|‘Grievance’ and ‘Balance’
by Akeel Bilgrami
I want to focus in my remarks on two notions that are central to the rhetoric with which the
current crisis at Columbia has been described: ‘grievance’ and ‘balance’.
This crisis at Columbia came about because some students claimed to have a grievance
against the behaviour of certain professors in the Middle East Studies Dept. So let me begin
by saying something about the notion of grievance. To say someone has a ‘grievance’ does
not just mean that he or she feels aggrieved. A grievance is not just a feeling. It is a feeling
that is merited or warranted by some thing that is done to one. This idea that the feeling
should be merited’ or ‘warranted’ by some real grounds is not a cancelable aspect of what is
genuinely to be called a ‘grievance’. Any one can go around feeling aggrieved, but that does
not mean that the person is properly said to have a ‘grievance’. For instance, if the feelings
are neurotic, one would say someone is aggrieved but not that he has a grievance. Now,
neurosis is not the only grounds for dismissing the idea that there is a genuine grievance.
Here is another ground for dismissing it: If the feelings are instrumentally invoked for
political purposes, then it is precisely not a genuine grievance.
What has been happening at Columbia in the last many weeks is clearly a case of
‘grievances’ being instrumentally created to promote a political agenda. Put most generally,
the agenda is one of McCarthy style groups outside of Columbia which monitor universities
with a view to creating a kind of publicity that would cow university administrators from
standing up in an unqualified way for principles of academic freedom for fear of losing
donors. This seems to have initially succeeded at Columbia to a far greater extent than one
would have hoped. But it will not succeed in the end, if we find sensible, sober, and
effective ways of countering it, through effective responses that are not just demagoguish
grandstanding but thoughtful, analytical responses given the widest possible publicity on
campus and beyond through whatever means possible. Jonathan Cole’s excellent lecture on
the subject is a very good start for what needs to be done. The present meeting is another
good example of such public deliberation. There should be others with less speechifying and
more dialogue, especially with students.
One of the standard tactics of McCarthy style groups that target universities is to throw dirt
at people who hold the views that these groups are afraid will get a public airing and gain
generally sympathy. I think I heard Chomsky once describe it with the Yiddish word,
‘schmutz’. The idea is to sling as much dirt or ‘schmutz’ as they can find, hoping that even
when investigative committees set up to find out the facts discover nothing of any
significance, something will nevertheless stick, on the principle that ‘where there is smoke,
there must be fire.” So they hope that the report of the ad hoc grievance committee will, at
the every least, be viewed by many as having this sort of residual effect. And if it does not,
there will be an engineering of more ‘grievance’, this time against the report itself.
Whatever one thinks of the highly doubtful wisdom of the committee’s formation and
existence, or of the fact that it came to conclusions about Massad on the basis of highly
conflicting evidence without stating its grounds for assessing the evidence in the way it did, its
report nevertheless did manage to achieve one or two very worthwhile things.
First of all, it firmly repudiated the idea that there is any anti-Semitism on campus. Second, it
brought to light that there are outside forces which are interfering in the normal running of
certain classes by their presence and trying to intimidate students and faculty from expressing
their views, and the report took a clear and unqualified stand against this utterly insidious
phenomenon. These conclusions it articulated explicitly. And though it did not make the
connection, the conclusions are actually closely linked. These McCarthyite groups –as I
insist on calling them-- are perfectly aware of the fact there is no anti-Semitism at Columbia.
Their concern has never been with anti-Semitism at all. That is just a façade to mobilize
some students and mislead the public. Their concern is only with blotting out any opposition
to Israeli Govt policy, even if it means, instrumentally creating among students, so called
‘grievances’, for these purposes.
Some other conclusions are not drawn explicitly in the report itself, which is a shame, but any
reader of average intelligence can come to these conclusions on the basis of what the report
does say explicitly. For one thing, it is clearly implied by the fact that Professor Joseph
Massad allowed unregistered people to sit in on his classes and allowed them to raise
questions expressing a point of view different from his, that he was not interested in keeping
out points of view different from his, as was being suggested by those trying to defame him.
Moreover, if we put together the report’s disapproval of the disruptive role of outside
elements in the classes with its disapproval of Professor Massad’s alleged objectionable
remark asking a student to leave the class, we can see the report as having situated and
contextualized what it disapproved of in Prof. Massad’s alleged remark. It was a remark (if
it really was made by him) which was made in the context of a line of questioning done in a
general ethos of outside interference, monitoring what he and others with his point of view
said --and this external presence was there with a view to encouraging constant and
vociferous opposition in the class to Professor Massad’s views. So contextualized, a
Professor’s alleged remark can be seen as a sign of exasperation, and so even if one were to
disapprove of it, one can recognize that it lacks the quality of intimidation that was initially
being attributed to Professor Massad’s classroom manner. The report carefully read merely
disapproves of an alleged lack of decorum on his part. That is a far cry from the sorts of
things that were being said of Professor Massad before the report came out.
The report also sensibly did not take up the issue of what should be taught in these classes,
saying that such curricular matters are entirely outside of anyone’s jurisdiction except those
who are experts in the relevant field. The general complaint of the McCarthyite forces trying
to control what is taught at Columbia and other universities, especially when it comes to
topics in recent Middle East politics is that there is not enough balance in these courses. So
let me say something now about the notion of balance. The right and obvious and banal
response to this complaint has to be that the primary point of education is to try and present
the truth by presenting evidence and argument for it. If ‘balance’ has any role to play, it is
nested within this primary goal, not something independent of this goal. So within this
primary goal, the only thing that ‘balance’ could mean is that one must look at all the
evidence that is available to one. It cannot possibly mean the idiotic thing that some people
seem to think it means, i.e., the equal presentation of two contradictory views. No educator
with any minimal rationality would do that on the elementary grounds that if there are two
contradictory views, only one can be right. Of course if she cannot make up her mind on the
evidence as to which one is right, she might present the case for both views even- handedly.
But presumably this sort of undecidedness is an occasional phenomenon and so it cannot be
put down as a requirement for professors and educators. So the constant demand that we
always present both sides of a disagreement presupposes a conception of education as a
sort of perpetual and chronic dithering. It is far more sensible to say that ‘balance’ means
that an educator presents an all-things-considered judgement after looking at all the available
evidence. As I said, this is point is so obvious that it should go without saying, but since it
has apparently not done so, I am stating the obvious.
However there is a less obvious point to be made. The McCarthyite groups do not just
monitor what goes on in classrooms. They try and influence and restrict and throw dirt at
what is said in forums outside the classroom in conferences and other public lectures and
meetings as well ---and one of the alleged incidents around Prof Massad mentioned in the
report is supposed to have happened at a site off campus in some public meeting. Now,
when classroom curriculum is not the issue but the nature of political debate in general
outside of the classroom is what is in question, there are perfectly good reasons why the
views one expresses can and often should be imbalanced.
Let me explain.
I can find it quite understandable, indeed I find it honourable, if someone speaking and
writing in America finds it important to stress much more the wrongs of the American
Government and its allies and clients, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia
under Suharto, Chile under Pinochet, and so on an on. But if the same person was speaking
or writing, say, in Arab newspapers or in the Palestinian territories, it would be far more
effective and honourable if he were to criticize the Palestinian authorities or Arab regimes like
Sadaam’s or Islamic regimes like Iran’s and so on. Edward Said showed exactly this
honourable imbalance, criticizing Israel and the US while living here and criticizing Arafat and
the Palestinian Authority in the Arab press. It is said that whenever Sakharov criticized the
Soviet Union’s imprisoning and elimination of dissidents through the fifties he was chastised
by his government for showing an imbalance and not saying anything against the monstrous
things that were happening in the American South against blacks. That is precisely the kind
of imbalance that courageous people are going to be accused of by McCarthyite elements in
this country, and I hope that all of us will have the courage to continue being imbalanced in
just this way. It is in some ways the duty of the intellectual to be imbalanced in this way.
That is another way of saying that it is the duty of the intellectual to be unpopular. They
should not be discouraged by such unpopularity. They should see it as an indirect
acknowledgement of their courage. I am sure that Professor Massad who finds himself
unpopular today is perfectly aware of this, but all the same I want to take this chance to wish
him more of the courage that I know he has.
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