Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Silencing

What I was trying to convey in the post below, but what may have gotten lost in my babbling, is that I don't believe the question of "silencing" is relevant to the conversation about Israel these days, at least among those of my generation. I bring this up now, here, on the blog, not because I have anything new to add about the Middle East, but because it relates to the earlier posts on Your Privilege is Showing, which I do think constitutes silencing.

Why is YPIS "silencing"? Because it stops conversations. Why does it stop conversations? Because the recipients of a YPIS retreat into their little corners, ashamed of having let their privilege show. Then, once huddled in these corners, they start thinking, hey, that accusation was kind of unfair/silly/mean-spirited, at which point they stop even considering reentering the conversation. They're not silenced as in First Amendment violation. But they are banished from discussions. This has the effect of silencing various ideas. To give an admittedly tame example, the food movement conversation has been so shamed into a YPIS corner that health-oriented recipe-writers don't dare include ingredients that can't be purchased for 20 cents at bulk stores nationwide - nothing too gourmet or yuppie or obscure - leading to abominations such as a bean-and-kale casserole. But mostly, people, not ideas, are silenced, and those who remain will be more excited about YPIS than whatever the ostensible cause may have been.

I see how an accusation of anti-Semitism would seem like the kind of thing that would be silencing. In other times, among older individuals, sure, but not so much lately. I should note, as an aside, that when I did think about such matters more, I found that the extent to which the term "anti-Semitism" was used in reference to criticism of Israel was exaggerated by those critics. But it can happen, and the accusation Conor just received is kind of borderline, I suppose, given the post title. Someone who criticizes Israel and does, in fact, get called an anti-Semite - and this isn't necessarily overt, as with 'I see echos of the 1930s' accusations - has the right to be annoyed, upset, to defend himself, and so forth, but to claim he's been silenced?

Here I'm not so sure. It's taboo to express overt anti-Semitism, but it's also taboo to call anyone an anti-Semite, in a way that it's not taboo to call someone a racist, sexist, or homophobe. To utter the term "anti-Semitism" is to seem of another era, paranoid, hyperbolic (because we as a society have no conception of what anti-Semitism might mean if not OMG Nazis), in short, outside the bounds of polite conversation. Someone called an anti-Semite not only has the right to keep writing, but isn't silenced because all sensible people will agree that the accusation is ridiculous. They if anything find that their status has been raised within the conversation, because they appear to be martyrs for the truth about the Middle East. Meanwhile, there hasn't been any particular backlash against YPIS, meaning that someone who receives that accusation has been effectively told to shut up.

As for generational shifts, I tend not to buy such arguments on issues like legalizing pot or SSM, because these are the kinds of issues where youthful live-and-let-live may shift into fuddy-duddiness with age. As a supporter of SSM, I'm not all that reassured by the fact that the fresh-faced offspring of the stuffiest of Republicans are in favor. But thoughts regarding US Israel policy? This to me seems like something without any necessary relationship to youth as youth.

27 comments:

K.Chen said...

The silencing power of an accusation of antisemitism is a lot stronger than the self-embarrassment risk of leveling the accusation, which is probably why the accusation is still fairly prevalent. Perhaps more to the point, being accused of antisemitism throws the speaker on the defensive: and frequently gets sidetracked into proving how not-antisemitic they are, derailing the whole discussion and quashing their ideas from the light of day. If you're accused of antisemitism at it has effect, your immediate social circle (whether online or in real life) is disproving of antisemitism, as well as is the local power structure (be it a forum moderator, the court of public opinion, or a judge).

For the accuser, the local power structure may or may not be against problematic antisemitism accusations, but their immediate social circle may not be, or may have a much higher threshold, lowering the costs. It also seems to me that greater polite society knows and cares more about antisemitism (if only in the OMG Nazis context) than false accusations of antisemitism.

This creates some problems: There are more now more risks costs than returns for the typical accused, which can drive them out of the conversation through fear or simple fatigue, while the reverse is true for accusers. Second, the local power structure may be reluctant to intervene on behalf of the accused as they too, may be thrown on the defensive.

Third, and this is particularly a problem within crowd sourcing models such as Wikipedia, it creates distorting effects on conversation makeup. If we accept (and I do) that the people who overly freely use accusations of antisemitism are rare, we end up with a higher proportion of them in a particular conversation than justified. Their interest in the I-P conversation is likely to be that of a specialist, while the population of people sensitive to accusations of antisemitism will include people who are specialists, of general interest, or disinterested observers. Thus, the majority who are bothered by the accusation can be thinned out quickly, as their degree of interest and thus motivation to participate is lower than the typical accusers.

So, if it isn't silencing, its the next best thing.

M.S. said...

I love the recent string of YPIS critiques you have up. Especially this one, which sounds frighteningly familiar to what myself and many other left leaning Jews used to deal with in Iowa City. I say used to because, well, I wasn't the only one who got sick of that noise and--as you've concluded--left.

Hell, I remember individuals who would wear "I got accused of being an anti-Semite!" as some badge of honor. As though that was the ultimate public award for being so so very "pro-Palestine". Quite perverse, you'd think praise from you know, the people they purport to be in solidarity with would be their ultimate point of pride.

Silencing? Far from it. It seems to embolden them if anything.

Phoebe said...

K.Chen,

"The silencing power of an accusation of antisemitism is a lot stronger than the self-embarrassment risk of leveling the accusation, which is probably why the accusation is still fairly prevalent."

Got to disagree with you on both those counts. The self-embarrassment risk is massive, the accusation thus placed in the realm of absurd (like being accused of something anachronistic!), and no, such accusations are not any kind of prevalent. My sense of this comes both from impressions and from when I looked into it for an article I wrote about the Walt-Mearsheimer book. Critics who, it was clear, saw the book as not-exactly-Jew-friendly, were careful not to call the authors or their book that.

" being accused of antisemitism throws the speaker on the defensive: and frequently gets sidetracked into proving how not-antisemitic they are"

Again, not exactly. What happens far more often is that someone who's 'just saying' something not-so-great about Jews (how they run the media, preventing us from hearing the truth about the I-P conflict, say) will preface it with a 'now, I'm not anti-Semitic, but...' disclaimer. The disclaimer does indeed address those that would accuse the speaker of anti-Semitism, so I see how this would get confusing, but these are generally theoretical accusations of anti-Semitism, ones the speaker on some level knows would be justified if they materialized, but outside of a few hysterics, no one's making that accusation.

"It also seems to me that greater polite society knows and cares more about antisemitism (if only in the OMG Nazis context) than false accusations of antisemitism."

This is generational. Ask 70-year-olds, then 25-year-olds. These days, precisely because of the OMG Nazis association, it's considered preposterous to refer to someone who just said something mean about Jews but after all isn't Hitler by the term. For those with at least anecdotal experience of anti-Semitism that was referred to as such outside the Nazi example, using the term maybe doesn't seem so ridiculous. That, and they're still sufficiently worked up about WWII that the hyperbole makes sense to them in a way.

Finally, I have no idea what judges or Wikipedia do to change the dynamics we're discussing. My impression is from articles and blogs, and of course anecdote.

Phoebe said...

M.S.,

True enough that having attracted the accusation of anti-Semitism is, for some, evidence of pro-Palestinian cred. I'd go so far as to say that it's considered proof of being rational and balanced on the issue. As in, if you've offended the team of paranoid rich Jews with pitchforks, you must be saying some provocative truths

M.S. said...

Right, it's the notion that they are "speaking truth to power". At best Jews are assumed to have brainwashed by our well, elders. Ahem.

If anything accusations of anti-Semitism seem to be the inverse of YPIS. After all, by being so self-centered OUR privilege is showing, no? We're failing to see the universal truth of the argument that we're evil racists. That could only possibly mean we're incredibly privileged and shouldn't be part of this conversation.

rshams said...

There is also the tendency among some Israel critics to do their own form of silencing through an accusation of silencing. They preemptively render any criticism they receive as being unfair accusations of anti-Semitism (i.e. - "The usual suspects will call me an anti-Semite for this, but..."). As a result, any critical response from a pro-Israel source will be perceived as paranoid and hysterical (and inherently illegitimate).

This has the effect of shutting down debate, since the average pro-Israel person will be loath to point out inaccuracies and double standards in a forum where he/she is already perceived as a hysteric, and certainly won't point out where the use of familiar negative tropes may be indeed be a form of anti-Semitism, since that would confirm the Israel critic's original argument.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe, let's approach this another way. What actions, to your mind, do rise to the level of silencing? Does it have to be official government censorship?

Phoebe said...

rshams,

Good point. I think this is what M.S. was getting at, with this being the inverse of YPIS.

Anon,

I believe I mentioned in the post what I would consider an example of silencing: telling someone in the midst of a discussion that their "privilege is showing." This falls well short of government censorship, but cuts off a conversation.

K.Chen said...

We appear to be working from two non-overlapping data sets, although I thought about it bit more, and the environment I've been in that was the most sensitive about improper accusations of antisemitism was a majority (humanistic and reform) Jewish school. It had any other of aspects that could also account for it (affluent, uppermiddleclass, private) but maybe this is an issue of insider/outsider dynamics?

In my experience, certain things really are always going to draw an antisemitism charge that will stick: repeating tropes about Jews and Media for example. Israel and Palestine conversations on the other hand, seem to involve a lot of walking on eggshells by normal folks and a lot of scurrying by pols.

And for what its worth, I'm used to seeing fair number of actual accusations of antisemitism, and less so on the pre-emptive disclaimers.

Phoebe said...

K.Chen,

In what capacity were which people being falsely accused of anti-Semitism at this school that was positively teeming with "affluent" Jews? (And how is it supposed to matter that they were rich? Did they cut off the Jew-money supply to anyone who failed to toe the Jew-party line? Where are you going with this?)

I guess now I'm confused - do you think it's a false accusation of anti-Semitism if someone who starts up on "Jews and Media" gets accused? This would strike me as being precisely what's a fair accusation of anti-Semitism. How else exactly would one describe such "tropes"?

CW said...

It may rise to the level of what Phoebe describes as silencing, but I believe many of us in the muddled middle find the dynamics of the I-P toxic and have learned to keep our mouths shut.

I don't doubt that there are pro-P activists in Iowa City and other leftist bastions who take pride in being accused of anti-semitism. However, to many it is still a horrible and disturbing accusation. Iowa City isn't that big. Similarly, being told you are a racist and colonialist who is indifferent to oppression and apartheid is quite unpleasant. In my admittedly limited experience, if you wade into the topic and try to express some opinion you get hit with nasty ad hominem attacks from both sides. Whether or not that is "silencing," it does keep many people from talking about this issue.

I'm not particularly thin-skinned, but I'm at the point now where I'd rather discuss racism, abortion, gun rights, breastfeeding, stay at home moms, or just about any other topic.

CW said...

There should be a "not" in the first sentence of my comment above. Sorry.

Phoebe said...

CW,

I completely understand finding the topic too heated and not worth the bother. I'm obviously not in the "muddled middle," but I'm moderate enough on this issue that I can't get fully on board with any particular rah-rah side of this, and so end up leaving it to the rah-rahers these days.

I've never been to Iowa, City or otherwise, so I can't weigh in on that in particular. I have had conversations about this topic at UChicago, which, though not diverse in all respects, has a pretty decent regional and political distribution. I'm not just going by, for example, humanities grad students in NY, who'd be expected to tilt left. And... I really don't think "muddled middle" sorts are wary of I-P discussions because they fear being accused of anti-Semitism. Or, rather, if they/you do, it's not because such accusations are actually being flung terribly often, but because there's so much hype coming from the pro-Palestinian/'rational' side about how, if you dare to say the wrong thing about Israel, you'll be called that term, and it becomes just commonly accepted that this is what will happen. Meanwhile, if you say you're a Zionist, you do have to preface this with an explanation of how you still, you know, think Palestinians are humans with rights, deserve to have a state, etc. And even once going to that trouble, you get accused of being a racist colonialist imperialist. (There's evidence of this, I think, in the comments in the archives of this very blog, under the Old-New Land tag.) I mean, I think it's right that I have to preface it every so often with, 'but this doesn't mean I support everything every right-wing Israeli politician wants', because these terms can get confusing. But I don't appreciate having to spell out that I'm not, in fact, a fascist.

M.S. said...

CW--I have to nitpick. In terms of popularity of this subject, the IP conflict is much larger than it should be considering the population. It would be like if my entirely white hometown of <1000 (take THAT sarah palin) somehow concerned itself primarily with the Egyptian protests as opposed to the highschool football game. A wee bit disproportional considering the size.

I must also note that the Democrats in this state were recently debating adding a BDS resolution to the party platform that came from Iowa City Democrats. Need I remind everyone that Iowa is first in the nation? So unfortunately, yes, what happens in Iowa does concern the rest of the nation.

Yet from what I can ascertain talking to other progressive Zionist Jews is that the aforementioned anti-Semitism is a badge of honor position is not unique to my own city.

All that being said, I sympathize with the middle. It goes without saying that if one aligns oneself with certain political movements you are not allowed to be ambiguous in your support of a given position. Radicalism is seen as somehow much more sexy.

David Schraub said...

It's taboo to express overt anti-Semitism, but it's also taboo to call anyone an anti-Semite, in a way that it's not taboo to call someone a racist, sexist, or homophobe.

I don't think this is true -- at least not universally -- and indeed, a lot of my understanding of how to critique the "anti-Semitism card card" is informed by similar analysis of the harm done by those who yell out "you're playing the race card!"

I think it really just boils down to which side you're on. A racism charge that is directed towards someone on the right is going to be seen as "the race card" to the right, but probably more sympathetically viewed by someone on the left. A racism charge directed against someone on the left will have the opposite reaction. And same with anti-Semitism (I don't think the right takes it any more seriously, if by that we mean "takes it seriously even when it's directed against them". Look at the reaction from the right to claims that Glenn Beck is trafficking in anti-Semitism).

I think to the extent it seems like there is a disparity, it's because we both run in circles that are (a) mostly populated by people more-or-less left and (b) where most anti-Semitism charges are typically directed (or seen as being directed) leftward, and most racism charges are (or are seen as) directed rightward.

Phoebe said...

David Schraub,

And here I thought you'd be the only one agreeing with any of this!

Anyway, it's not that it's not taboo at all to call someone racist or homophobic. It's that it's not taboo in the same way, insofar as it's sometimes socially acceptable to label people and/or ideas as racist or homophobic, whereas it's just about never socially acceptable to use "anti-Semitism" in reference to anyone living after 1945.

As for whether I somehow inhabit the left... In French grad school, fair enough, but prior to/outside of that? My circle in college was fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and even at a high school where there weren't many Republicans around, I somehow ended up around the few there were as well as, of course, Democrats. I suppose having never lived in Real America, even the conservatives I know are to the left culturally of Real America conservatives. But in any case, my limited experience of Real America conservatism leads me to think I'm not exactly missing out on some world where being a pro-Israel Jew is the best thing ever, even if on policy matters they're "pro-Israel."

K.Chen said...

"In what capacity were which people being falsely accused of anti-Semitism at this school that was positively teeming with "affluent" Jews? (And how is it supposed to matter that they were rich? Did they cut off the Jew-money supply to anyone who failed to toe the Jew-party line? Where are you going with this?)"

No, I'm saying that its possible that Jews and/or social groups with large Jewish populations could be more sensitive to false accusation taboo. At the same time, my sample size is tiny and I haven't controlled for the other shared traits at the school. Nearly everyone except a few scholarship students at that school was well off, was upper middle class socio-economic-status, its a private school with a particular philosophy and student selection profile, etc. etc, any of which could influence why that particular environment was more sensitive to false accusations compared to say, a tiny state university drawing from a combination of predominantly white evangelical protestant lower middle class suburbs, and predominantly black poor urban areas.

"I guess now I'm confused - do you think it's a false accusation of anti-Semitism if someone who starts up on "Jews and Media" gets accused? This would strike me as being precisely what's a fair accusation of anti-Semitism. How else exactly would one describe such "tropes"?"

No, Jews and Media is a classic antisemitic trope. So the weight of the taboos is strong on not saying something that stupid, and weak against accusing someone of being antisemitic for saying something. Thus, the accusation always sticks (as it should). On the other hand, when someone complaining about evil lawyers, its more likely for someone to be looked askance at for going to antisemitism, at least without more information coming to light. The Israel-Palestine conversation is so full of taboos that for most people, silence is the best course.

David Schraub said...

Phoebe --

I agree with you, mostly. But I don't think the right has a per se objection to calling people on the left anti-Semites. They also don't have a per se objection to calling the left racists. What they do have is an objection to themselves being called racist, or anti-Semites. But are at least some conservatives comfortable with calling some lefties anti-Semites? Of course. I don't think they do a good job of it, and I don't think they actually know what they're talking about, and I don't think it as all-pervasive as many seem to think it is, but it's not a foreign word or concept (see Michael Goldfarb, for example).

And the same with respect to the left -- I haven't seen much hesitation on the left with respect to calling Glenn Beck anti-Semitic, they just get skittish when it's one of their progressive buds that the target. Ditto with racism, though I think you're at least partially right here in that the issue of racism is subject to considerably more intra-left fratricidal tendencies than is anti-Semitism (I also think that's a good thing -- we should be more willing to admit to the prospect that racism and anti-Semitism may exist even in people we don't already think to be monsters). In effect, I'd say that the left and right are entirely self-serving with respect to anti-Semitism, whereas with racism the right is wholly self-serving and the left is at least partially principled.

I hence focus more on the left myself because the left has a theory of how to handle "isms" of all stripes that I think is (a) more well-developed and (b) more normatively compelling than that which exists on the right. The leftist intellectual toolbox is what makes it possible for me to talk about anti-Semitism the way that I do, and so it is particularly aggravating when they refuse to play by rules they created. But in the broader thrust of things, I think neither racism nor anti-Semitism are typically taken seriously, and making either allegation poses analogous perils to the accuser.

Phoebe said...

David Schraub,

Point taken re: the tendency of some on the right to speak of, well, "liberal fascism." I'm not sure, though, that this is a very accepted approach within conservatism. Someone named Goldfarb, writing for what at least was when I last looked at it a neoconservative publication, might well be seen as a hysteric by not-neo conservatives not named Goldfarb. Or Goldberg. Obviously, as a rule, no conservatives are going to step up and defend liberals against accusations of anything. But I don't think conservatives, aside from those who are Jewish or at least addressing a Jewish audience, are terribly interested in using "they're anti-Semites!" as a tool to tear down the left.

Meanwhile, I'm not aware of liberals being all that concerned with accusing conservatives of anti-Semitism. It's not that it has never happened, but I think it's assumed on the left (as I suspect you'll have also found) that Jews are too privileged to be a group against which an ism could possibly exist. Same as liberals are suspicious of "reverse racism," the assumption being (unfortunately, in this case) that because Jews aren't marginalized in the same way as whichever other groups, there isn't any marginalization going on. If a liberal does accuse a conservative of anti-Semitism, it's kind of in the context of accusing that person of being an old-timey bigot, an anachronism. Or in the case of Palin's blood-libel goof, of being a clueless idiot.

Anonymous said...

So basically the left doesn't call out anti-Semitism. Except when it does. But those times don't count.

Who exactly is this "left" you are talking about? Is it the Democratic Party? MSNBC? Some amorphous group of bloggers? Just students and faculty you happen to know?


"Anyway, it's not that it's not taboo at all to call someone racist or homophobic. It's that it's not taboo in the same way, insofar as it's sometimes socially acceptable to label people and/or ideas as racist or homophobic, whereas it's just about never socially acceptable to use "anti-Semitism" in reference to anyone living after 1945."

Pretty sure Rick Sanchez and Helen Thomas got (deservingly) chastised with exactly that label. Who exactly are these stealth anti-Semites who are not in any way called out?

PG said...

Adding some Hollywood to Anonymous's list of folks chastised with the label of "anti-Semite": Mel Gibson. It's not just Nazis anymore!

I think that you have to be more overtly anti-Semitic for the label to be used, at least by people on the left, than you have to be racist for that term to be used. Sanchez et al had to actually claim that The Rich Powerful Jews Control Everything before getting labeled anti-Semites. But once you get into that territory, without any claims of irony or "I was playing a role" to hide behind, I don't think the left is shy about calling out anti-Semitism.

(I don't think anyone sincerely believes Palin is an anti-Semite; rhetoric about her being one is just political opportunism. She's one of the people for whom "ignorant and insensitive" more directly explain her statements than various -isms do.)

PG said...

Also, having looked at the casserole, the picture looks tasty and the recipe calls for "herbes de Provence," which is sold at finer Wal-Marts but isn't something I've owned and sounds fancy.

Eamonn said...

The idea that there is any kind of silencing going on of criticism of Israel seems pretty absurd to me, at least in terms of countries I know well or whose national press I read. The Guardian, The Independent (UK), The Irish Times, El País, La Vanguardia, El Público (Spain) and all the pro-government media outlets in Argentina, especially Página/12 constantly excoriate Israel.

I dread to think what the media would print if criticism of Israel weren't being , erm, silenced...

eamonnmcdonagh said...

also relevant I would think

http://bit.ly/h8OcvI

Phoebe said...

And... don't have time to respond to all this now, but I'll remind Anonymous and PG that I obviously agree that it has happened, on occasion, that people who are not in fact Nazis have been called anti-Semites. My point is that it doesn't happen nearly as often as the 'I know they'll call me an anti-Semite for criticizing Israel, but...' contingent would have it, and that the taboo is greater than for calling out similar isms.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and PG,

Herbes de Province, point taken, although some bland herbs are hardly a fundamental ingredient of the thing. That the "picture looks tasty," this I will not accept. It's blah in a casserole dish.

PG said...

the taboo is greater than for calling out similar isms.

I'm not sure that it's a taboo, exactly. Obviously, I don't know whether people who are themselves Jewish feel like they are constrained from calling out anti-Semitism. However, in my own experience, quite a lot of the things I've thought were potentially anti-Semitic were at least partly produced by people who are Jewish. For example, I thought the scene of the crazy Senator talking to the "Hollywood Jews" in the movie Bulworth was iffy, as was the "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" number and associated dialogue in the musical Spamalot. (I remember the latter particularly sharply -- I'd gone to see it with the Law & Arts club, and I was sitting there literally open-mouthed at the offensiveness of it while the rest of the audience laughed their asses off.)

But the fact that Jews in the U.S. have a significant role in media and educated society generally means that I'm more inclined to assume that if this were *really* anti-Semitic, someone else would have caught it already. That my classmates whom I knew to be very strong on Jewish identity didn't seem to have a problem with the Spamalot number made me think I must be over-sensitive. I don't think that's exactly a taboo, but rather a reason for non-Jews to feel less of an obligation to call out anti-Semitism ahead of any actual Jewish person's doing so than they might feel about groups who are less present in the upper echelons of American society.