Friday, September 5, 2014

Not in the name of diversity

If there is one element in the Salaita affair that is most striking, it is the use of diversity as a rationale for the firing of Professor Salaita.

Chancellor Wise noted this in her blog post and this has been widely shared by those that support the firing: it is not the content of Professor Salaita's speech but the style of his twitter posts which called for strict action.

His style, according to the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees, was uninviting of civil dialogue.

The question that becomes relevant here is the following: What is civil communication? What are the criteria that are applied in the evaluation of the civility of a speech act?

In appealing to diversity as the reason behind the firing, the Chancellor privileges a narrowly construed definition of diversity that serves the White mainstream and leaves its powers intact. The formulation of an openness to diversity as the underlying reason for firing Professor Salaita is reflective of a power structure that governs the definition of acceptable speech, more as a way to protect the structure as opposed to fostering openings for diverse views.

Being open to diverse views would suggest that the Chancellor and the trustees at UIUC be open to the diversity of ways in which people communicate. A commitment to diversity means that the very definition of politeness comes to be questioned. Especially important here is the interrogation of the markers of politeness that are acceptable to the White mainstream.

If Universities historically constrained themselves to these White mainstream definitions of politeness, spaces for African American Studies, Latin American Studies, American Indian Studies and many other area studies that reflect the diversity on university campuses would not have existed. The struggles to secure spaces for these areas were often impolite and uncivil struggles as defined by the communicative norms of the mainstream.

Diversity is the very justification that is played out to silence diversity. The voice of Professor Salaita, indeed a minority voice on US academic campuses that receive large amounts of funding from the Zionist/Israel lobby in the form of wealthy donors, is silenced. The silencing is a reflection of the economic power exerted by donors to silence dissent.

The University's treatment of Professor Salaita is full of ironies. But perhaps the greatest irony in the Salaita affair is the way in which the language of diversity gets used as an instrument for erasing difference. The UIUC  management send us the message that diversity is acceptable as long as it is a status enhancing metric.

Beyond the simple maths that often count as diversity of representation and inclusion after having hired an African American woman, an Asian man, and a Latino man,  diversity is about opening up spaces for conversations, particularly the difficult ones that challenge our worldviews and our ways of being.  To use diversity as an excuse for running an authoritarian structure of governance is fundamentally antithetical to the quest for diversity.

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