Insult and injury

Steven Salaita’s remarks on Israel warrant his rejection from the University of Illinois

The University of Illinois’ Board of Trustees has voted to deny Steven Salaita a tenured professorship because he posted inflammatory remarks about Israel to his Twitter account. Some have argued this decision threatens academic freedom and that it was motivated more by money and politics than by good judgment.

It is true that a pro-Palestinian stance, as Salaita has taken, is less likely to garner support in the United States than a pro-Israeli stance. But this decision is not about Salaita’s opinions; it is about the way in which he expressed them.

In several tweets, Salaita used denigrating language to refer to Israelis and Israeli supporters. For example, a tweet on July 8 read, “If you're defending #Israel right now you're an awful human being.” Another, on August 1 read, “If you're demented, amoral, dimwitted, and have sociopathic tendencies, might I suggest applying for a job in the @IsraelMFA.” The purpose of these statements is to insult the opposition, not to present a constructive argument. And while it is difficult to argue a point in 140 characters or fewer, it’s certainly possible to do it without the denigrating language.

Salaita also targeted the United States in his proclamations, tweeting on August 2, “Republicans are such tough guys, eager to kill 4 God and country. #Israel slaps around the US of A, though, and all they do is ask for more.” Salaita’s method of expression demonstrates a kind of insensitivity which undermines the point he seeks to make.

Given this pattern of expression, one can argue that Salaita’s appointment as a professor would more likely limit academic freedom than would promote it. Students who hold opposing views would likely not feel comfortable presenting their arguments in his classroom. Since his views are so public, pro-Israeli students may avoid taking his classes altogether, creating classrooms of only like-minded people, which does not make for productive debate.

Professors who hold unpopular opinions can be good assets to universities. Salaita’s academic work has drawn interesting parallels between Palestinian refugees and Native Americans in the United States. Ideas like these can encourage debate which enriches a student’s academic experience, but any valuable theories Salaita offers are tainted by the incendiary remarks he has made.

Some may argue that a professor’s personal Twitter account should not impact his professional standing, as it is for his own private use. However, Salaita’s tweets were completely visible to the public, and they speak to his character — his refusal to acknowledge the merit of viewpoints that differ from his own.

If Salaita had presented his opinions civilly and been denied the position, we would have an issue of corrupting academic freedom — suppressing unpopular ideas. Salaita said at a news conference on September 9 that he believes “the decision to terminate me is a result of pressure from wealthy donors — individuals who expressly dislike my political views.” Though numerous donors did tell the Board of Trustees they would no longer contribute if Salaita was hired, Salaita must consider the possibility that these donors were more offended by the manner in which he expressed his views, rather than by the views themselves. Though it is impossible to theorize the outcome if the situation were reversed, we hope the Board of Trustees would have received similar feedback and made the same decision had a professor made equally disparaging remarks toward Palestine.

Of course, since Israel has always been an ally of the United States — a predominantly Judeo-Christian nation — the idea that a wealthy and powerful alumnus would cease to donate solely because a professor was outspoken against Israel is not far-fetched. And boards of trustees at all universities must be wary of this issue, so that they do not sacrifice a diversity of opinions for money. However, this is a case in which the manner of speech justified dismissal. In rejecting Salaita’s application, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees has sent a message to all professors that true academic discourse will never be achieved using insult.

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