SPME deplores the recent Faculty Council of DePaul University’s vote to censure an article by Prof. Jason Hill, advocating the Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Regardless of how one feels about Hill’s extreme policy recommendations, his treatment at the hands of his colleagues was at once deeply unfair, counterproductive, and anti-intellectual. The censure, despite its insistence on respecting academic freedom, surrendered to demands of the public-shaming squads that increasingly dominate campus politics, especially when it concerns discussion of Israel and the Palestinians. Far from a blow for academic freedom and decency, this Faculty-Council initiative represents one more brick in a cognitive edifice that systematically excludes a wide range of both opinion and fact by branding it hate speech, or merely “views not representative of the [U of Cambridge] student body… not a valuable contribution to the University.” Worse, the move was done at the demand of student groups who practice some of the most virulent hate speech, and advocate for groups who regularly deploy genocidal hate speech. For progressive forces that treasure tolerance and inclusion, this censure was a massive own-goal.
- The Abuse of Procedures in order to force the censure through. The chair of the Faculty Council, Scott Paeth, wrote and proposed the censure. Rather than therefore recusing himself, he violated the parliamentary rules to rush it through with minimal discussion. Since one of the avowed goals of the censure motion was to advance “conversations that advance social justice,” it hardly seems fitting for a democratic, academic institution to set such a poor example for how to act fairly.
- The designation of an opinion as unacceptable because it offends some people’s sensibilities. The resolution invokes AAUP Principles about “respect for the opinion of others,” and censures Hill for his “the real harm his words have caused to students and other members of our community.” The word “real” here is most problematic, since the “harm” spoken of was the hurt feelings of students who claim the article “made it difficult for Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims and other marginalized groups to feel safe on campus and freely register for classes,” and that “his comments create unsafe and uncomfortable spaces.” Anyone who treasures freedom, like the scholar, has learned to have a thick skin.
- The failure to educate the student body about the rules and manners of academia (i.e., the place of free speech). Actors with intellectual integrity would have responded student complaints about their hurt feelings from their outraged reading of text with a lesson in a) how to read carefully without imposing meaning on the text (exegesis ), and b) how to deal constructively and with dignity to criticism, even harsh criticism. That would have shown the commitment to academic freedom and worthy conversations the faculty council’s statement claims to hold dear. That would have been the lesson learned from the Andrew Pessin case at Connecticut College in 2015 – were there a learning curve among today’s “woke” faculty.
- The invocation of factual inaccuracy and poor scholarship to attack this opinion piece. The Faculty Council resolution characterized Hill’s work as “factually incorrect,” “shoddy research,” that does “liv[e] up to his responsibilities as [a] member of the academic community.” Scott Paeth’s blogpost claims Hill had abandoned even “any pretense of allegiance to the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its history, the status of international law, principles of human rights, or even principles of sound argumentation.” As far as he, and apparently other signers of the letter, are concerned, Hill’s piece is not just nasty, it was wrong, intellectually deficient, deserving censure. This accusation, also leveled at Amy Wax at University Pennsylvania law school colleagues, confuses a paradigmatic take (post-colonial analysis) for reality; and rejects even thinking about, much less discussing the importance of the (abundant) anomalous evidence and alternative approaches. Indeed, as in the case of the attack on the issue of Israel Studies dedicated to “word crimes,” people who contributed to the substitution of advocacy for scholarship in the first place, then accused their critics of bad scholarship.
Behind Hill’s assertions about Palestinian political culture, including its “abysmal and inferior” standing by any progressive standards, lies a mountain of deeply disturbing “hard” evidence, most often ignored by the news media. Hill’s opponents seem to have adopted a post-colonial, Palestinian narrative, as a depiction of factual reality and those who disagree, as dishonest reprobates. This confusion of a paradigmatic “take” for “objective reality”, of “opinion for facts,” not only makes it impossible to think clearly about the real world, but such an anti-intellectual approach can only survive where authoritarians marginalize those who insist on paying attention to the anomalies.
- The final call for repentance. The petition ends with a call to Prof. Hill to repent of his ways and undergo reeducation: The Faculty Council urges Professor Hill to seriously reconsider his positions on these issues, to take cognizance of the perspectives of other scholars on these issues, as well as the real harm his words have caused to students and other members of our community, and to refrain from abusing his freedom as a scholar in writing on controversial issues in the future
The outrage of students, here affirmed by the faculty, means that Prof. Hill, like many before him, has been stigmatized, publicly shamed – “Jason Hill, you can’t hide, we know you want genocide!” – and effectively banished from polite academic company. Those so denounced have their career trajectories cut off, their audience of colleagues drastically reduced. The censure resolution assumes the moral superiority of its own side (those good faculty who do worry about students’ feelings), and considers Hill a miscreant in need of re-education before the scholarly community will let him back in their good graces. Few statements better illustrate how hollow the much-protested concern for freedom of speech.
This incident is hardly isolated. Staged moral emergencies, in which students stampede faculties into taking their side, are a highly effective and widespread practice. At work here, as elsewhere on Western campuses, is a curious combination of a modern and post-modern discourse which ironically produces a pre-modern result. On the one hand, faculty speaking a modern, objectivist, discourse (“facts” “accuracy” “scholarship”), and students wielding a post-modern discourse (“hurt feelings” “safe-spaces” “outrage”), both proclaiming their commitment to stopping hate speech and promoting social justice, end up undermining diversity: in the name of “inclusivity and… amplifying marginal voices,” they accept as moral guides and leaders, a pre-modern group that shows no concern or respect for those who disagree with them – indeed make them feel very unsafe – that is dedicated to a tribal (zero-sum) definition of justice in which the “evil enemy” is punished indeed eliminated). We end up with the tribal group accusing their designated enemies of the very things that the political movements they support openly espouse: hate speech, racism, genocidal rantings, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. And so, the very academics who read hate speech into the work of a defender of Israel, “objectively” if not intentionally, promote a discourse radically rooted in a genocidal hatred of Israel and any Jew or non-Jew who supports her.
Given the above, SPME urges the faculty of DePaul to:
- Repeal this censure if only on procedural grounds.
- Make a statement about civility rather than rebarbarization, especially the importance of being able to take criticism with composure, and not giving in to social-media driven public shaming campaigns that seek to marginalize and exclude.
- Hold a serious discussion on the Middle East that excludes extreme voices from both sides, according to the same guidelines. Explore the substantive claims of Hill’s argument about the Palestinian leadership, and the difference between a legal[istic] approach to “occupation” (Paeth et al.) and an appreciation of the very troubling political issues (Hill, Gavison, et al.)