Four years later, reframing the Salaita controversy

Ilana Akresh says ending Steven Salaita’s employment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on the grounds of hate speech was overly simplified  

August 17, 2018
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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In the summer and autumn of 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign was consumed with the controversy surrounding the potential (and ultimate) un-hiring of Steven Salaita. It dominated campus life, especially for those in the liberal arts and humanities. For anyone who may have forgotten, Salaita was set to start his position in the American Indian Studies program in August 2014 and, in the immediately preceding months, several of his controversial tweets on the Israel-Palestine conflict came to light. 

The tenor on campus during that time was such that either you supported Salaita, Salaita’s work, a faculty union, free speech and academic freedom – importantly, all bundled together – or you sided with the administration that was considering revoking his hire. In grouping these five positions as one, anyone who didn’t support all five had no obvious choice but to stand with the other side.

What’s clear now is that this two-position framing is dangerously misleading. This has become particularly salient in the context of The New York Times hiring Sarah Jeong to its editorial board. Jeong also had a litany of hateful tweets exposed shortly after she announced her new position. However, there is a way to denounce the remarks and the view they represent while maintaining that she shouldn’t lose her job because of them. 

In 2014, I wrote a piece for the local Champaign, IL paper from the anti-Salaita perspective. At the time, my own department was set to pass an inconsequential, yet symbolic, vote of no-confidence in chancellor Phyllis Wise. They had joined much of the rest of the humanities faculty in their almost unanimous support of Salaita based, in addition to a defence of academic freedom, largely on the following three premises: that there was nothing worthy of upset in the focal tweets; the hiring/un-hiring was yet another example of the tyranny present in an oppressor (the administration) and victim (faculty) dynamic and Salaita’s meritorious scholarship should alone secure his position. 

My thoughts have since evolved on the complexity of free speech, as the hate speech label has become a tool used by the left and the right to silence dissenting voices. If I’m to be a free speech absolutist, I must be consistent, even with speech I find objectionable.

If I could do it again, I would object to Salaita’s un-hiring based upon the nebulous and subjective nature of defining hate speech. Although I would take issue with the premises that underlie his defense in a way that levies criticisms even more widely, I would reframe my objections.

First, Salaita’s view on the Israel-Palestine conflict reflects the dominant narrative of the left, yet it is a disturbing and gross oversimplification of a complicated issue – part of a trend I see among progressives on other topics. Further, the reduction of its framing to a conflict between aggressor/oppressor (Israel) and victim/oppressed (Palestine) is consistent with a worldview that underlies the majority of progressive positions, but it does not reflect the complexity of today’s problems.

Then, the unwillingness of anyone defending Salaita to directly address what was said in the focal tweets is disquieting. Apparently, his opinion on Israel-Palestine is so deeply ingrained in the doctrine of the left that there is no need to engage with the content.

Lastly, in my 2014 letter I said that academic freedom can’t mean that “anything goes” with regards to scholarship. However, this is really a nod to the broader extent to which interdisciplinary units in particular (of which American Indian Studies is one) tend to have ambiguous metrics for what counts as good scholarship, a reality that’s linked to the infiltration of postmodernism in many fields. However, this worrisome problem operates upstream from Salaita himself.

In the end, I still see his comments as an example of anti-Semitic invective that’s been normalised by the left’s dominant position on Israel-Palestine, but I can’t participate in the use of the hate speech label, given how it’s now used to silence other viewpoints. This clarity is only possible now because the need for free speech has become paramount, even (or especially) for speech to which you may strenuously object.

Ilana Akresh is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. 

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