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15.4.09

Clark U.'s punt to procedure on Norman Finkelstein

My graduate alma mater, Clark University, has gotten into some controversy over canceling a lecture by Norman Finkelstein. What I find interesting in the affair is not the question of whether Finkelstein should be giving a speech -- I know far too little about the Israel-Palestine issue, much less Finkelstein's personal oeuvre, to make a judgment on that -- but the rationale that Clark President John Bassett gave for canceling the speech.

The root of the issue is the broad philosophical tradition of liberalism. Liberalism arose as a reaction to the European wars between Catholics and Protestants, in which each side was convinced it held the deep truth about the universe which the other side needed to be made to see, by force if necessary, to save their souls and discharge the evangelistic obligation of one's own side. Rather than proving the truth of Catholicism or Protestantism, liberalism sought to make the substantive question about what will send you to hell irrelevant to the political arrangements for living together. A fully-developed liberal political system would allow people to hold to and pursue whatever substantive commitments they want, because disputes could be resolved on a purely procedural basis.

Liberalism is a great thing. But unfortunately, there is not always a procedural solution to be found -- some substantive decisions need to be made (I generally tend to see a smaller scope for pure procedure than the major modern exponents of liberalism like Rawls and Habermas). Yet the allure of a purely procedural solution, which allows you to sidestep hard (even intractable) substantive disputes, leads people astray. I call this fallacy of groping for a procedural rationalization in situations where none exists the "punt to procedure."*

Now let's return to the question of Finkelstein. In general, we can divide the people who might be invited to speak at a university into three groups:
A: Those whose views are correct and who therefore will enlighten the audience.
B: Those whose views are incorrect, but who are part of the reasonable debate and who students will therefore benefit from engaging with.
C: Those whose views are so bizarre and/or dangerous that it would be detrimental to give them a wider airing.

Deciding that someone falls into group C is, I think, a perfectly reasonable basis for canceling their speech. To allow a C to speak would both spread their dangerous views (and/or cause distress among their opponents) as well as give the university's implied endorsement to their participation in the reasonable debate. As a general rule I think universities have a duty to err on the side of taking the most generous reasonable interpretation of where the line between B and C falls**, but it's a dereliction of duty to wash your hands of ever declaring anyone a C (thus in effect asserting that everyone is an A or B). The trick, though, is that deciding which group a person falls into is a substantive question -- it requires analysis of their positions and a judgment as to their reasonableness.

Since he has to be the president of both Students for Palestinian Rights (who think Finkelstein is obviously an A) and Hillel (who think he's obviously a C), it's no surprise Bassett would hope to find a purely procedural reason to cancel (or, less plausibly, defend) Finkelstein's speech. Here's what he came up with, according to the Globe story linked above:

In a letter to the university's campus newspaper, Clark's president, John Bassett, wrote: "The university remains committed to inviting a wide range of speakers to encourage diversity of opinions on controversial topics. My decision was predicated on its untimely and unfortunate scheduling."

Finkelstein's address would conflict with a similar conference hosted by the university's Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, scheduled for April 23-26, two days after Finkelstein's speech, Bassett said in his letter. That conference could draw Holocaust scholars who MacMillan said may disagree with Finkelstein.

... "It is possible that our understanding of the Middle East conflicts would be enriched by conversations with Professor Finkelstein," Bassett said in the letter. "It is my judgement, however, that having Professor Finkelstein speak on the same evening as our planned conference would only invite controversy and not dialogue or understanding."


Bassett is ostentatiously non-committal about whether he thinks Finkelstein is an A/B or C. But his stated rationale seems quite weak -- the Finkelstein speech is two days before a conference of scholars who disagree with him. Were the events on the same day, I would grant a procedural out here. But as it stands, Bassett's argument is simply a punt to procedure, a procedural rationalization to avoid taking a substantive stand.

It's quite possible Bassett doesn't actually have a position on the substantive question here -- rather than secretly believing Finkelstein is a C but using a punt to procedure to avoid having to defend his view, he may simply be looking for the option that creates the least controversy and fewest headaches for him. But Students for Palestinian Rights has dumped a problem in his lap that obligates him to make a substantive decision -- to come out and say either "Norman Finkelstein is a provocative but important scholar who students will benefit from engaging with even if they disagree with his conclusions," or "Norman Finkelstein is soft on anti-Semitism*** and therefore Clark will not elevate him to a position in the reasonable debate."


*The term is an allusion to the "punt to mystery," the fallacy by which a religious person dismisses challenges to their theological position's apparent contradictions by asserting "God works in mysterious ways."

**Thus I think Clark was justified in its decision, during its previous big speaker-related controversy, to let Paul Bremer speak.

***Or whatever the precise allegation his critics make is.

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