Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On the Necessity of Debating Discrimination

The gods of the internet displayed their sense of humor today. Just as an article titled "Is Anti-Semitism the Only Bigotry That’s Subject to Debate?" crossed my twitter feed, I received an email invite to the Cato Institute's "The First Amendment vs. Anti-Discrimination Law: A Preview of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on the Eve of Oral Argument" event (featuring a Cato speaker up against an NAACP appellate litigator).

When it comes to Jews' comparative status as a marginalized group, there seem to be two dueling schools of thought -- completely opposite, yet seemingly unaware of the other's existence. The first will look at a wrong done to Jews and say "they would never say that about any other group." The second will look at a wrong done to someone else and say "they would never say that about Jews." Jews either stand in for perfect protection or unique vulnerability.

Both sides are wrong of course. They would say it about Jews; they'd say it about other groups too. We could all use a dose of humility regarding the pane of glass we cannot see.

The proximate argument, about whether we should "debate anti-Semitism", comes from the fall-out from a left-wing panel at the New School (including several JVP bigwigs and Linda Sarsour) discussing antisemitism, and the university's offer to have Tablet Magazine organize its own panel to provide an alternate perspective (Tablet spurned the offer in sharp terms).

Clearly, at least some of the sturm und drang here stems from a pretty naked obfuscation about what it means to have a "debate" on anti-Semitism. Obviously, debating "is anti-Semitism bad" would be offensive. But it's absolutely necessary to debate "what is anti-Semitism -- what is its definition, what are its contours, what effects does it have, what falls in and out of its ambit?"

The latter form of debate is obviously perfectly valid -- I do it all the time. And, it should be unnecessary to add, such debates are had about other forms of bigotry all the time. We know this precisely because sometimes we do see attempts to suppress such debates under the guise that even recognizing the existence of a debate is tantamount to justifying the bigotry itself. And I'm hardly confident about how certain issues of importance to the Jewish community will fare if we are too quick to run to "even having a debate with the likes of you legitimizes bigotry."

From my vantage, we live in a world where a great many people have the wrong idea about "what is anti-Semitism" (and, for that matter, "what is racism", "what is sexism", "what is transphobia", and so on). Consequently, I want people to change their perspective on those issues -- and a great way to do that is by having and promoting debates and discussion. It strikes me as a spectacularly misconceived appraisal of the status quo vantage to think that people's default assumptions about anti-Semitism -- formed without debate, discussion, or deliberation -- are well-formed and in-line with what we take to be necessary to facilitate Jewish equality in social and political life.


Anonymous said...

I think the argument is that generally the group targeted by the prejudice gets to define the boundaries of what constitutes the prejudice.

Do white people get to decide for black people what is racist against blacks? Do men get to decide for women what is sexist? Well, they used to for both but not anymore, which is the point.

So why are Jews not given the same level of authority to determine for themselves what is anti-semitic?

(I know this violates your initial proposition that all groups are subject to the same vulnerabilities as the Jews. But there are some things that are relatively unique to the Jews, such as being among the only people in the world whose entitlement to a state is forever a question to be debated.)

David Schraub said...

I think quite a few people would sharply contest the "used to" in that second paragraph, for both groups. To be sure, some people who do at least seem to be appropriately deferential along one identity access are more, shall we say, interventionist along others. So hypocrisy abounds, and different people are hypocritical along different dimensions. But I think that point can be made without making the more sweeping claim that other groups have overall solved this problem.

Of course it's the case that antisemitism manifests in particularized ways that don't always have direct parallels for other groups (it isn't surprising that women do not experience having their "entitlement to a state" be "forever a question to be debated". Though I'd note that Palestinians certainly seem to share the experience). But one can play that same game for virtually other any other oppression (Jews get reparations for the Holocaust, whereas that concept is wildly controversial for, say, American slavery). I'm unconvinced that as a metacommentary it goes anywhere.

Rebecca said...

I don't think that Linda Sarsour and the leaders of JVP will be particularly illuminating on what is antisemitism, since they are deeply interested in making sure that they could never be accused of it.

Sarsour showed up on Sunday at a panel discussion at the American Academy of Religion annual conference on BDS - a discussion which was originally between pro- and anti-BDS people. The anti-BDS people withdrew from the panel, the AAR cancelled the discussion, but it was held anyway (with only the BDSers participating), and Sarsour participated as well (even though she was not originally on the program). It's another case of BDSers coming into an organization that they do not belong to and pushing their agenda in an underhanded way.

David Schraub said...

Was she going to be the mysterious "unregistered participant"?