The Black Box of Speech

— What’s in the box?

— Speech!

— Oh, that’s great. I love speech!

— Want to help me carry it across that border?

— Sure! And I know you were going to ask me if I wanted to see what’s in the box, but I love speech so much that I’m not even going to ask, to show you how much I love speech. Just tie that box right here, on the top of my backpack, and I’m off! See you later!

That is the role I feel I am being asked to play by many of my insistent friends who are outraged about the University of Illinois’ decision to rescind a job offer made to Stephen Salaita, previously an associate professor (thus, tenured) at Virginia Tech. The University of Illinois hasn’t made clear the specifics of the decision, and it’s unlikely that they will, since it was made at the level of the president’s office, and college presidents are permanently lawyered up and speak only through a mask of precautionary obfuscation. My pals are outraged at what they see as an anti-Palestinian, pro-Israeli decision, an affront to free speech everywhere, an unconscionable attack on the principle of academic freedom, and have been making scabrous personal comments on the people who have spoken in favor of the decision. Obviously, as a tenured academic interested in free speech I am supposed to jump to the aid of Professor Salaita.

Except that I don’t know what’s in that box.

Nobody would advise you to accept a package from a stranger when boarding a plane in, say, Medellín. Nor would you do well to carry a box for someone you met last night, or last week, or your new sweetheart, without knowing what the hell is in the box. I don’t know why being an academic is supposed to make me suspend this rule of common prudence.

I am a big fan of free speech. I think the First Amendment should apply coast to coast and wall to wall, with certain very narrowly defined exceptions. “Shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater”; hate speech, death threats, that sort of thing, don’t pass my test. And I am especially skeptical of “prior restraint” (which doesn’t apply in this case, but was a factor in many recent whistleblower cases; I am on the side of whistleblowers until persuasive evidence is presented that the good one of them will do is outweighed by the harm). But I’m also a fan of fairness. Indeed this is not a personal preference, but something inscribed in the law. You can’t say that a rule applies only to this case and not to other similar ones. The whole structure of judicial review and stare decisis would become a joke if that were the practice. (Indeed, the Supreme Court invited laughter when claiming that the exemptions granted in re Hobby Lobby were not to be extended beyond their narrow anecdotal scope.) That’s what it means to live under the rule of law.

So if I were to sign petitions in favor of Stephen Salaita, or write a poison-pen letter to the president or to Cary Nelson of the AAUP, or boycott UI, I would want to know what exactly Professor Salaita was tweeting to his two thousand or so followers. And this information is conspicuously missing from the red alerts about his deprivation of academic freedom and civil rights. According to some reports, he was tweeting up to two hundred times a day during the Gaza onslaughts. That’s a lot of tweeting. Some of those tweets were later, say the papers, “deleted” (an absurd term, because once the communication has gone out to its readers, the tweet has done its tweeting, and deleting the public record of it is just a cover-your-ass gesture that changes nothing; perhaps an apology, when merited, would count as un-tweeting a tweet, but let us be aware of how the medium works before using a misleading word like “deleted”).

The papers tell me that Salaita was expressing “hate for Israel.” That, as far as I know, is not a crime. You can hate France, Ireland, Kazakhstan, etc. You can express anger and hatred for the policies of those countries. For example, if Salaita had accused François Hollande of having blood on his hands because of recent French military interventions in Africa, it wouldn’t be a big deal. If he had expressed himself more colorfully, stating that Hollande was “eating African babies for breakfast,” it would be disgusting and potentially misleading (if circulated in a context that didn’t make clear that the statement was a figure of speech); many of us used similar language about Johnson, Nixon and Kissinger while the Vietnam War was going on. You can even “hate America,” in the sense of having a powerful, visceral disagreement with certain American actions. I don’t say expressing such sentiments might not cause you to fall out with your employer, and, depending on the terms of your contract, leave you on the street. But they wouldn’t land you in court or in jail, and that’s as it should be. We are a bunch of free-speakers here, even if what we say is often noxious garbage.

But between expressing hatred or anger at governmental policies, and expressing hatred toward peoples, there’s an important difference. If my fictional Angry Tweeter had gone on to applaud the killing of French civilians, or to “hate Americans” in the sense of the difference I’m drawing, I’d find that less palatable as free speech. It gets into the territory of threat. And a threat is not a statement of opinion, it’s a speech act. If you have a few thousand people reading (and presumably, applauding) your tweets, that too changes the nature of the thing. It’s not like an expletive muttered in a bar. It’s not private any more. It could even be interpreted as a call to action.

So when– again, I’m just relying on the three or four tweets reported in the papers– Salaita made a grotesque characterization of Netanyahu as wearing the teeth of murdered Palestinian children around his neck, that was ugly, but no cause for censorship or libel (as a public figure, Netanyahu is a legitimate target of critique, even expressed in outrageous terms). When he said that Israel was giving “anti-semitism” a good name since 1948, however, that was a bit much. For me, that went over the line, and I would not be seen carrying the black box of that man’s free speech over the border into Protected Political Speech territory, let alone Legitimate Academic Research territory.

And there may be more inflammatory tweets on the record. As I say, let the defenders of Salaita come forth with a complete collection of his tweets, so that we can all make an informed decision as to whether he’s a free-speech martyr or the kind of person you’d rather not be seen with. Is he Foucault, or is he Faurisson? Sounds a bit like the latter.

Let me explain. Some people have the charmingly superstitious idea that because Salaita put “anti-semitism” in quotation marks, his utterance magically became legitimate. Well, let’s see what happens if we apply that rule generally! Every racist, misogynist, gay-basher, etc., gets a free ride, because it was ALL IN QUOTES. This reasoning is worthy of the “Sovereign Citizen” movement, and should get about as much of a hearing.

Salaita also tried to weasel out of the implications of his 1948 remark by contending that anti-semitism also covered Israeli actions that were unfavorable to Arabs, because the Arabs are also “Semites.” This is just hopping from the frying pan into the fire. In place of a political argument, which would be legit, we now get bogged down in the muddy waters of race theory. “I can’t be anti-Semitic, because I’m a Semite myself!” Forget it. Doesn’t work that way. As if I couldn’t be a white racist because, like every human being on the planet, I have ancestors from Africa (100 percent of them, in fact).

Moreover, qualifying opposition to the policies of the State of Israel (founded in 1948, hence the date in the tweet) as “anti-Semitism” is exactly the problem. If you’re against Israel, take it to the political forum, including, if necessary, the street. Be anti-Zionist. Make it known that you support the Gazans and inhabitants of the West Bank. By all means. But don’t think that taking out your anger on Jews is the way to make your statement. There are plenty of Jews who don’t side with Israel, some of the time or even all of the time. There are people whose Jewishness does not commit them one way or the other. Stuffing them in the category of “Semites” and being anti- that whole category is indeed a racist act. It says that Jews act as a racial whole, and that every Jew is responsible for what every other Jew does or has ever done. And that, if you ask me, is atrocious, as a matter of science as well as a matter of politics. It doesn’t rise to the dignity of “expression of political views.”

The same people who are up in arms about Salaita would, I am sure, run in horror from the idea of signing a petition in favor of a university professor who had published tweets arguing that the shooting of an unarmed young black man in Missouri the other day was legitimate, because he might have been guilty of a crime, on the assumption that blacks are inherently criminal and need harsh discipline. We would all repudiate that person faster than you could say “tenure and review committee.” Likewise, if someone were in the habit of conducting psychological research to “prove” that the IQ of Hispanics is on the average lower than that of WASPs, or that “Orientals” are inherently sly and untrustworthy– and so on. What’s offensive is not the so-called research, which can easily be shown wrong, but the way of slicing reality that it assumes, one in which people are tagged for life as members of a “race” and limited to certain attainments or treated in certain differential ways. We shouldn’t be giving such tripe the legitimacy of academic research. Let them go work at the Heritage Foundation. I think this much is uncontroversial.

What has people confused is the idea, I suppose, that racial hatred is permissible when expressed by a member of a vulnerable group or in the heat of discussion. If you like that argument, you’ll love Hobby Lobby, the release of Mississippi from crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act, and all kinds of recent judicial decisions in which across-the-board fairness was suspended so that somebody’s precious hobbyhorse could ride over the rest of us.

In any case, withholding the evidence makes it seem you think your colleagues are chumps.