Can We Have A Conversation About Political Conversation?

April 14, 2013, 1:34 pm

no-talkingIt appears that decent, ethical people associated with Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) are speaking out about the nastiness, personal attacks and other silencing tactics that currently characterize the debate over the Israeli Occupation. My trusty RSS feed reports that Columbia law prof Katherine Franke and San Francisco attorney and mediation specialist Frederick Hertz are asking pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli partisans in the United States to share queer intellectual and political space in a more productive way. You can read a report about the call to dialogue at Electronic Intifada.

Clearly, I have some skin in this game. Readers of Tenured Radical will remember an ugly week, not too long ago, in which my expression of doubt about the ethics and efficacy of a cultural boycott against Israel (a view which is not unique on the left, and does not represent an endorsement of the Occupation) unleashed a torrent of personal abuse. The abuse continued on Facebook, where a parody of me as a clueless racist appeared on the page of a (now former, since an apology was not forthcoming) friend, and on Twitter.

So I’m interested in Franke’s initiative because I know what the immediate effects are of being the subject of a deliberately polarizing exchange, and how rhetorical attacks serve as a warning to others about what can and cannot be expressed. When it happens in the law, it’s called a “chilling effect;” when it happens in social life,  it’s called bullying and intimidation.

Electronic mobbing is a hazard of blogging. I know that deliberate harm to the mobb-ee is, ironically, incidental to the need of mobb-ers to perform for each other. By identifying and attacking an outsider/enemy, mob members gain status in the group and create solidarity. Any middle schooler who has been bullied on Facebook can explain this phenomenon: everything that you say in response to the mob, regardless of how substantive or conciliatory it is, can and will be used against you. In the eighth grade, this means an accusation that you have slept with someone’s boyfriend, if rebutted, will not be followed by an apology, but by assertions that you are a diseased, ugly slut who no one would dream of having sex with in the first place. In other words, even the truth can be woven effectively into an ongoing and baseless attack. Once a candidate for mobbing has been chosen, there is very little that can be done to stop such an attack except by withdrawing completely.

In middle school, they call this Taking a Facebook Timeout: in left wing/feminist/queer academia, it’s called Being Silenced. Although you may have missed the Facebook part of the attack on me, you can see how the mobbing dynamic plays out in the comments section of my original post, and the one that follows (which was written by another person, and became — surprise! — another opportunity to express contempt for me.) Central to the bullying was an assertion that BDS policies were simply unimpeachable. They could not be improved or questioned because all questions had been definitively answered by prominent intellectuals associated with BDS. Hence, disagreement with the cultural boycott against Israel could only be understood as ignorance of the issues, an endorsement of Israeli violence,  or reactionary politics.

Or all three. The message is: STFU. Or else we will keep doing this until you STFU.

Silencing through abusiveness has a history on the American left and on the right. In the contemporary academic landscape, many BDS supporters argue that, given the power and voice that the Israeli right wing has in United States, those who do not completely support the BDS platform ought not to be allowed to speak at all because they take much-needed airtime away from speaking the truth about the situation in the Occupied Territories.

Responding to silencing with silencing? Really? Is that what it has come to?

Enter Katherine Franke who, in February, announced an initiative to intervene in “the polarized conversations on the topic of Israel and LGBT rights, which we believe have discouraged many who are concerned about these issues from speaking out in a coherent and effective manner.” It’s hard to imagine someone with Franke’s status drawing the kind of abuse I was subject to, because she is exactly the kind of star folks on the queer and feminist left are anxious not to alienate. In addition to her substantial institutional creds as director of Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, her work on behalf of occupied Palestine includes organizing among women lawyers in the West Bank.

Exchanges with numerous people following the BDS incident on this blog would suggest that Franke is correct: many otherwise supportive academics are disengaging from the abusive political styles that are gaining traction again after years of dormancy. How many of us did not even try to attend the sold-out (but fortunately live-streamed) Homonationalism and Pinkwashing Conference at CLAGS this weekend, despite the terrific roster of speakers? I know I wasn’t welcome, unless I was prepared to be treated as rudely and cruelly IRL as I was treated on my blog. Is that what organizers wanted?

Of course not. And yet the failure to monitor or intervene in vicious rhetorical attacks within your community produces exactly this outcome. A distaste for drama queen academic controversies also produces a more general disengagement from feminist and sexual politics on the broader left, a disengagement that activist queer scholarship should be concerned about unless it wants to operate entirely within the boundaries of its own conversation. (The n + 1 editors pointed out in their recent issue that this is part of a bigger problem within an activist cultural studies as well.)

We are veering towards a moment in which the queer conversation about the Occupation has become so privately owned by an in-crowd, so coded, and so unpleasant that most people who work on and in the Middle East could not tell you what that conversation is about or why it matters. Large numbers of left academics and prominent public intellectuals do not even understand what pink washing and homonationalism — two important and meaningful movement keywords — are; why leftists should believe a gay rights agenda anywhere in the world to be an ominous development; or why opposing homophobia no longer seems to matter as a political stance. (If you are one of these, go to the Tikkun roundtable from July 2012 for a brief, lucid explanation,. While you are at it, take out a subscription to Tikkun.)

New York has a long history of left-wing sectarian struggle, a winner-take-all political style that has caused feminist and queer activist communities to implode more than once in the last half century. Currently, this dynamic threatens to render an important and substantive international human rights movement, one aimed at ending an illegal and violent occupation, irrelevant and toxic. Let’s hope Kathryn Franke continues to use her prestige to reform BDS political style, and that other scholars — like soon-to-be Columbia prof Judith Butler, whose recent work on Zionism (2012) and on dispossession (2013)  is frequently, and wrongly, cited as proof of BDS infallibility — will have an even more vocal impact on the quality and diversity of the debate.

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