By JaeJune Lee
One day, old Buddha pointed up to the sun, but instead of looking at where he pointed, his disciples began obsessing about his finger. The same is true about Professor Steven Salaita’s situation. At the time of the 2014 invasion of Gaza, Salaita took to his personal Twitter account. As thousands were made victims of humanitarian law violations with nowhere to turn, Salaita made some tweets. Here we are, arguing, debating, making allegations about the civility or incivility of Salaita’s tweets, while forgetting the real “incivility” that truly merits our coordinated attention and constructive efforts. But let’s put this aside a moment, in the hope of leaving the fog of prejudice and confusion behind us, and prattle a bit about how Salaita fits into our lives.
I have the bourgeois pleasure of dealing with violence, in this op-ed, merely as a topic, just like how we have the privilege to treat various forms of discrimination as nothing more than a discussion; and then — when the subaltern speaks, “I rebel, therefore I exist” — we will invariably complain about feeling “uncomfortable.” When Salaita came to Kenyon, his existence on campus made us “uncomfortable.” His presence as a professor of comparative literature engaged in critiquing colonial power structures was made “controversial.” Truly, this reaction is more revealing of the mentality of his critics. It is revealing of “how charges of anti-Semitism are used to excuse otherwise inexcusable actions” — not my words, but the words of Michael Rothberg, director of the University of Illinois’s Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies. Such arguments don’t seem to matter to the university’s wealthy trustees. It doesn’t matter that the facts concerning Salaita’s “unhiring” have been investigated, the relevant legal documents consulted, and that he has been found to be at the brunt of an injustice rather than its perpetrator. This is all irrelevant to them precisely because their concern to begin with was not a moral or legal one, but purely the discomfort with the existence of a subaltern voice that speaks.
Yet still we argue, debate and discuss tweets. We still continue to slander the person of Salaita while hiding behind the veil of anonymity in a manner no better than those Yik Yak comments about the Crozier Center for Women. We the “critics,” whoever “we” are, make no attempt to frame the issue in the discourse of rights and the laws that enshrine it, but then are quick to appropriate the discourse to shut down dissenting views — an appropriation that is an insult to the actual victims of discrimination. Let us all feel discomfort in the moments of genuine debate as we face the anxiety of long-fixated beliefs being challenged, and as we acknowledge our privilege in living the bourgeois life — making discussion topics out of oppression precisely because violence does not follow us home. At the end of the day, most of us don’t have to deal with that s—t if we don’t want to.
JaeJune Lee ’17 is a member of Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine and a philosophy major from Cape Town, South Africa. Contact him at email@example.com.