Civility and its Discontents

by Gerald Dworkin


Tom Paulin

In the light of the recent fire-storm over the hirefire of Steven Salaita, I thought it might be interesting to revisit a case which raised similar issues about whether there are limits to what a University may do with respect to controversial speech. This was a case which did not raise issues about hiring and firing and procedural justice so it may perhaps be a better one to focus on.

In 2002, the Harvard English Department invited the Irish poet Tom Paulin to give a poetry reading as the Morris Gray lecturer. Shortly thereafter it was brought to the attention of the inviters that Paulin had made the following statements in an interview to an Egyptian newspaper.

“Brooklyn-born settlers in the occupied territories should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.” Brooklyn? Has the man no shame?

The newspaper also quoted him as saying: “I never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all.” In a poem published earlier in the Observer he referred to the “Zionist SS” .

Another comment was “There's something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel's aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.” Oh, sorry that was Steven Salaita.

As a result of this, and without as far as we know any influence by Harvard donors, the English Department retracted their invitation.

A hail of protests ensued. Strange bedfellows issued letters. This one came from Alan Dershowitz, Laurence Tribe and Charles Fried.

“By all accounts this Paulin fellow the English Department invited to lecture here is a despicable example of the anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel posturing unfortunately quite widespread among European intellectuals (News, “Poet Flap Drew Summers' Input,” Nov. 14). We think he probably should not have been invited. But Harvard has had its share of cranks, monsters, scoundrels and charlatans lecture here and has survived.

What is truly dangerous is the precedent of withdrawing an invitation because a speaker would cause, in the words of English department chair Lawrence Buell, “consternation and divisiveness.” We are justly proud that our legal system insisted that the American Nazi Party be allowed to march through the heavily Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois. If Paulin had spoken, we are sure we would have found ways to tell him and each other what we think of him. Now he will be able to lurk smugly in his Oxford lair and sneer at America's vaunted traditions of free speech. There are some mistakes which are only made worse by trying to undo them.”

James Shapiro, of Columbia where Paulin was visiting, condemned Harvard's actions as “disastrous”.

“I say this as somebody who is a Zionist, who teaches Jewish studies, who has opposed petitions on my campus for the university to divest from Israel,” he said. “The idea of rescinding an invitation because someone has not passed a political litmus test establishes a very dangerous precedent.

“Do I think Tom said a stupid thing? Absolutely, and I know few people who haven't said stupid things. Do I think Tom is an anti-semite? I can say from extensive discussions with him on the Middle East that he isn't. These students have an absolute right to heckle Tom Paulin, but they do not have the right to force the university to rescind the invitation.

Harvard's President, Larry Summers, who was later to be forced to resign because of his comments on Women and Science ( where was the anti-civility crowd then?) said:

“Invitations to lecture in Harvard departments are commonly extended by those departments. We are ultimately stronger as a university if we together maintain our robust commitment to free expression, including the freedom of groups on campus to invite speakers with controversial views, sometimes views that many members of our community find abhorrent. We must stand firmly behind that commitment.

On another occasion, I have made clear my concerns about speech that may be viewed as lending comfort to anti-Semitism.

I hope that people who choose to attend the planned reading will respect the rights of those who wish to hear the speaker. And I hope that people with differing points of view will feel free to air them in responsible ways.”

I agree with all those who argued against the revocation of the invitation to Paulin. Once the Department has acted it should not give in to pressures from people who have ideological axes to grind.

But that leaves it an open question of whether the invitation should have been issued in the first place. It is important to note that the invitation is not just one inviting a scholar or artist to give a seminar. In that case I would have no hesitation in voting for a talk by someone I take to be a distinguished person in her field no matter how I felt about them or their speech. Ezra Pound was a fine poet AND a fascist sympathiser. It would nevertheless be valuable for poets and students to listen to him talk about poetry.

But I would not vote to have my University honor him with an endowed and named lecture.

The moral of the story in my view is that a University –which I regard as its faculty, Administrators being there to make sure the garbage is collected — make many different types of decisions. They hire, fire, invite speakers, grant tenure to some, award honorary degrees, accept and award named chairs, promote to higher ranks, admit students, grant degrees, expel students, etc. In all these cases freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, absence of censorship, are paramount values. But each decision has a different character, has different consequences, expresses different messages. Of course, quality of scholarship and teaching are the most important things to take into account in hiring and tenure decisions. But other factors can play a role as well. Appointing a woman to be the Chair of a Department carries a message with it. Inviting a speaker to give a named lecture does as well. So does appointing a person as Chair of a Department.

At my alma mater, City College, Leonard Jeffries was removed from his position as Chair of the Department of Afro-American studies, although retaining his tenured professorship. While there were some issues of administrative competence at issue, his speech was certainly a factor. Among other things he referred to Jews as skunks who stunk up everything. In a magazine interview when asked what kind of world he wanted to leave to his children his answer was “a world in which there aren't any white people.” After a complicated legal battle the courts ultimately upheld the right of the college to dismiss him from his administrative post.

Obviously a position like mine which involves the making of subtle distinctions about the nature of the decision, about the content of the speech versus its form ( slurs,obscenities and threats to use Corey Robin's terms), about prima facie relevance vs. determinative weight, opens the doors for misuse and manipulation for ideological purposes. For the latest insanity–this time a pro-Israel professor was the target– see

In the final analysis I might have to settle for a blanket prohibition against any legally protected speech, outside the classroom, counting against any hiring/firing decision. But I would still want us to understand what we lose by such a blanket prohibition as well as what we gain.

In particular, I believe the anti-civility movement is making a grave error. It is one thing to protest the use of “civility” as a weapon to limit free speech. It is quite another to attack civility considered as a value or ideal. Eugene Volokh has rewritten the disastrous attempt of Chancellor Dirks of Berkeley to distinguish between civility and free speech which I criticised in my last blogpost.

“But while protecting free speech is necessary to maintaining an open, democratic society — and to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the university's mission — it is not sufficient. We also need a willingness to listen. We need a willingness to engage in intellectually honest debate rather than in demagoguery. We need commitment to the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, so that what we say will be more likely to be factually accurate and logically sound.

And we particularly need civility. Learning, research, and debate are social endeavors, which work best when people engage in them graciously and politely, and which work poorly when people are needlessly rude and disrespectful to each other. When people know that expressing certain views will lead to name-calling and ad hominem arguments, they will be less likely to express those views. When people are treated disrespectfully by some on the other side of a debate, they will be less open to being convinced, and less likely to work hard to convince others. And this is true not just of political speech on Sproul Plaza, but also in our everyday interactions with each other — in the classroom, in the office, and in the lab.

This is especially so when issues are inherently divisive, controversial, and capable of arousing strong feelings. We will protect people's rights to freely express themselves on these issues (even when they do so uncivilly), and we strongly encourage people to engage those issues. Indeed, the work of the University and a commitment to intellectual honesty demand that people engage those issues, despite their controversial nature. But nearly every idea that people want to express can be expressed politely — and expressing it politely is almost always more persuasive, as well as being more conducive to learning, debate, and the discovery of knowledge.”