In response to my post yesterday, which I crossposted over at the NewAPPS blog, a couple of readers there wondered about the analogy I had drawn between Professor F and Steven Salaita‘s cases. Reader Meir Alon suggested my comparison was ‘very wrong’, Darius Jedburgh said my comparison of Salaita was, indeed, ‘slanderous’, and yet another worthy wondered what the point of it all was.
In constructing the analogy I noted Professor F, like Salaita, had a distinguished academic record, that she worked in a field which often featured polemically charged debates, many of which for her, because of her personal standing and situation–Professor F has very likely experienced considerable sexism in her time–were likely to be charged emotionally, and that a few hyperbolic, intemperate responses, made in a medium not eminently suited to reasonable discourse, and featuring many crucial limitations in its affordance of sustained intellectual engagement, should not disqualify her from an academic appointment made on the basis of her well-established scholarship and pedagogy.
I could very easily have constructed another analogy, using an accomplished professor of African American studies, Professor B, who stepping into the Ferguson debate, after engaging, dispiritingly, time and again, in his personal and academic life, with not just the bare facts of racism in American life and the depressing facts pertaining to informal, day-to-day segregation but also with a daily dose of bad news pertaining to the fate of young black men in America, might finally experience the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back, and respond with a few tweets as follows:
Plantation rules still apply apparently; talk back and massa will let you know who’s boss. And keep those hands up, boy, while you talk to him.
The Black Panthers had it right; arm yourself and fight back. Dr. King might have gotten us some legislation, but cordite and gunpowder is needed now.
Malcolm X or King? Well, that debate now seems settled. By any means necessary for me.
Using these sorts of remarks–even if, or especially if, made on social media networks–as ammunition against academics, is eminently bad policy. They can all too easily be read out of context–like the ones I have tried to provide above. (Salaita is Palestinian-American and likely knows many personally affected by the continuing tragedy of Palestine. Incidentally, as has been noted, he has tweeted widely and often on the Israel-Palestine debate, and while his pugnacious style is unmistakable in many of his productions, so is a far more temperate and conciliatory tone.)
There is a subtext to this whole business. The firestorm of reactions to Salaita, and which would be set off by Professor F and Professor B–Fox News would certainly have a field day with them, calling for their heads on a pike–is indicative of a continuing determination to police and regulate the nature of the resistance offered by those who speak up on behalf of the traditionally subjugated. Salaita, Professor F, and Professor B, are all expected to conform to certain norms of civil discourse, to channel their resistance–perhaps diffusing their passion and their energy–into channels defined and established by a system that has not worked for them. (Yes, they are all faculty members with tenure, but that still does not make them ‘insiders.’) These transgressions on their part are just the moment those opposed to their resistance are waiting for; gone, in a flash, is their established record elsewhere; all that matters, now, is this indiscretion.
My point was not so much to construct an exact or precise analogy between the cases of Professor F and Salaita; rather, it was to provide some context, and to point to, perhaps only implicitly, a continuing pattern of willful ignorance when it came to understanding, accepting, and making room for those who, because of their backgrounds and histories, might often speak up and act in ways that those more comfortably ensconced do not have to.