Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Offensive Speech and Ethnic Sensitivities -- Part One

“Even if one grants that the University of Illinois acted wrongly in the case of Stephen Salaita, the tweets themselves should be considered deeply offensive, and,  while not overtly anti-Semitic, they conjure up themes and motifs that smack of anti-Semitism. This may not be grounds for dismissal, but it is certainly grounds for condemning the tweets on their own.”

The above is a composite of several reactions to the post below  that I would like to examine. But before I do, consider the following  case, taken from Brian Klug’s essay, Offence: the Jewish Case

At a pro-Palestinian rally  in England, following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, there was a placard that represented an Israeli flag, only instead of the Star of David there was a swastika (or a Star of David and a swastika with an “equals” sign between them).  Now to a Jew this is deeply offensive, for when a Jew sees the Star of David, he associates it with Jews in general or with Judaism – after all, the Nazis required Jews to wear the yellow star well before there was an Israeli flag.  The placard is taken by many Jews to  imply that the victims are to be identified with the perpetrators, and worse, that Judaism is Nazism.  Even a  placard that explicitly stated that  Israel Defense Forces were acting like German soldiers, as offensive as that might be to many Jews, would be less offensive than one in which the Star of David is identified with, or is replaced by, the swastika. What could be more anti-Semitic than that?

Klug points out that this reaction is understandable given Jewish sensitivities and memories, but it is also possible, and maybe actually the case, that the placard writer didn’t mean any of that, that she just wanted to protest vehemently against  Israeli military actions against innocent civilians, and she used the swastika, a universal symbol of evil often used in other, non-Jewish contexts, such as anti-war protests in the United States.  His point, I think,  is two-fold: that Jews, like other groups, have understandable, and in some cases commendable, sensitivities,  but that in assessing whether something is anti-Semitic or not, the intentions of the author should be taken into account. Even something as prima facie anti-Semitic as defacing a synagogue, though criminal and condemnable, is not necessarily an anti-Semitic ac; it depends in large measure on the intentions of the perpetrator. 

Klug writes of the offending banner:

I was not on marches where placards with this image were displayed…Some of the protesters who stepped out under the aegis of this image are, I am sure, decent human beings whose views about Israel’s actions in Gaza are not very different from my own. I might even agree completely with what they say. But if they asked me to join them under their banner I would have to reply, adapting a phrase that wasn’t Voltaire’s, I approve of what you say, but I wouldn’t be seen dead in your company.

Klug was referring to the marchers. To the placard writer, I would say, “I approve of your condemnation of the massacre of innocents, but, as a Jew, and, frankly, as a decent human being, your rhetoric, no matter what your intent, renders it impossible for me to link arms with you in this procession.”

That’s not the end of the story; two further points should be made. First, offence is subjective, from which follows that not every offence carries the same weight, and indeed some offence may be morally praiseworthy, e.g., offending an Israeli military that has committed war crimes. Second, even when being offended is understandable and even  justifiable,  “getting over it” might be the right thing to do, especially when the one giving offence has historically suffered at the hands of the offender's group, or the group the offended supports.  Much depends on context, not just the context of the offence, but of the offender and the offended.

But more of this in Part Two.

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