We’ve all seen plenty of examples of speeches at universities disrupted by offended students, speech invitations withdrawn because of student protests, and honorary degrees rescinded because of political offense (viz., Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis). But this is the first case I know of where a presentation was cancelled out of fear that it might offend students. And that fear was unsubstantiated and would have been unwarranted.
It’s reported in The Atlantic, so you can’t say this is biased right-wing reporting. The piece, “How political correctness chills speech on campus,” is by Conor Friedersdorf, a writer whom we’ve met before as a free-speech defender. And the case is distressing.
What happened, in brief, is that Syracuse University planned a conference next spring called “The Place of Religion in Film”, and a documentary filmmaker was invited to show a relevant (and well regarded) film there. The invitation came from a professor at the University of Nebraska who was also an organizer of the conference. The film was by Simon Dotan, and I’ll quote from The Atlantic:
The award-winning filmmaker, who sits on the faculty of New York University’s graduate school of journalism, recently finished a feature length documentary,The Settlers, that chronicles the history and present state of the religious settler movement in the West Bank, where more than 400,000 Israeli Jews live on occupied land.
The film is “one of the first close-up views of the motives and personalities in a group that rarely opens up to outsiders,” The New York Times noted. Variety raved that its festival presence is assured, and said that it is gripping enough to break out to wider audiences.
More about the film’s message later, but it’s not what you’re probably thinking.
After the invitation to Dotan was extended, with an offer to fly him from Israel to Syracuse, and then to Omaha for another screening, Professor M. Gail Hamner, a professor of Religion at Syracuse, put the kibosh on the invitation. Not because there were protests, mind you, but because she feared that the BDS group (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a notoriously nasty and anti-Semitic outfit) would object. But Hamner hadn’t even seen the film, or, apparently, knew anything about it. Here’s the letter she wrote to Dotan rescinding the invitation (my emphases):
Dear Professor Dotan,
I know you have been in contact with my Omaha colleague, Bill Blizek, about screening The Settlers and serving as plenary speaker at a religion and film conference in Syracuse in March, 2017. I am the convener of that conference and I found Bill’s description of your work, and the reviews I read of it exciting.
I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come. In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues. Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews.
Clearly I am politically naive. I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation.
I do want to stress that my colleague who Chairs our SU Jewish Studies program, Zak Braiterman, was fully willing to strongly support your coming, even though he too has not yet screened your film.
Obviously, my decision here has nothing to do with you or your work, and nothing to do with Bill, who contacted you in good faith. I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations.
I sign off in hopes that I do have the chance to engage your work one day, and in prayer that you’ll forgive me. My sincere apology and best wishes,
M. Gail Hamner
Affiliated Faculty in Women and Gender Studies
Affiliated Faculty in Film and Screen Studies
And so Dotan’s film will not be shown because of the mere perception and fear that BDS activists would make trouble, and Hamner’s reputation would be sullied! I know of no similar cases.
But here’s the real kicker: BDS wouldn’t be making trouble if they knew about the film, for it’s not pro-settler! As Friedersdorf notes:
The political viewpoint of The Settlers shouldn’t matter. But a final irony is that the documentary, while allowing all sides to speak in their own words, portrays the settlements in a negative light, and is skeptical, at the very least, toward many settlers. A typical educated audience member would emerge with new knowledge of terrorist acts perpetrated by Israeli settlers, explicit racism in the settler movement, and a sense of the apartheid culture that has been created in the West Bank. Had I seen the film before learning of this controversy rather than after, I would have expected any attempts to stop it from being screened to come from the pro-Israel faction that has threatened free speech at the University of California.
Now I’ve argued that using the “apartheid” trope isn’t really appropriate to Israeli treatment of Arabs, but I’m not going to get into that argument now. The film deserved to be shown because of its quality and because it would provoke discussion. I haven’t seen it, but I would go to see it, and I would never protest its being shown.
If you don’t think that The Offense Culture of students has had a chilling effect on free speech, read the above. In fact, it’s prevented the showing a film that the Perpetually Offended would have welcomed. They’re hoist with their own petard, but so are the rest of us—as this toxic student culture spreads through the US and UK.