As the faculty member who invited Steven Salaita to speak at Guilford College this past Tuesday, organized every aspect of his visit and acquiesced to the college president’s request to move the venue for his lecture, I was left very confused by what transpired in the days just before and during his visit.
But I think I finally learned the lesson I really needed to learn from this experience — and it’s not the one you think.
When I got the request to move Salaita’s lecture, I saw it primarily as a logistical problem. We were cutting it close; the talk was in a mere four days. But truth be told, I was not too resistant to moving the talk to the more central and aesthetically pleasing Carnegie Room in the college’s library, a space that could accommodate a larger number of people.
But when Ali Abunimah’s piece, headlined “North Carolina college bows to donor pressure over Steven Salaita talk” came out in The Electronic Intifada, I felt like someone had pulled the rug from under me.
At first, I was angry and hurt — angry that Ali was focusing on (what I perceived to be) a rather insignificant change from one place on campus to another a hop and a skip away; angry that he seemingly couldn’t see that as a small liberal arts college with struggling finances, and an infinitesimal fraction of the endowment of, say, the University of Illinois, our firm stance on hosting Salaita on our campus was actually pretty heroic. I was especially angry that the world (because by now Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education had picked up the story) would now see Guilford in a way that was so antithetical to its very being, its history and its core values.
As a Quaker institution with strong ties to the Friends School in Ramallah, several Palestinian students on scholarship every year, a thriving and active Students for Justice in Palestine organization and annual student trips to Palestine to see what the Israeli occupation was like on the ground, we were probably one of the Palestinian solidarity movement’s strongest campus allies that Salaita would encounter on his tour.
And then I stopped being angry at Ali and became angry at myself. As a Palestinian, I was mortified that I had anything to do with what he decried in his piece — that by changing the venue at the request of the family that had donated funds for the building where the talk was originally scheduled, we had inadvertently silenced a fellow Palestinian and a man we deeply respect, contributed to the damaging discourses about him and showed tacit acceptance of the smears to his reputation. That was the opposite of what we wanted to do.
But these were all egotistical, self-centered responses. They were all about me or Guilford. They didn’t teach me much that I didn’t know or that was useful for more general audiences in a productive way.
So I started thinking differently.
Why hadn’t we actually anticipated the reaction Ali Abunimah expressed at The Electronic Intifada?
To many of us on campus, The Electronic Intifada story was completely shocking and completely unexpected. On the drive to Durham with Steven, after his talk at Guilford, I told him this and he admitted that he hadn’t anticipated it either. So there you have it — two smart Palestinian academic activists who didn’t fully anticipate the backlash from someone in the Palestinian solidarity movement. So what does this tell us?
Something very important: that despite the charges against Salaita and others who dare dissent, the Palestinians, especially those in academia (whether it’s faculty, students or administrators) are entirely too civil.
We didn’t anticipate the backlash because we couldn’t imagine it, and that’s because it rarely happens.
The vocal backlash of the powerful, we can always anticipate. But the fact that we didn’t anticipate this particular response is very telling of its habitual absence, an absence we have simply normalized and unconsciously accepted.
Normalized into silence
In his lecture at Guilford, Steven Salaita spoke powerfully and movingly about how the discourse of “student comfort” seems always to take into account only the normative student’s comfort (the white student, the straight student, the Jewish student). Why aren’t we talking about the potential discomfort, let’s say, of a Palestinian student in a Zionist professor’s class? That conversation is unimaginable, mostly because those students don’t seem to matter, and partly because, as Salaita said, “Palestinian students suck it up.”
Well, we ought not to suck it up anymore.
We have to stop sucking it up, so that the response at The Electronic Intifada is not something unusual, but normal. Not something we could never anticipate, but something we always keep in mind, attend to, consider in our decisions and planning and fear.
Ultimately, this should teach us something about resistance, especially discursive resistance. We’d been so normalized into silence that we’ve come to accept it. Let’s stop doing that.
Let’s keep breaking the silence.
Diya Abdo is associate professor of English at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.