because they will always play a channeling role in determining how arguments gain leverage, how issues are covered publicly, and so on.

It is very easy for people to demand egalitarianism for their preferred side while being derisive and dismissive towards the other. And for the same reason, it is very easy for these debates to turn into dueling charges of hypocrisy. But there's no way forward other than a principled way. There is, to be sure, a "principled" argument that all groups are really just whiners when it comes to oppression and we should generally ignore all of them (the problem with that position is not that it's unprincipled, it's that it is wrong). But there is no principled reason to suggest that we should take Jewish claims of anti-Semitism seriously, but dismiss Muslim claims of Islamophobia. And likewise there is no principled reason to contend that we should be careful, considerate, and charitable listeners to Muslim claims of Islamophobia, while denigrating Jewish claims of anti-Semitism as bad faith card playing.

Cross-posted on The Faculty Lounge, where I am guest-blogging this month. While most of the content I'm putting up is unique to one blog or the other, this post in particular I thought might have resonance to both readerships.

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