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Book review / Uncivil rites: Palestine and the limits of academic freedom

Book review / Uncivil rites: Palestine and the limits of academic freedom

Steven Salaita

. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2016; 254 pp; ISBN: 978-1-60846-577-4.

This book’s biggest surprise comes near its end, when Salaita confirms Israeli right-winger Naftali Bennett’s claim that Palestinians keep missile launchers at home. “[T]he missile launcher room is the life­blood of every Arab household,” Salaita writes. “[S]ometimes Palestinians just feel like firing rockets five feet across the alleyway into their neighbors’ kitchen.” (172–173) Outrageous, yes, but that’s Salaita’s point. If logic, evidence and justice fail, outrage is all that remains — which is why, he argues, academic freedom must protect incivility.
Salaita’s stake in this argument follows from his status as an expert in American Indian studies. Hired with tenure by the AIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was un-hired by then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise following a string of anti-Israel comments he tweeted in 2014. Wise’s actions precipitated resignations (including hers), a lawsuit, and the disintegration of UIUC’s AIS program.
“I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” So began, on June 19, 2014, the twitterstorm that launched this cascade, the phrase “go missing” being used advisedly, as it circulated at the time to describe the situation of three teenage West Bank settlers — Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar — who had disappeared and were presumed murdered.

The presumption turned out to be right and within hours of the boys’ bodies being found, the Israeli army levelled the homes of their main suspects, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha. Against this background Salaita tweeted, “[I]f Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” (July 19, 2014)

Does such uncivil discourse have a place in academia? Do emotion, intemperateness and name-calling belong in an institution whose values include logic, reason, level-headedness and respect? Or, if academic freedom disallows incivility, should we punish incivility, or expand academic freedom to include it?

In response, Salaita writes, “There is a terrible irony in using ‘uncivil’ to describe supporters of Palestine (or any other site of decolonization): the accusation locates the recipient in the wretchedness of sub-humanity, but implicates the speaker in centuries of colonization and genocide.” (61) “Uncivil” means “uncivilized” and probably even worse) “uncivilizable.” In that way, the injunction to “be civil” intersects with colonialist discourse, so it’s no surprise to find this directive butting heads with AIS’s anti-colonialist framework (and its historical and contemporary implications) and pro-Palestinian activism. Thus, the overlaps between his situation and that of Ward Churchill (formerly of the University of Colorado) don’t surprise Salaita: two professors of American Indian studies fired for being uncivil enough to argue that colonialism’s first stages, far from being buried in the past, play out today in ways that implicate the United States and their North American and European allies. And if civility codes can have this effect on tenured academics, how much more damaging can they be to untenured academics promulgating “uncivil” ideas? As Salaita notes, “Tenure can suppress just as effectively as it can protect,” (85) the mechanism of suppression being, precisely, the use of civility to limit academic freedom.

So the “limits of academic freedom” in Salaita’s subtitle come from outside that freedom: codes of propriety employed to restrict the boundary-testing and assumption-challenging arguments that academic freedom should protect. Such restrictions motivate the push for civility codes, along with the familiar appeals to “appropriateness” and the need for new hires to “fit” a program’s culture. And they drive putatively objective planning like the elimination of identity-oriented scholarship (gender studies, queer studies, AIS, etc.) advocated by Robert Dickeson (whose program prioritization tenets have fully infiltrated university administration and government planning).

Clearly, Salaita concludes, resisting these structures entails risks: criminalization, insult, abandonment. Each of us must determine for ourselves how much risk to assume. Given the political, social and intellectual stakes, however, we must do something. Most of us (and Salaita provides a useful “how-to”) need to be a little less civil.
Charles Reeve is president of the Ontario College of Art & Design Faculty Association.


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