Joseph Levine, a philosophy professor at U. Mass., is one of the most thoughtful and thorough philosophical voices on the Israel/Palestine conflict and how it plays out in the US. By thoughtful, I don’t mean to do what others in this debate so often do: namely, to identify as thoughtful or judicious or subtle and probing someone who agrees with them on the substance. Levine and I happen to agree, but I agree with lots of folks on this issue whom I wouldn’t call particularly thoughtful. It’s just the case that Levine is especially searching when it comes to this issue, particularly about his own positions.
Which is why the New York Times was so smart to have him weigh in on the question of civility and Salaita’s tweets. In this masterful piece, Levine takes apart the argument about civility in an utterly novel way. He takes up the question of civility in this tweet from Salaita:
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.
11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014
And this is how Levine resolves it: it’s not in fact true that defending Israel during the Gaza war makes you an awful human being, but it ought to be true, and that fact that it isn’t true is an indictment of our society and its inability to come to terms with the awfulness of Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war, and Salaita’s tweet is a contribution to transforming our society into one where we would in fact be able to come to terms with the awfulness of Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war.
So, was this tweet an illegitimate breach of civility? I believe not in the end, yet I must confess to some initial ambivalence on the question. Here is how I resolved that ambivalence.
First, let’s separate some issues. One question concerns a moral evaluation of Israel’s actions themselves, and the other concerns an evaluation of the moral character of those who supported what Israel did. I myself am in complete agreement with Salaita about the first question. I can’t mount a full defense of this position here, but let me just say that careful attention to the actual sequence of events over the summer, alongside the vastly disproportionate violence visited on the trapped and totally vulnerable Gaza residents, renders the Israeli claim that they were acting in justifiable self-defense completely unreasonable. Note that holding and expressing that opinion was not by itself supposed to be a breach of civility. Rather, it was taking the next step and publicly indicting the moral character of those who supported the bombing that was the culprit.
Next, we need to determine whether what he said in the tweet is true — on the assumption, again, that the bombing was itself morally condemnable — and, in addition, whether it was a breach of civility to say it. Obviously, these two issues are intimately related. Imagine how you would react to someone who spouted overtly racist or anti-Semitic sentiments. Would civil engagement over the question be the appropriate response? Clearly, your judgment that you were dealing with a person of objectionable moral character would color your reaction as a decent person. Obviously, if Salaita had been tweeting instead about supporters of the 9/11 attacks as “awful human beings” no one would have been upset.
I locate the source of my initial ambivalence at precisely this point. While I shared his moral outrage at Israel’s actions, I balked at taking the next step and severely indicting the character of those who disagreed. I resolved my ambivalence by reasoning my way to the following twofold conclusion regarding the claim in the tweet: The claim itself is not true, but it ought to be, and that is the deeper truth that legitimates the breach of civility.
Levine goes onto develop an account of how we come to our moral positions, and how a “reasonable person” in our society might well conclude that Israel’s behavior during the Gaza war is perfectly legitimate. And that, for Levine, is what is wrong with our society. And then he concludes this way:
But then this brings me to the second part of my answer: It [someone defending Israel is awful] ought to be true. Or rather, it ought to have been true, and I look forward to the day in which it is true. For if you let individuals off the hook in this case because they pass the reasonable person test, then you have to indict the social-political perspective from which such actions can seem moral and reasonable. No, these people aren’t awful, but what does it say about our society that we can support such an attack without being awful? What does it say that decent people can even entertain the kinds of excuses we hear (“but they were storing weapons near where those kids were playing”) without counting automatically as indecent?
Not pretending to know what was behind Salaita’s tweets (I have never met him or corresponded with him about this issue), I can see two reasons for being so “uncivil” as to impugn his opponents’ moral character. First, there is just the need to express outrage at the state of our discussion on this matter. While the people targeted by the tweet are not actually awful human beings, it’s about time we came to generally see things from the perspective from which they certainly seem to be. Having to listen to justifications for bombing children can wear you down, even if you know very well where it’s all coming from. (An op-ed by the Jewish actor and singer Theodore Bikel captures this sentiment well. )
But more important, expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.