Steven Salaita is the scholar who lost a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, when he called for the disappearance of Israeli children in the wake of Israel's military campaign to erase Hamas a few months ago.
He tries to defend himself in today's Chicago Tribune, September 30. He hangs his case on academic freedom and being misunderstood.
But to many of us who have watched his case develop, the issue is his inability to control his emotions, which leads him to publish vile messages without understanding what his words are going to mean to the people who read them.
He says he has complete control of his words, and he thinks that his meaning is in his words, but it isn't. Your meaning is always in the ears of the people who hear the words; you have to go there to know what you mean.
Salaita has not gone there. Instead of looking for meaning in the ears of his audience, he shared with the world his rather vile temperament - his anger, his emotional hysteria, his need to blame someone, and his need to hurt people "back" for the sympathetic pains he experienced, like a lot of us, at seeing the death and destruction caused by the Israeli attacks.
Here is his defense of one tweet, which I share with you because it makes my case against him. In it, he creates a bumper sticker phrase or political slogan to tell us that Israel is responsible for diluting the meaning of "anti-Semitism" from something horrible to something "honorable since 1948." He claims that when he used the word "honorable" he didn't mean there was any honor in it. That's when you call anti-Semitism "honorable" but you really mean, aw shucks, nothin.
"And so when I wrote in one of the controversial tweets, 'Israel: transforming "antisemitism" from something horrible to something honorable since 1948,' my point was not that there is any honor in anti-Semitism, but that calling legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies an act of anti-Semitism drains the word of meaning and undermines the very real experiences of those who suffer its horrors."
Let me clue you in: This is not good scholarship. It hinges on a complete disjunction between words and meaning. He decouples "anti-Semitism" from what we know "anti-Semitism" to be, claiming without a shred of evidence that the phrase has lost its meaning, and blaming Israel for squandering that meaning. He argues cause-and-effect where they do not exist, or at the very least cannot be shown to exist. This isn't argumentation; it's smoke and mirrors.
Salaita goes from bad to worse: "Likewise, the intent of my tweet that settlers should 'go missing' was a call for an end to the settlements, which the international community largely agrees are counter-productive to peace, not a call to violence."
Nobody in his or her right mind thinks that "go missing" in the context of the kidnapping and murder of teenage boys means "go give back your settlements in the West Bank to the Palestinians." It doesn't mean that in my ears, and it doesn't mean that even by basic objective standards. "Go missing" in the context of the events he was critiquing means kidnapping and murder, not finding a less contested piece of real estate.
He says we've mistaken his intent. Our fault again! But even if he's honest, and his intentions were "good," I respond with something George Bernard Shaw wrote: "Hell is paved with good intentions." Intent isn't enough. It doesn't communicate.
I've argued that Salaita doesn't have "logos" or logic on his side. His disagreement with the dictionary meaning of words, plus his claim that Israel is to blame for his speech and we are all to blame him for mistaking him for somebody else, mark him as a clumsy manipulator.
Granted, he has some "ethos" or the weight of authorities on his side - 6,000 professors all over the country want to see him rehired. The Modern Language Association demanded his reinstatement, as do some other notable persons and organizations. (The Old-Fashioned Language Association, of which I am as of today the founder and sole member, does not.)
He has some "pathos" or emotional appeal on his side - the bloody shirt. A lot of people are just as angry and hurt by Israel's war-making as he is. Most of us, however, are able to control our emotions.
Worst of all, he doesn't know what's inside the ears of his hearers. He hasn't made the effort to get inside "the other" to find out what his words mean to them. This is the effort he should have made before publishing, before speaking or tweeting.
I would say to him: Mr. Salaita, the apple you plucked is not the orange you claim it to be. It is the fruit of your rage.
You argue like an American politician, not a scholar. You write like a man who thinks words mean whatever YOU say they mean. You write like a man who thinks that you don't have to get out of your own skin to teach at the University level.
PS: Many of us have worn your shoes. My advice is to learn from experience and move forward with your life. Don't linger here. Think only you received a D in an important course. If you can't accept such a grade and use the experience to improve yourself, you will never be able to give a D with any sense of ownership, any sense that you know what a D means.
PPS: At least your critics didn't do you the insult of ignoring you.
"Il faut cultiver nos jardins."