An academic mission not entirely impossible

My personal encounter with academic censorship began in the Fall of 1989 when Smith College’s newly appointed Diversity Officer summoned me to her office asking why I had included the following question on an exam in one of my courses during the second semester of the previous academic year —an action taken, she stated emphatically, at the behest of the College’s President and Provost. The question, one of several I posed on a take-home final on Middle East Politics, read: “Is Islam useful in the modern world? Describe the role of Islam in the political development of two states in the Middle East [one Arab and one non-Arab] since the end of World War II.” Opening a folder with my name, the Diversity Officer also added to her cascade of charges a complaint about mentioning slavery in the Muslim world without comparing it [favorably] to the system in America.

Let me begin by emphasizing that courses on Middle East Politics must ask questions about the political impact of one or another religion. That no comparable question on Judaism and its impact on Zionism or on Israeli political culture appeared on that exam was coincidental, a result of the way in which I divided the academic labor in my several course offerings on the Middle East. Still, there is more to say about these particular grievances. The take-home exam was posted on the door of my office for several weeks. In a department that often quoted one or another line from a Janis Joplin song to ask how Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau might react, I never considered a question playfully probing the political utilities of Islam either remarkable or out of the ordinary. In fact, it is not clear that the grievance came from a student who was actually enrolled in the course since I had received no indication of dissatisfaction with grades or assignments—and Smith provided ample avenues for bringing such disputes to the attention of instructors.

The second issue raised by the Diversity Officer initially puzzled me. First, I wondered why someone, not a specialist in American history or politics, should talk about slavery in classes focused on other parts of the world and on other topics. Second, slavery was not a subject I typically covered in any of the courses I offered on the Middle East. But I was the major lecturer in a semester-long Introduction to the Study of Government. I composed the syllabus but often incorporated suggestions from instructors who taught its various sections. V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River was one of the books a colleague wanted assigned, and I summarized the plot which, of course, deals with the issue of Muslim slave traders.

This was an early indicator of a trend taking hold of universities, but it belonged to a cultural moment when objections to a diversity officer’s control of what could be said in the classroom might be challenged particularly by a tenured professor as I was at the time. I was not shy about conveying the details of that encounter to every relevant committee at the College pressing them to undertake an examination of the reasons not only for the attack on my intellect and character but more importantly for what, I deemed, a clear transgression of core academic principles. Unfortunately and perhaps to confirm their place in the vanguard, several colleagues—some of whom I counted as close friends–were silent as the president and administrative officers unleashed their furies at me during one or another faculty meeting. Some would, not surprisingly in retrospect, go on to win college awards for their work in promoting diversity.

While my experience belongs to an earlier age, it may provide a lesson for our times even though the campus landscape has been radically altered. For what I described, then, as a policy having a ‘chilling effect’ on academic freedom, I now understand as an attempt to hold intellectual discourse captive to student emotions and feelings. My question on Islam unintentionally “triggered” what can now be clearly identified as a metastasizing pathological sensitivity that was elevated and radically transformed by Smith College’s leaders into an ominous assault on using the mind to probe a text, a history, a politics, or a society.

This march of emotions has been transfused through classroom and disciplinary fields, turning intellectual inquiry sclerotic while repurposing the university into a presumed mechanism for addressing trauma. But sensitivity to emotions could not gather sufficient momentum to cement its ascendancy on the campus without at least the appearance of a theoretical architecture. Emotions thus became the groundwork for a social justice discourse that not only buried the complex history and conflicting definitions of the term, it also had a catalytic impact on dismantling the very meaning of discourse.

Social justice came to the campus wrapped around a proclaimed sensitivity to the downtrodden and oppressed, sufferings supposedly wrought by the twin evils of colonialism and racism. Masquerading as a moral imperative, social justice activism aimed to convert the curriculum into an instrument to erase evil and pain wherever they were located. And when found nearby, for example, if speech in the classroom ‘triggered’ trauma or discomfort–it had to be regulated. No longer were nuanced conversations or the exchange of diverse views and engagement with different ideas the point of education. Rather it was the mobilization of feelings–and that necessarily placed limits on reasoning and thinking.

On many campuses, the fault line dividing the old oppressive order from the new progressive just world quickly began to run decisively and deeply through Palestine. Coiled around a narrative of catastrophic defeat [nakba], Palestinians became the enduring image of the victim, and in the social justice lexicon, an open wound and unfinished history. 1948 came to be understood less in terms of its military outcome than as a first cause of suffering, a dislocation stalking politics in Arab lands while stamping Palestinian identity indelibly by its national trauma as a symbol of displacement, alienation, and indignity. Palestinians became caught in the crossfire of conflicting imperatives, and none more discordant from the need to build state institutions than the passion to remain a cause. For the idea of Palestine as a territory for two states for two peoples threatened to dissolve the very notion of Palestinian identity rendering it not only unjust but also unimaginable.

Echoes of pain and loss carried the Palestinian narrative across oceans and continents drawing false analogies between disparate groups or movements or histories that expanded allies but did nothing to deepen understanding of what caused their suffering and dislocation. An acrobatic logic interweaving fact and fiction and spinning elaborate metaphors falsely fashioned linkages between people, politics, and history with nothing in common except their calls for a reckoning with the powers presumably denying them justice.

Because Palestinians were assigned passports to the status of righteousness based on their claims as victims of a devastating oppression, they presumably had no choice but to appeal to people of goodwill everywhere to become their tribunes for restitution. Draped in this veil of virtue, Palestinians became not only part of the ‘wretched of the earth’ across the globe but were now also conscripted via a redefined and distorted notion of intersectionality into a community marked as subordinate because of their skin color thereby transitioning the Palestinian struggle from the ethno-national into one whose touchstone is race. These days, it has become trendy to see Palestinians as suffering from the same kind of racism experienced by African Americans partly because of the way ideas circulate. Adding up the ‘likes’ won by a position is much less time-consuming than interrogating it for its logic and for its accuracy.

Pitching a narrative to fit in with campus campaigns for social and racial ,justice also compelled activists to churn up their rhetoric to charge Israel with every imaginable war crime no matter how baseless or ridiculous. Of all the catchwords hijacked by social justice warriors in their formal accusation of the Jewish state, none turned taboos inside out more than genocide. It planted in susceptible minds powerful and misleading ideas about the purported savagery of Israel. Despite lack of credible evidence, nothing short-circuited its deployment. At least one well-known scholar of genocide—A. Dirk Moses–recently deconstructed the classic definition contending that it was primarily invented to legitimize the founding of a Jewish state. To restore the term’s credibility, he now insists, it must account for Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Rather than defined as the mass murder of an ethnic or religious population, genocide has been reconfigured to mark out the force depriving a people of independent political agency.

The social justice discourse throws the Middle East Conflict back into the moldering inevitabilities of ancient tragedy, where grievances once made can never be rescinded and where hybrid conceptions seduce students into believing that they can know the past by looking at it directly through a mirror. To be sure, while the social justice discourse depicts how the conflict is imagined by many who live distant from its borders, it is reasonable to ask how well it reflects what is happening on the ground — where Israelis and Palestinians interact and confront one another every day. Indeed, the vexed conflict between Arabs and Israel, Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews has also generated ways in which the populations have interacted and engaged with one another. The paradigm of conflict rests on a set of narratives, but it offers a striking contrast to the many accounts of peaceful and productive interactions that have been sustained and despite a vindictive polemics, become deeply anchored. Where all this will take the Israel-Palestinian conflict is difficult to say, but that it will take it in new directions is a certainty.

Those of us writing about Israel and the Middle East Conflict are something of expert witnesses on how radically and thoroughly a hegemonic lexicon can degrade scholarship. But placing the priority on feelings force-feeds a complex issue into a binary narrative dividing the globe into oppressor/oppressed. To say that this is unhelpful for understanding the Middle East Conflict is an understatement; to consider this an adequate approach to the study of politics is fanciful. To believe this will sustain the legitimacy of an academy that once emphasized analytic skills and the acquisition of knowledge is delusional.

To return this essay to where it began is to acknowledge that while the battles waged for a university culture embracing free discussion have encountered more losses than wins in recent years, their recurrence shows a commitment, however beleaguered, to academic freedom and integrity. For when universities donate their intellectual resources to one or another political cause, they do not bring creative and innovative thinking to an end, they merely move it off campus. Do universities really want to weaken what they once did best: that is, teach students how, not what, to think?

Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government emerita at Smith College.

The opinions expressed here are her own.

Read the original post on The Times of Israel.

Share this post: