When Bubbles Collide

By Paul

December 13, 2023

The most recent war in the Middle East makes me think of Retired General Rick Hillier, who was Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff from 2005 to 2008. Previous to this post, General Hillier commanded a division of peace keepers in Bosnia and Herzegovina from September 2000 to September 2001. While meeting with troops and members of the media, shots rang out. When one of the media asked who started shooting, General Hillier replied to the effect of, “I’m not sure, probably some guys about 200 years ago”. 

Currently, we have the latest Middle East conflict. Palestinian against Jew. Israeli against Arab. And no one is immune in the divide. Everyone everywhere is being asked to choose sides. As Bush II said, you’re either with us or against us. Us being Israelis or Palestinians, depending on which side of the fence you’re looking over.

Universities have always been hotbeds of protest. It’s a time-honoured tradition. It's a relatively safe space where fiery debate is not only condoned but encouraged. Unlike protests in the past where one side is firmly against government policy (abortion, Vietnam war to name two), both sides in the current conflict have protested the treatment by the other. Reaction to these protests from university administrations has generally been seen to be tepid at best. 

Last week, three university presidents were hauled before Congress in the United States. The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology each testified before a House Committee. The crux of the hearing hinged on their answer to one question: is calling for the genocide of Jews allowed on campus, a question that was chanted/yelled and otherwise espoused during on-campus protests and in letters condemning Israel for their war against Hamas.

Here’s part of the exchange between Congressional Representative Elaine Stefanik, and the president of Penn, Elizabeth Magill:

Ms. Stefanik: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct, yes or no?”
Ms. Magill: “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik: “I am asking, specifically: Calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?”
Ms. Magill: “If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.”
Ms. Stefanik: “So the answer is yes.”
Ms. Magill: “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Ms. Stefanik: “That’s your testimony today? Calling for the genocide of Jews is depending upon the context?”

This got me thinking. How could the president of the University of Pennsylvania get this wrong? Dr. Magill has lost her job; she resigned this past weekend before she could get fired for her testimony. The presidents of MIT and Harvard gave much the same answer to similar questions. There was no unequivocal declaration that advocating for genocide whether it be Jews, Palestinians or anyone else for that matter is hate speech and should be condemned without hesitation.

So let’s look at the two bubbles in which the questioner and the questioned live.

One is a university president, a lawyer, a professor, one who discussed issues at length and in depth. Nuance and shades of grey are argued and debated with generally civil discourse. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong; just a right to express views in a frank, open manner.

One is a member of congress, who doles out sound bites and click-bait likes on social media. Who denigrates free and fair elections by objecting to their certification. Who was kicked off Harvard’s advisory committee at the Kennedy School of Government.

Does she have it in for facts, fairness or higher education? Her behaviour would suggest that’s the case.

When each school president attempted a nuanced, measured response to the protests on campus, they were seen to be weak, supporting terrorism and anti-semitic. What they were doing was what they do when surrounded by other academics. Try to have a discussion, safeguarding free speech and listening to the other side. Once in front of the congressional committee, they were like a fish out of water. They may have as well have landed on Mars.

The committee members have an entirely different agenda. They want rage in with their political base, because angry people vote. Every interaction with the public is performance politics. How many likes, how many shares, how much money can be raised off each public exposure. They don’t really care how they get it. Just that they get it.

And they scored a double win. They got the social traction they wanted, and took down three university presidents at the same time. Win win.

The presidents should have simply said, “calling for the genocide of anyone or any people should be condemned, it’s hate speech and should never be condoned”. That’s playing by the congressional rules, and frankly, in this case, in greater society.

I don’t understand how such intelligent people could be so naive as to think their rules would apply outside the hallowed halls of their respective institutions.

But aren't we all in our own bubbles too? The Facebook bubble. The Twitter bubble. The Instagram bubble. Echo chambers where we can seek out our own "kind" and tune out anything we don't like. What we've lost is the bridge. There's no bridge between career academics and career politicians, liberal and conservative, pro-life and pro-choice. There don't seem to be any bridges anymore. No one on the congressional committee was interested in the presidents' reasons for their stance. That wasn't part of their actual agenda. And the presidents simply didn't read the room. Or humanity at large in this case. Ivory towerism won't let you keep your job these days.

Here's one of my course shots. I had no idea how hard it actually is to capture a raindrop. Great fun.

Water dancing on chair


December 13, 2023
Be sure to check out Dana's blog, Time to Write. I like to think I'm a pretty good writer. Dana is an AMAZING writer.
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