Corey Robin posts a letter from a political theorist
Dear Chancellor Wise, (and Members of the Board of Trustees, and the UIUC community of faculty, staff, and students),It's unbearable.
I wrote to you when I heard about the Steven Salaita case a couple of weeks ago and hoped you would reconsider. As I told you then, I am Jewish and was raised as a Zionist, and I was moved by the case. I write now in the hope that you might find some measure of empathy for this man. Please bear with me for 2 pages.
...That is what I thought. I also, though, felt something. I felt that whoever wrote that tweet was tweeting his own pain. And I felt there was something very amiss when he was chided for his tone, by people who were safely distant from all of it, while he was watching people he maybe knew or felt connected to die as a result of military aggression. This, frankly, seemed evil. And then to have the major charge against him in the UIUC case be that he lacked empathy: now that seemed cruelly ironic. The real charge, it seems to me, is that he suffers from too much empathy.Three more tweets by Salaita, the first in reference to two US born members of the IDF who were killed:
What kind of a person would Prof Salaita be if he did not respond more or less as he did!? What kind of a teacher? What kind of community member?
“It turns out American college kids aren’t very good at ground combat.”Not much empathy, and a fair amount of stupidity, but if anyone needs a better defense of the argument that freedom of speech should not be limited to freedom of polite speech, it's here, and not in the way Bonnie Honig intended.
"You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing”
"Jeffrey Goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv."
Salaita empathizes explicitly with one side in a war, and in his anger refuses to empathize with the other, the side it's commonly assumed we should support. Honig defends Salaita's right to be angry while she herself is not, implying almost that she cannot be because she's not a member of his community. She empathizes with his anger while pleading with her masters to share not in his anger but in her empathy. The quote from Mother Teresa is a bit unfair but it shows the slow gradation, with no lines of division, between passive voyeuristic pity, to engaged but distant empathy, to anger, to rage. And here again is where Mother Teresa meets the Trolley Problem, why contemporary scholasticism is as conflicted as Aquinas. Rationalists rationalize, and the doctrine of double effect wills away linguistic and moral ambiguity in defense of a binary relation that has no basis in anything beyond an emotional imperative.
How could a Jew be angry about Gaza, or the occupation, or the Nakba? Why should a German be angry about the Holocaust? I can think of a lot of reasons.
Why do we have prosecutors and defense attorneys in formalized antagonism? It's easier for Salaita to be angry than it is for Honig, but maybe she should be strong enough to make the choice to become angry, to move beyond her tribal allegiance, not only to Zionism but to theory as opposed to action.
And again we get back to everything I'm on about: the passivity of objectivity.
Technocracy demands that the majority replace the world of experience, of conflicting obligations judged by them as individuals, with an inflexible model of law: all of them, or us, limited to an identical internally consistent ideology of self. The model is authoritarian.
"If her interests have the same value as his, then my interests must have the same value as yours."An objective viewpoint, imagined as outside social relations and with the goal of seeing the equivalence/equality of all, by definition is a view from above. This "scientific" process, focused on the making of generalizations (the analysis of equivalence), is also by definition amoral; questions of morality are allowed only after science has had its say. Popular, "common sense" morality says values should come first, teaching an ideal of service or self-sacrifice. And this is still the model for the military, subject to rank, where you follow orders from above but freely sacrifice for your fellows/peers. But military piety and democratic responsibility are in conflict and our now professional military does not teach its recruits to understand the full weight of their moral responsibility as citizens and soldiers. In the Euthyphro Socrates asks, “And is, then, all which is just pious? or, is that which is pious all just, but that which is just, only in part and not all, pious?” A citizen soldier has to make his own decisions even about when to make his own decisions. This doesn’t collapse self and other, it divides self from self. And this division is something neither our military nor our liberal philosophers concerned with solving trolley problems are willing to accept.
Along with the logical, objective, model of the equivalence of all, modern economic thought begins in accepting our tendency towards individual self-interest, which liberals see as needing to be policed, again as if objectively and militarily from above. But this moral passivity has led to a realist acceptance; focusing on the mean puts downward pressure on the mean. The ‘scientific’ acceptance of greed as a ‘fact’ results in an increasing tendency to see greed as ‘truth’.More empathy: an argument against (but not really) at the Boston Review. Reading it reminded me of something from last year. Those comments apply.
Contradiction, the divided self, is the first principle of democracy: to judge knowing you are also judged, to see not only formal rules that remove the need for judgment but also your own conflicting obligations to self and others, that require it, obligations that aren’t mutually exclusive but flexible, and breakable, and reparable, in time.
This comment by Tom Farsides made me laugh.
...this is an appalling essay. Bloom knows that “empathy” is a vague term and that many uses of it refer to processes and experiences that are highly valuable in multiple ways. By using the term imprecisely and inconsistently – but contentiously - he is fuelling an academic non-debate of the worst sort, where people who have little obvious real disagreement talk past each other and confusion reigns to no good effect.