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What is this civility? This line that Salaita was not supposed to cross?

Did Salaita Cross the Line of ‘Civility’?

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

The case of Steven Salaita has been hotly debated both in and out of academic circles in the past few months.

Salaita is the Palestinian-American professor and scholar whose offer of a tenured teaching position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was rescinded by the school’s chancellor because of some very strongly worded tweets he published regarding Israel’s attack on Gaza this summer.

 posted this December 14, 2014 in The Stone

That attack followed a series of events that had heightened tension between the Israeli government and the Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza. Israel started the attack and culminated  by the Palestinians launching meagre rockets into Israel and then Israel’s mounting a huge aerial assault and ground invasion against Gaza.

On September 11 of this year, the university’s board of trustees voted to uphold the chancellor’s decision.

Why doesn’t it follow from supporting morally monstrous actions that one is oneself a moral monster?

While many of Salaita’s critics in the media accused him of anti-Semitism, the main issue seems to be — at least in the language of the university’s explanation of it’s action — whether Salaita’s tweets violated a norm of “civility” that is supposed to govern academic and political dispute (at least within the academy).

I am not concerned here with the question of whether or not it was right to rescind the offer; to my mind, it was wrong — a straightforward violation of intellectual and academic freedom. Rather, I want to explore the notion of “civility,” particularly as it relates to one of the controversial tweets.

Here is the tweet in question:

Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014

At that point, Israel had begun intensive bombing of Gaza, and quite a few civilians had been killed, including children. By the time a cease-fire went into effect in late August, according to the United Nations, more than 2,100 Palestinians had been killed, over two-thirds of them civilians, among whom almost 500 were children; 11,000 Palestinians were wounded, 20,000 homes were destroyed, and 500,000 people over all were displaced.

During this period 70 Israelis were killed, 64 of whom were soldiers, and one of whom was a child.

So, was this tweet an illegitimate breach of civility? I believe not in the end, yet I must confess to some initial ambivalence on the question.

Here is how I resolved that ambivalence.

First, let’s separate some issues. One question concerns a moral evaluation of Israel’s actions themselves, and the other concerns an evaluation of the moral character of those who supported what Israel did.

I myself am in complete agreement with Salaita about the first question. I can’t mount a full defense of this position here, but let me just say that careful attention to the actual sequence of events over the summer, alongside the vastly disproportionate violence visited on the trapped and totally vulnerable Gaza residents, renders the Israeli claim that they were acting in justifiable self-defense completely unreasonable.

Note that holding and expressing that opinion was not by itself supposed to be a breach of civility. Rather, it was taking the next step and publicly indicting the moral character of those who supported the bombing that was the culprit.

Next, we need to determine whether what he said in the tweet is true — on the assumption, again, that the bombing was itself morally condemnable — and, in addition, whether it was a breach of civility to say it.

Obviously, these two issues are intimately related. Imagine how you would react to someone who spouted overtly racist or anti-Semitic sentiments. Would civil engagement over the question be the appropriate response?

Clearly, your judgment that you were dealing with a person of objectionable moral character would color your reaction as a decent person. Obviously, if Salaita had been tweeting instead about supporters of the 9/11 attacks as “awful human beings” no one would have been upset.

I locate the source of my initial ambivalence at precisely this point.

While I shared his moral outrage at Israel’s actions, I balked at taking the next step and severely indicting the character of those who disagreed. I resolved my ambivalence by reasoning my way to the following twofold conclusion regarding the claim in the tweet: The claim itself is not true, but it ought to be, and that is the deeper truth that legitimates the breach of civility.

Expressing moral outrage by intentionally breaching civility is part of the process by which social-political perspectives shift.

Why isn’t it true?

Why doesn’t it follow from supporting morally monstrous actions that one is oneself a moral monster?

Because the moral evaluation of character depends not only on what one does but also on the epistemic context in which one does it. In particular, we normally apply what we might call a “reasonable person” test.

If a reasonable person, given the information available to her, including the evaluative perspectives available to her, could act a certain way, then even if what she does is in fact morally condemnable, that condemnation doesn’t carry over to her character as well.

By the information available I just mean the obvious — what she’s likely to know about the facts of the situation.

But one brings more than just an opinion about the facts to bear in making a moral evaluation; one evaluates the facts from within a moral perspective, a system of values and a scheme of interpretation of the facts in light of those values. A person does not derive her moral perspective on her own, but develops it over time through her social interaction with parents, teachers, other role models and her wider social circle. This is why we judge racists today much more harshly than those who lived long ago; we expect more today.

Returning to Salaita’s tweet, we can now see why I claim it’s not true. Think about the average person who supported Israel’s attacks this summer. Someone who gets most of her information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the mainstream media, and generally identifies with the reigning ideology of current American political culture, will find severe moral condemnation of Israel’s actions difficult to accept.

When most people around you, people who in their daily lives exhibit relatively virtuous character, espouse a certain point of view, it is difficult to entertain the possibility that they are radically mistaken. To the extent we take this into account, we are led to let people off the hook, at least with respect to our evaluation of their character.

But then this brings me to the second part of my answer: It ought to be true. Or rather, it ought to have been true, and I look forward to the day in which it is true.

For if you let individuals off the hook in this case because they pass the reasonable person test, then you have to indict the social-political perspective from which such actions can seem moral and reasonable. No, these people aren’t awful, but what does it say about our society that we can support such an attack without being awful? What does it say that decent people can even entertain the kinds of excuses we hear (“but they were storing weapons near where those kids were playing”) without counting automatically as indecent?

I am reminded of something Daniel Ellsberg said in that wonderful documentary about the Vietnam War, “Hearts and Minds”: Speaking of the revelations about systematic government lying in the Pentagon Papers, he said that it was a tribute to the American people that our leaders felt that they had to lie to us and hide their horrendous actions; but it was no tribute to us that it was so easy.

In a related manner, I say, unfortunately, given the state of the general social-political atmosphere here about the conflicts in the Middle East, people can support United States and Israeli military attacks that cause terrible suffering and still be decent. But, I ask again, what does it say about us that this is so?

Not pretending to know what was behind Salaita’s tweets (I have never met him or corresponded with him about this issue), I can see two reasons for being so “uncivil” as to impugn his opponents’ moral character. First, there is just the need to express outrage at the state of our discussion on this matter.

While the people targeted by the tweet are not actually awful human beings, it’s about time we came to generally see things from the perspective from which they certainly seem to be. Having to listen to justifications for bombing children can wear you down, even if you know very well where it’s all coming from. (An op-ed by the Jewish actor and singer Theodore Bikel captures this sentiment well. )

But more important, expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt.

But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.

Joseph Levine is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches and writes on philosophy of mind, metaphysics and political philosophy. He is the author of “Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness.”

Note: Levine opinion is convoluted and not convincing. Why the perpetrators of 9/11 could be labelled awful human beings and not the Israelis and those who supported the genocide in Gaza?

Why the US was permitted to blockade Iraq for 10 years and watch a million babies die for lack of milk and basic medicine before the US perpetrated another genocide in Iraq in 2003? Not a single Iraqi was involved in the 9/11 attack and Saddam was the main enemy of Al Qaeda.

Why another million of Iraqis have to die in the US invasion and babies being born disfigured from using depleted uranium bombs?

Why Iraqis have to suffer this calamity that has no end since 1991?

Why the Palestinian Salaita has no right to vent his utmost anger toward those who support genocide on his people?

Civility my ass. Salaita said what was the truth for most of the world community.

And the more people try their best to find excises to Israel the more Israel gets intransigent.




March 2023

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