Stop Demanding Dumb Answers To Hard Questions
Demanding Short, Dumb Answers About Hate Speech Makes You A Useful Idiot For Bigots.
This post may be less solicitous of your feelings than you may hope.
America faces many problems. The easy ones we solve or ignore. We struggle with the hard ones. Hard problems raise complex questions that lack glib, one-word answers. The stubborn thirst for simple answers to hard questions is bad for America. It’s anti-intellectual, pro-ignorance, pro-stupidity, pro-bigotry, pro-reactionary, pro-totalitarianism, pro-tyranny, pro-mob.
Take this week’s Congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses, titled “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” A generous interpretation — a credulous one — would be that the hearing was designed to inquire why colleges aren’t protecting Jewish students from antisemitic harassment. A more realistic interpretation is that the hearing was a crass show trial primarily intended to convey that a wide variety of dissenting speech about Israel is inherently antisemitic, that American colleges are shitholes of evil liberalism, and that Democrats suck. Since Democrats do suck, they mostly cooperated.
The core Two-Minute Hate of this carnival was Rep. Elise Stefanik’s demand for yes-or-no answers to questions about whether policies at Harvard, Penn, and MIT would prohibit calling for the genocide of Jews. You might think Elise Stefanik is an unlikely standard-bearer for a crusade against antisemitism, given that she’s a repeat promoter of Great Replacement Theory, the antisemitic trope that Jews are bringing foreigners into America to undermine it. But if you bought Stefanik’s bullshit, you probably didn’t think that far. The college presidents did a rather clumsy job of saying, accurately but unconvincingly, that the answer depends on the context. Stefanik and every politician our loudmouth who wants you to hate and distrust college education and Palestinians pounced on it. And many of you fell for it. You — and I say this with love — absolute fucking dupes.
If you think the question “is calling for the genocide of a group against your policy” is an easy question with a one-word answer, you’re wrong. I understand you want the answer to be easy, but that’s not the same thing as it being easy.
Even though private colleges aren’t bound by the First Amendment, let’s first look at it as a First Amendment question, as the outer limits of what’s permitted. Is calling for the genocide of a group protected by the First Amendment? In America, the answer is yes, unless it also falls into an established First Amendment exception. The First Amendment protects advocacy of the moral, historical, and practical correctness of monstrous, immoral, and illegal things, unless they are:
Conveyed as a true threat — that is a threat intended to be taken, and likely to be taken by a reasonable observer, as a sincere expression of intent to do harm to someone;
Conveyed as incitement — that is, intended and likely to cause imminent lawless action;
Part of a pattern of harassment — that is, directed to someone under protected circumstances (such as an employee or student) and meeting a stringent test for harassment, described below.
But what about college policies? Private colleges don’t have to follow the First Amendment, do they? With certain complex exceptions1 , no. But despite wall-to-wall propaganda about how American colleges routinely suppress any speech seen as remotely racist, many colleges have speech policies that are either vague or that protect speech rather broadly and robustly. Since Harvard was on the hot seat, let’s look at theirs. Here is the most recent update to their Nondiscrimination and Harassment policy:
Discriminatory harassment is unwelcome and offensive conduct that is based on an individual or group’s protected status. Discriminatory harassment may be considered to violate this policy when it is so severe or pervasive, and objectively offensive, that it creates a work, educational, or living environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive and denies the individual an equal opportunity to participate in the benefits of the workplace or the institution’s programs and activities.
These factors will be considered in assessing whether discriminatory harassment violates this policy:
• Frequency of the conduct
• Severity and pervasiveness of the conduct
• Whether it is physically threatening
• Degree to which the conduct interfered with an employee’s work performance or a student’s academic performance or ability to participate in or benefit from academic/campus programs and activities
• The relationship between the alleged harasser and the subject or subjects of the harassment.
That policy mirrors federal law - specifically, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits certain kinds of sex discrimination in education. There are parallel prohibitions on racial discrimination. In other words, Harvard prohibits speech that would violate federal educational anti-discrimination law. Just as the law gradually came to recognize sexual harassment as sex discrimination, sexual or racial harassment can be educational discrimination. But not everything that offends someone is illegal discrimination, at work or at school. As with the test for sexual harassment, the bar is set pretty high. Here’s how the Supreme Court described what speech or conduct would constitute harassment violating Title IX: “plaintiff must show harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims' educational experience, that the victims are effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities.” As you can see, Harvard’s policy echoes that language.
So. The university presidents were completely right. Whether calling for the genocide of the Jews, or any other group, violates a school’s policy depends on the context. For instance:
Going to a campus chapter of Hillel and chanting “kill all Jews” is probably so severe, objectively offensive, and destructive of students’ educational experience that it violates the standard.
If four students are talking politics in a dorm room, and one (by dramatic convention, a sophomore) says “we should just wipe all the Palestinians out,” and one of the four repeats that to someone else later, and that person is horrified, that is almost certainly not severe or pervasive or contextually destructive of the educational experience enough to qualify.
If a professor uses the Israel-Palestinian conflict to discuss whether armed revolution is morally or legally justified, and presents the argument that armed revolution by Palestinians is justified, that almost certainly doesn’t violate the standard, although some people argue that it inherently calls for the genocide of the Jews.
If a professor reads out sentiments expressed by different groups in a discussion of the war in Israel, and sentiment one the professor mentions is “kill the Jews,” that does not qualify. If you think that’s a silly example, you’re wrong.
If one student makes a point of saying “all Jews should die” to a classmate every time they meet to express a sentiment about Israel, that’s probably severe and pervasive enough to qualify.
If a student says, at a rally about Palestinian rights, “they want to kill all the Palestinians, but I say they should kill all the Jews first,” the context probably means that’s not severe, pervasive, or destructive of the educational experience enough, since it’s expressly conditional and political.
The list goes on and on, as complex and diverse as human communication and experience.
Stefanik’s purpose was transparent. No matter how the college presidents answered, she won. If they answered accurately — that the question depended on the context - she could shriek neeeeeerrrrrrdddd like a football player bullying a kid with glasses, and credulous people would eat it up. If the presidents answered inaccurately but simply “yes,” she could make her next point: then why aren’t you punishing people who advocate intifada? Why aren’t you expelling students for saying “from the river to the sea”? Why aren’t you punishing people for accusing Israel of genocide? That was her express, explicit purpose:
Congresswoman Stefanik: Dr. Kornbluth, at MIT, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate MIT’s code of conduct or rules regarding bullying and harassment? Yes or no?
President Kornbluth: If targeted at individuals not making public statements.
Congresswoman Stefanik: Yes or no, calling for the genocide of Jews does not constitute bullying and harassment?
President Kornbluth: I have not heard calling for the genocide for Jews on our campus.
Congresswoman Stefanik: But you've heard chants for Intifada.
There’s the rhetorical trick. Calling for Intifada is not the same as calling for the genocide of the Jews, and it’s just dishonest to say it is. Not all Jews are Israeli. Arguing that a particular group has a moral right to violent revolution against the power over it is not a call for the genocide of a group. The argument about when violent revolution is morally justified is ancient. Whether or not you agree that Israel is tyrannical or the Palestinians are unjustifiably oppressed, you can’t outlaw arguments that they are and pretend you’re anything but an absolute censor. The hearing was full of gripes like that — contentions that the slogan “from the river to the sea” should be outlawed and complaints that colleges had invited speakers with radical pro-Palestinian views. The crystal clear message was we think protecting Jews from antisemitism requires suppressing a broad range of speech from Them.
And many people bought it, and now it’s being used as part of the culture war against higher education, and too many of you fucking fell for it.
You might say I am being more than usually uncharitable in this post. That’s because I think people falling for Stefanik’s gambit have been more than usually gullible. They’ve become useful idiots for evil. They’ve become the dupes of people who will wave the banner of “fight antisemitism” while pushing Great Replacement Theory. They’ve become the patsies of people who transparently want to use Jews as an instrument and excuse to suppress speech they don’t like. They’ve become the creatures of cynical, dishonest politicians who want to treat hard things like they are simple to rile up mobs.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that antisemitism is on the rise in America in the wake of October 7th. It’s on the rise on college campuses. Sometimes criticism of Israel or defense of Palestinians is explicitly antisemitic, sometimes it is implicitly antisemitic, and sometimes it incorporates classic antisemitic tropes. Sometimes people of bad faith take advantage of the ambiguity. (I think some people use “from the river to the sea” that way, as a deliberately ambiguous taunt, a big brother’s back-seat ha-ha-I’m-not-touching-you, but with an implicit allusion to genocide.) I don’t blame Jews who feel under siege in America or on campus, even if I sometimes disagree with their interpretation of criticisms of Israel. Feelings are not right or wrong, and in the face of so much overt Jew-hatred, I understand a tendency to interpret ambiguous statements in the worst way possible. I think we should feel compassion and empathy for people who feel that way.
None of that is solved by pretending hard questions are easy. None of that is solved by letting demagogues and hucksters take advantage of the moment to push their agenda. None of that is solved by contributing to what America is becoming — stupider and meaner.
Edited to add: Predictably, Elise Stefanik has discovered that fighting antisemitism will require Congressional investigation of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs on campus. Swell job, dupes everywhere.