Sunday, February 28, 2016

Free Speech, Conspiracy Crap, Anti-Semitism and Oberlin

A caveat: I have not followed closely the events at Oberlin nor have I been back in quite a while.

But people are asking me my take on my alma mater as a professor, as an alum, as someone who posts stuff online quite a bit, and perhaps someone who was raised Jewish (I am not a believer).  So, what is the story and what is my take?

Seems like there is a lot of tension at Oberlin about Palestine and about anti-semitism and various other overlapping identity conflicts that are coming to a head with one prof in the middle: Joy Karega, who is an Assistant Professor Rhetoric and Composition.  She has posted various things on her facebook page that are quite offensive to many folks, including supporting 9/11 truther stuff and suggesting Israel was behind the various attacks in Paris.

I am not going to be the first to hang Karega even though I am deeply, deeply hostile to 9/11 truther crap.  Why not?  First, I am not a big fan of taking people's facebook posts and using them to get people fired (although I can be prone to schadenfreude).  Posting on a personal page is distinct from teaching in the classroom or publishing in public outlets.  Second, even teaching/publishing is obviously protected by academic freedom--that professors should be allowed to be provocative.  I have never been confident about whether that applies to stuff that is clearly/factually wrong--like the anti-vaxxer teaching stuff in health classes at U of Toronto.

So what should Oberlin do?  Not fire her, for one.  Although insta-promotion of her (as was apparently on the list of demands that student protesters put together) is also a bad idea.  She should be promoted and kept or dismissed based on whether she is a good teacher and researcher or not.  One can have controversial views and still do those things well.  I do have concerns when people go outside their lane (oops, guilty), so what does a writing prof know about terrorism?  The school has issued statements disassociating from Karega's statements while acknowledging her right to her (awful, awful, awful) views.

The list of things people are raising are a mix.  That the Kosher Halal co-op got kicked out of the student co-op association is strange, but I lack info about the dynamics.  Does the school have any oversight over the co-op association?  It may not, and thus be powerless.  What was the reason for this expulsion?  I find this complaint to be an important one, and that as an alum, I would like to know more about it.

The BDS movement is a real challenge, as students are rightly (in my view) upset about the treatment of Palestinians in Israel and Netanyahu's awful policies BUT both the BDS program (boycotting Israeli universities) and the way it is often conveyed (via threats) are not great.  Still, while Obie Jews can be upset that there were protests during Rosh Hashanah, that is the price of liberty.  People can choose to protest at times that are highly visible, and one just has to deal with that.  So, it might create tension, but I actually don't think this is worthy of complaint--protests on high holidays are just something to deal with.  Now, if there were efforts to block entrances to chapels, that is problematic.  My basic stance as always is that your freedoms are your freedoms unless they impact my freedoms, and then we have to figure stuff out.

One key part the matter is this: one can be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish; one can be Jewish and not be pro-Israel; one can be pro-Israel and either Jewish or not (I do think that the demise of the one state solution is forcing Israel into the position of being Jewish or democratic but not both). But the reality is that this stuff gets tangled fast.  So, Jews think that folks who are critical of Israel are critical of Jews, and that is sometimes but not always the case.  That Karega cites Louis Farrakahn approvingly puts her on the wrong side of that line, that she approves of conspiracy theory that puts the Jews and/or Israel behind many events puts her on the wrong side of that line.  The protesters at Oberlin?  I have no idea.

What I do remember about my days in Oberlin is that protesters ranged from well informed and thoughtful to knee-jerk and determined to be divisive.  So, I cannot generalize about the students of today.  I know that the college is in a difficult spot, as the African-American students have some serious concerns (I am not a fan of their list of demands), that the Jewish students have serious concerns, and those who are concerned about the Palestinians have legitimate concerns.  Figuring out ways to take all of this seriously without upsetting any one group or violating someone's academic freedom is not easy at all.

All I can say is that I am one embarrassed Obie, but I am used to that, as the student activism is passionate and often finds itself directed in both productive ways and in silly ways.

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