In Which I Try to Talk about Divestment and Free Speech (Without Getting Bogged Down in Nuanced Political Issues On Which I am Unqualified to Speak)

Posted by at 8:19PM

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict once again became a heated issue on campus when the possibility of a divestment bill nearly reached the ASSU Undergraduate Senate last week. As that happened, people started writing about Israel, Palestine, and the idea of divestment: (in chronological order–take a deep breath, here goes): op-ed here, op-ed here, op-ed here, an overview here (recommended), a news article here,  an op-ed here, an op-ed here,  a news article here, an op-ed here, and an op-ed here, and this. On top of all this, people actually utilized the comments section of some of these articles–most notably Linda Hess’s piece (op-ed the third)–and went on to add to the dialogue a mix of comments ranging from interesting to hateful to hilarious.

After reading all of the above and talking in-depth with members of the ASSU and students who support (strongly) both sides of the issue, one thing is extraordinarily clear: whatever your view on divestment is, or on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it is absolutely clear that this is not a topic in which the ASSU should have any involvement.

Luckily, and to my cynical-self’s surprise, the leaders of the primary pro-divestment group (Campaign Restore Hope) and anti-divestment group (Invest for Peace)* have come together and agreed that the ASSU should not be the arena for the divestment debate. I have no idea how this occurred, but I cannot commend the leaders in this discussion enough: this is a victory for any hope at actual progress and helps diminish the likelihood of the campus devolving further into an unproductive flame war with heavily negative consequences for many students on campus.

What this last concept–negative consequences of this debate–brings to light is that much of the divestment discussion is intimately linked with free speech. But free speech, like Israeli/Palestinian politics, is a much more nuanced issue than most people want to acknowledge.

Free speech entails the protection of most speech, but it does not differentiate between positive (colloquially: “good”) and negative (colloquially: “bad”) speech.  Free speech proponents such as myself (or more substantive organizations like FIRE and the ACLU) err on the side of allowing all kinds of speech, even if we think it is plain wrong (or, in the case of Glenn Beck, hilarious with the sound turned off) to ensure that speech is not quashed before it has a chance to be positive. “Positive” and “negative” here do not refer to supportive versus critical; rather, we can define positive speech as that which helps make progress on the actual issues at stake, and negative as that which achieves the opposite. In this case, negative speech is that which inspires hatred across the campus, increases the divide between groups on campus (particularly the Muslim and Jewish communities), and/or rehashes old arguments that get floated again and again until they verge on violating the fighting words doctrine (see the comments to the Daily articles above for a brief introduction to that).

Glenn Beck's finger-wiggling should be protected, but that doesn't make it good.

One of the dominant points in the divestment debate has been a claim that opponents of divestment are trying to stifle free speech by avoiding this issue. Framing it in this way, however, is only viable if all speech is equally positive.

With that in mind, regardless of your political stance on the issue (I’m trying very hard to back up the caveat about politics I allude to in the groundbreakingly-long title of this piece), you need to make a distinction between positive and negative speech, even if both are, and should be, vigorously protected both by law and our own interests of maximizing intellectual engagement.

Writing about the issue for the public (whether in the Daily, the Review, here on TUSB, or other) is, in my opinion, a positive form of speech–particularly when it brings something new to the argument rather than reiterates a cavalcade of unfounded or already-trodden material. Similarly, goals 1 and 3 of Campaign Restore Hope lend itself to perhaps the ideal culmination of positive speech: educating the public and finding creative ways to bring progress to the region. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, institutionally, non-institutionally, or somewhere in between. See the first event sponsored by CRH and IFP this Sunday.

From a purely speech-based point of view, though, goal number 2–divestment–is a much harder sell. For one thing, the use of the word divestment is inextricably linked with with Sudan and apartheid-era South Africa. Calling for divestment from Israel, therefore, connects Israel’s actions with those in Darfur and South Africa (inadvertently or on purpose)–a topic which, regardless of politics, is sure to set off a firestorm of divisive opinions based on emotions that entail the negative type of free speech. Like the stability of the region itself, the discussion on the Middle East is inherently fragile. As such, both sides should want to avoid negative speech because it results in ineffectiveness: getting bogged down in negative speech will not help make progress for either side; rather, it will make any progress inherently more difficult, entangled,  and ultimately serve as a hindrance to tangible progress.

For many issues, the concept of positive and negative free speech might be less applicable–and there are certainly cases in which inciting a bit of controversy by pushing the bounds of good and bad speech not only works but helps the issue as a whole. But in dealing with such an emotional and contentious issue–one that literally relates to survival for many students (on both sides)–stepping away from politics and looking at the topics through a lens of speech provides a unique, and perhaps insightful, view of the debate. If any progress is to be made, it will probably be from there.

*These are rough generalizations, and these groups are much more than just these stark contrasts–but for the sake of simplicity, they represent the competing sides of this issue.



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