Students Object to Philosophy Prof’s Facebook Post About Gaza


Andrew Pessin, professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, is at the center of a controversy at Connecticut College regarding offensive speech for a Facebook post he wrote in August, 2014. In the post, reports Inside Higher Ed,

Pessin describes the situation in Gaza as one in which “a rabid pit bull is chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.” In Gaza, according to the post, the conflict is a cycle of giving the dog a chance by letting it out of its cage, only to have to put the pit bull back in the cage when it snarls and goes for the owner’s throat…

Pessin says the students who accuse him of being a racist are deliberately misrepresenting words he used as a metaphor and that he was referring to Hamas, not all Palestinians. Students — in letters to the student newspaper and an online petition — say Pessin dehumanized Palestinians with offensive language…

The letters acknowledge that Pessin has a right to free speech. But they also call on the administration to make underrepresented students feel more comfortable by making it clear that the university doesn’t agree with Pessin’s views…

[Pessin] wrote a brief letter to the editor in which—based on advice from the administration—he apologized for any hurt he caused. He wanted to defend himself, but he recognized that could put the blame on students who misinterpreted his words, he said.

Instead, the apology has been read as an admission of his guilt, he said.

The online petition‘s text includes the following:

We the undersigned acknowledge Prof. Pessin’s apology and hope that it is a sign of enhanced understanding of what precisely constitutes racist speech. We firmly believe and uphold the principle of free speech – free speech, moreover, that entitles one to their racist, homophobic, sexist, bigoted or violently hateful opinions.

We do not believe censoring Prof. Pessin to be the answer. That we are in disagreement with his opinions does not mean we wish to silence them…

We demand that the entire senior administration of College engage publicly in free speech on behalf of its angered and disquieted community, expressly declaring that it condemns the racist sentiments of Prof. Pessin and asking that the backlash against students who have publicly identified Prof. Pessin’s racism for what it was cease with immediate effect.

The original post by Pessin has been deleted, but here is a screen capture of it, via WNPR.

 

PessinPost

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Matthew
Matthew
6 years ago

“The letters acknowledge that Pessin has a right to free speech. But they also call on the administration to make underrepresented students feel more comfortable by making it clear that the university doesn’t agree with Pessin’s views”

I think there’s a problem with just saying that Pessin’s views are wrong because racism. I can disagree with his choice of dehumanizing imagery, but an acceptable point he makes is that liberals do not care enough about what (those who want to reclaim the land of Israel and kick the Jews out) actually will do if liberal sensibilities were simply followed (Palestinians are released from blockades and etc.). It’s clear to me that there’s too much animosity on both sides so I have no problem agreeing with Pessin in a very basic way, for this very basic comment, regardless of the language or the intention. Exactly how straightforward this idea of a ‘release’ conflict is, how it would work out, I have no idea, but in a basic way I can see that some conflict would result. It still might be the best course of action to just solve the humanitarian crisis in this way.

Of course, the metaphor is clumsy and it’s a politically sensitive topic where language like this may easily indicate underlying racism. But not necessarily, so I’m able to consider his views. Because I’m not focusing on racism when I read what he has to say I have the following points of disagreement:

1) The blockades are, as Pessin suggests, a result of the conflict. But they are not excluded from being a cause of the conflict just because conflict was the cause of the blockades. They are the cause of further and deeper conflict. I think that’s an important point and a reason to look at ways to resolve the situation.

2) While a mistreated dog might need to be caged (or even destroyed), human beings respond to each other with love and compassion – and exactly how to win this scenario is extremely complicated for both sides! I think it should have happened already, however, so the dog imagery is even more unhelpful it seems.

2) Israel isn’t a ‘good owner’, doesn’t decide to ‘let the dog out for a bit’ and so on. Many Jews really hate arabs just as many arabs really hate Jews.

3) Can someone suggest better terminology than Arabs vs Jews? or even Palestine vs Israel? or Hamas vs The Israeli Military and Political Elite? It might be a localised, global problem, I don’t even know where to begin.

TL;DR in fact I disagree with Pessin, whilst agreeing with something of what he says (and its a very minor agreement that I kind of have to bend over backwards for). Probably the university should come out and call his comments racist. But please use the opportunity to read charitably and start talking about the problem, no matter what we initially agree or disagree with.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

Before the academic freedom fighters come in (by the time this is posted, I’m probably too late), I just want to register agreement with the students on one point. It’s absolutely dehumanizing to — even metaphorically — refer to a population of humans as ‘a rabid dog’.Report

Carnap
Carnap
6 years ago

I believe Professor Pessin’s views are mistaken and take quite a different view of the causes of the Gaza blockade. Indeed, I think Israel is an apartheid state whose actions against the Palestinians have frequently amounted to crimes against humanity.

However, WTF is wrong with students today? They claim to believe in free speech and academic freedom but they demand that Professor Pessin’s speech be “expressly condemned” by the College administration. What is the point of such an exercise? Must the College now take a position on every contested issue and condemn the speech (and thought?) every professor (student, administrator, maintenance worker?) who disagrees? The parallel with recent student demands that Northwestern’s administration officially condemn Prof. Kipnis will, I hope, not be lost on readers.
How about meeting mistaken speech with more speech meant to correct the mistakes rather than demands that academic bureaucrats issue official condemnations?Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

I could not disagree more with Professor Pessin’s opinion, but I’m bothered by the demands that the university express official disagreement with his political views. I fear a chilling effect on unpopular views. I’m also disturbed by the assumption that his sentiments are racist, rather than just wrong. Just as unfair criticism of Israel need not be racist, unfair criticism of the Palestinians need not be racist.Report

Amy Lara
Amy Lara
6 years ago

Setting aside the content of the post for a moment, I’m confused about the “rules” for speech on venues like facebook. Is posting something on facebook more like publishing a letter to the editor or more like expressing one’s views at a dinner party with friends you’ve invited over? That would seem to make a lot of difference to whether students have a legitimate complaint that a professor is creating a hostile learning environment or undermining diversity efforts on campus. I think we can all agree that if I wore a “Girls Can’t Logic” T-shirt to class, I’m out of bounds. If I wore it to a private party with friends, though, knowing that no students are going to be there, that would seem to be my own business. Of course, someone at the party could take a picture of me in the shirt and post it on social media, just as one can take a screenshot of someone’s facebook post and distribute it, but that doesn’t make my speech public.Report

Jan
Jan
6 years ago

Carnap, can you tell me what your evidence is for your comparison of the student response in the Pessin case to the student response in the Kipnis case? In the latter case, the students respond to her speech with speech in their letter to the editor here:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1rHFYQaFRBOrEUtTIrF9cEblo-Pv9k-LYuEpOZVTRfRo/edit
They do not, as far as I can see, call for the administration to react in any way.
Neither is there reportage of such a request here:
http://dailynorthwestern.com/2015/03/03/campus/northwestern-professor-laura-kipnis-column-on-professor-student-relationships-sparks-student-backlash/
There is, though, discussion in the letter of Kipnis’s recounting, in her op-ed piece, of a private conversation she had with a student. Perhaps some will think that a borderline violation, but I would have thought that a professor’s right to free speech does not give her a right to report, in a newspaper, private conversations she had with her own students in her capacity as teacher of those students.
Based on this evidence and for these reasons, the cases seem quite different to me.Report

Carnap
Carnap
6 years ago

Hi Jan,
I relied on
http://dailynorthwestern.com/2015/03/10/campus/students-carry-mattresses-pillows-to-protest-professors-controversial-article/
which links to the following petition
https://docs.google.com/forms/d/12sbmVqpNGQPY-QEYG5N7-VIUsXigVg3l9itcX4yTDcA/viewform
in which the students “call for a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article and we demand that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.”Report

Carnap
Carnap
6 years ago

My previous comments on this post contain errors. Comment 3 is missing an “of” in the sixth sentence. Comment 7 is rendered ungrammatical by the unedited content of the embedded quote. I deeply regret the errors (and all future typographic and grammatical errors) and sincerely apologize to all who were offended.Report

Jan
Jan
6 years ago

I see; thanks. There still strike me as important differences between the two cases, but, since I don’t have a clear, firm view on free speech, I’ll leave the discussion to others. Certainly, we can agree, though, that students have a right to call for whatever response they like from the administration, regardless of whether we think justice requires the administration at either school respond in any particular way.Report

Brandon Boesch
Brandon Boesch
6 years ago

I don’t have anything to say about Pessin and this case in particular, but I think Amy’s question is rather interesting, and this might be a good opportunity to think more about it.

Facebook (and other social medias of this sort) seem to me to fail to fit to traditional social norms. In many ways, they have already begun to develop their own social norms. My grandma, for example, took a little while to catch on that it might be a bit strange to praise me and tell me she loves me in the comments of a picture which was taken by a friend. (Not that I was particularly offended… this is what grandmothers do). There are other norms of this sort, as I suspect many of us are either reflectively or non-reflectively aware.

I bring this up because I think one of the troubles in trying to understand the nature of appropriate behavior on venues like Facebook is that we are trying to draw analogies with other social interactions. We want to know what Facebook is like, then apply the relevant similarities in norms. This is helpful, to a certain extent, insofar as it allows a starting point for reflection. But it seems to me as though this will ultimately be a problematic because we are trying to fit this new way of social interaction into an old framework. But it’s not clear that this will ultimately be revealing or helpful in the ways we want.

So, I’m inclined to think that posting on Facebook (depending on which privacy settings are enacted, etc.) is more akin to having a loud-ish conversation in a public place (like a coffee shop or a university quad) than it is to writing a letter to the editor or having a private conversation. It’s some sort of weird middle ground. Thus, the social norms seem to be: you should be slightly more careful what you say, but you can speak directly to your interlocutor, using examples and references which might be misinterpreted by others, but which your interlocutor will understand. For example, an inside joke referencing something which would be misinterpreted (with bad results) by most other people seems fine to use in conversation in a public place.

As I said, though, I don’t think the analogy is sufficient, since there are various features of Facebook that do not correspond to the example. One is that what happens on Facebook can be shared verbatim; another is that it’s not clear who, precisely, is the interlocutor in mind when something is posted on Facebook; and so on.

So, I think this is something worth thinking about. But we should possibly entertain that the social norms which ultimately develop to oversee these sorts of interactions might be wholly different from other situations. The problem is that the norms are (possibly) still developing, so we are not clear how to act yet.Report

Sandalwood
Sandalwood
6 years ago

If anyone is interested in pursuing an insightful line of argument which suggests that academics, especially philosophers, have a heightened sense of moral responsibility for their writings, whether it be articles they write in academic journals or what they post on social media, I suggest reading chapter 7 of Larry May’s book “Sharing Responsibility”(titled “Philosophers and Political Responsibility”). I find these “freedom of speech” claims that philosophers make to defend their harmful words to be quite tiring and sickening, and it’s high time we start taking seriously the possibility that we should hold academics morally accountable for their writings and speech…. “freedom of speech” and all. Good for the students at Connecticut College.Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

The student petition Justin links to includes the following argument:

Let us briefly explain why his post is racist in no uncertain terms. Here are some of the opening lines of Prof. Pessin’s original post:
“You’ve got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape. The owner, naturally, keeps the thing in the cage, but being kind-hearted or something regularly feeds it, waters it, takes care of its health needs, etc.”

It is clear that regardless of whom Prof. Pessin is addressing here, he is indisputably dehumanizing them. Dehumanization is a tool of racism. Dehumanization has been used all throughout human history to justify genocide, colonialism and hatred of many communities.

“anon” (Comment #2) weighs in:

Before the academic freedom fighters come in (by the time this is posted, I’m probably too late), I just want to register agreement with the students on one point. It’s absolutely dehumanizing to — even metaphorically — refer to a population of humans as ‘a rabid dog’.

Rather than complain (or start a petition) about anon’s clear attempt to marginalize and oppress people like me, let’s look at the actual argument, which has all the advantages of theft over honest toil. First, the alleged “dehumanization.” Do we really have to point out that using non-human figures of speech to refer to humans might trivially count as “dehumanizing,” while failing to “dehumanize” in any morally loaded sense? For instance, Barney Frank said to Rachel Brown, “Ma’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table.” But he did not thereby dehumanize her in any interesting sense. (I might add that if you insist he did, well, then you are a bit of a dining table yourself.) Then the second step in the argument is from dehumanization to racism. But at most there is a step from *race-based* dehumanization to racism. What is the textual evidence that Pessin’s claims about Israel and Gaza are race-based? It seems to me the social science consensus is that “Jew” and “Arab” are cultural rather than racial classifications. So far, I’m not seeing the “racist in no uncertain terms”…Report

twbb
twbb
6 years ago

“We demand that the entire senior administration of College engage publicly in free speech on behalf of its angered and disquieted community, expressly declaring that it condemns the racist sentiment”

Definitely a facepalm moment. “I demand you say what I want you to say as free speech!”Report

Matt Weiner
6 years ago

Just as unfair criticism of Israel need not be racist, unfair criticism of the Palestinians need not be racist.

It seems to me that this is not analogous. Israel is a country while the Palestinians are a people. Unfair criticism of the Palestinian Authority needn’t be racist, like unfair criticism of Israel, but unfair criticism of Palestinians themselves surely is, well, anti-Palestinian, just like unfair criticism of Jews is anti-Semitic.

(Richard Hanley seems to be arguing that anti-Arab and anti-Jewish prejudice isn’t racist because Arabs and Jews aren’t races. Even if this doesn’t rest on dubious notions of “race,” it seems to me that these prejudices share at least most of the bad-making features of racism, regardless of the term we use for them.)Report