It’s Not About Speech, It’s About Power

This is the tenth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By David Palumbo-Liu

When asked to contribute a “provocation,” I was at a loss.

For over a year, I have been involved in the case of Steven Salaita, and the way one particular kind of speech — raw, uncensored, morally-outraged tweets expressing disgust and horror at Israel’s attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 — became a pretext for an even rawer exercise in power. After his tweets became known to an Illinois campus community that had been prepared to welcome him as a tenured professor, several wealthy contributors, aided and abetted by university administrators and trustees, fired Salaita. A year later, many of the administrators had resigned, one under an ethics investigation; a federal court had thrown out the university’s attempt to halt Salaita’s law suit against it; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, settled the case by awarding Salaita $875,000. These results were greeted as a victory of sorts by Salaita’s supporters, though many of us noted that he still was not reinstated, and that, if anything, attacks on critics of Israel have only increased. As important as this case was, and as its ramifications still are, it did not seem reasonable for me to write about it here, as my views were already more than amply available.

I then thought of focusing on the intertwined topics of “trigger warnings,” “feelings of safety,” and “micro-aggressions” on campus. But I have written a lot already about those, too, in The Huffington Post, on Buzzfeed, and in Salon.

A better approach for Provocations, I decided, was to step back and try to answer a broader question: What links these and other topics dealing with censorship and the stifling of speech? Taking this tack involves the risk of speaking too generally, but it seems useful to take it, in order to get at how, beneath the surface variations, we see recurring issues of historical change and power.

One thing that has changed is that there are now legal, institutional, and other instruments that empower people who without them would be unable to have a hearing. The Freedom of Information Act, for example, allowed Salaita access to key evidence that proved the legitimacy of his case. The use of Title IX to address issues of sexual assault is another historical development that has made it possible for those to be heard who have a grievance of the kind that had previously been largely hidden. Other new tools include the committees on some campuses that consider the ethics of a university’s investments. Recent campaigns for divestment relating to fossil fuels and Palestine have had, thanks to the anti-apartheid campaigns before them, formal, institutional processes to go through.

Access to these new instruments can prove inconvenient for some. At a high-level administrative meeting I attended, for instance, we were talking about trigger warnings, micro-aggression, student speech, campus climate, and divestment — all issues that will be on the floor later at the “What Cannot Be Said” workshop — and one very senior and powerful colleague said, with regard to divestment, “We have to delegitimize those petitions.” I was happy to see that I was not the only person who gasped. After a moment of stunned silence, I said simply: “That would be hard to do, since they are legitimate.”

This brought to mind a speech by Rigoberta Menchu dealing with the early days of her struggle. Even to appear in a state court in Guatemala to give witness, she said, was empowering, regardless of the outcome of the case. This resonates with a claim by Hannah Arendt: “The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.”

Some in power now fear more than just the way that specific instruments of Title IX or committees for ethical investment provide a new space for speech. The university itself, since at least the Free Speech Movement of the sixties, has perennially been a place where not only can free speech be debated, but the very nature of the discourse around free speech can evolve, morph, and grow. This is not just due to the fact that different generations of students are bringing different world experiences into that space, as always — it is also because demographically we are finally seeing more students of color, as well as first-generation students, in formerly pretty white, upper and middle-class colleges and universities.

When students take seriously the university’s self-portrayal as a place for debate and difference, and when the value of “diversity” is held up as a positive and essential value in higher education by the US Supreme Court, it is not a little strange when “diverse” perspectives coming from people of color and others are shut down, not necessarily due to the content of their expression, but often largely because of the mode of their expression. The very language that is being used by some just rubs certain people the wrong way, and not just that — it is unseemly language that is not only addressed at them, but also language that demands a response.

Many would not have a problem with students voicing their feelings of discomfort, about being threatened by racism or other things. What they are bothered by are the ways they are themselves being asked to consider their complicity, or responsibility.   I hasten to add that not all of the accusations being made on campuses have merit. But often those who complain about “coddled” students simply assume that because of the mode of expression, the accusation is false. Furthermore, the mainstream media has been utterly shameless about sensationalizing this topic, latching onto the most egregious cases and arguing that it is, for God’s sake, a movement.

As I wrote in my piece in The Huffington Post:

The much-publicized article in the recent Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” opens by setting off the alarm:

Something strange is happening in America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

It is rather a stylistic feat to riff off the title of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students and at the same time begin one’s article by mimicking the famous beginning of the Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”). But that is the intent of the two authors, both conservative voices in American academic circles — instead of the Red Scare as seen from the eyes of the marshaled forces of reaction in Europe, we have the Coddled Kids Scare as seen from the eyes of two conservative white males.

This is pretty much the kind of exposition you get throughout the article. Watch out, there is a strange, unorganized, undirected, dangerously contagious “movement” sweeping American’s colleges and universities, striking fear and loathing into every crevice and causing our American minds to shut close. I, too, have a problem with both trigger warnings and micro-aggression-talk. There is no doubt that both present complex and important challenges to us in terms of how we teach and learn on campus. But this article is of very limited use, and in fact its sensationalism and clear bias do the topic a disservice.

The more I hear people of my generation, and some a bit younger, bemoan the strange new world of discourse, the more I recall Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” He was as right then as he is now — there is something happening and we don’t know what it is. We know we don’t like it because it doesn’t play by our rules. But are isolated and grossly exaggerated incidents worth this huge backlash?

The handwringing brings to mind the sort of things we once heard from the generation of our parents — and thought worthy of mockery due to what seemed to us evidence of a strange sense of priorities and a tendency to grossly oversimplify complex issues. Consider this statement from a 1975 publication of the Trilateral Commission, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission:

The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, the challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private institutions, politics, the government bureaucracy, and the military service. People no longer felt the same obligation to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents…. Each group claimed its right to participate equally — in the decision which affected itself.

There is no question that the new solidarity between black activists and those protesting the Israeli occupation, between those protesting racism on campus and in Israeli-Palestine, emanates in large part from the fact that both groups understand how power works against them, and how to make use of whatever instruments now afford them some modicum of leverage. One can add those protesting sexual assault and harassment as well.

Finally, there is also of course social media, which allow groups to produce, disseminate, and circulate knowledge and opinion outside the mainstream. The form and the content of this speech are often abrasive, raw, unsettling. That by no means makes this type of expression necessarily good, but neither does it make it necessarily bad.

What we need to do is step away from issues of free speech and expression, and look more carefully, instead, at those who profit from systematized structures of power and privilege, and who refuse to be judged or called to account by those who are now speaking out.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University. He has written three scholarly books and edited three academic volumes on issues relating to cultural studies, ethnic studies, and literary theory. His recent books are: The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Duke UP, 2012), and a co-edited volume, Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Duke UP, 2011). He is part of the Public Intellectual Project at Truthout, and blogs at The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Boston Review, and other venues.

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