Controversies that matter and controversies that do not

First, the controversy that does not matter: Beth Povinelli’s keynote at EASA 2014.

The #povinelli hashtag failed to erupt on twitter over the weekend after being used about seven times in three days by Allegra, who posted an embarrassing critique of Beth Povinelli’s keynote  at EASA 2014 which focused on the style of her talk rather than its substance. After getting a pretty thorough drubbing in the sectors of social media where I hang out, Allegra than issued another post defending the claim that Povinelli’s talk was bad, but giving different reasons  than the original post.

Despite the coverage on social media, we still have little idea what Povinelli actually said, just posts explaining what was wrong with it. From my vantage point, it doesn’t look like anyone covered themselves in glory on this one. In fact — and I say this totally lacking any actual evidence — it seems like the worst stereotypes of pretty much everyone were confirmed: the overbooked, underprepared American academic celebrity trying relying on force of personality to get through a talk. The Frenchmen more interested in rhetoric and style than substance. The Europeans dissatisfied that they invited a prestigious American to speak… but who still invited (and paid, I reckon) a prestigious American to speak. Or who complain that her topic is too ‘exotic’ — as if they didn’t know they were inviting an Aboriginalist? It is, as we say in America, a clusterfuck. I don’t think there’s a lot of lessons to be learned here, except that everyone is better off when they act professionally — even if at times the definition of ‘professional’ is culturally inflected.

In other news, The University of Illinois’s shameful treatment of Steve Salaita is at the center of a controversy that does matter and which is getting more and more shameful. Salaita left Virginia Tech for a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While this was happening he issued some pretty strong tweets about Israeli treatment of Palestinians (““At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”). As a result the chancellor of the campus, Phyllis Wise, revoked the uni’s job offer to Salaita and left him jobless.

Tim Burke has, as usual, some great comments on this case. But what is most important for anthropologists in this story is the reason given not to retain Salaita: that he lacks civility and students may feel ‘uncomfortable’ in the classroom with him, where he teaches on the same topics that he tweets about.

As anthropologists, we know that our job in the classroom is precisely to make students feel uncomfortable. Learning happens when people are uncomfortable. Not too uncomfortable, but uncomfortable enough to realize that the answers they currently have aren’t correct, or need to be improved — or that the questions they respond to are not the most important questions to answer.

This is a general point about education, but it’s also a specific point about anthropology. Our call to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar is fundamentally about instilling discomfort in students so that they can grow into people with larger comfort zones. But for their comfort zone to grow, students must first leave it.

The Salaita controversy matters because it is part of a larger, global debate about the politics of the Middle East. But it also matters for academics in the United States because it speaks to central issues regarding not just research, but teaching as well.




Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “Controversies that matter and controversies that do not

  1. I just read this post after reading Charles Blow’s post on what a ‘national conversation on race’ should look like, a post which extensively quotes the AAA race statement, and ends with the assertion that conversations about race must expect to make people feel uncomfortable (especially when being asked to examine their privilege):

    “Lastly, some immunity must be granted. Assuming that the conversational engagement is honest and earnest, we must be able to hear and say things that some might find offensive as we stumble toward interpersonal empathy and understanding.”

    As such, after reading what Rex has written above, I wonder how honest SM moderators and readers are willing to be about which uncomfortable conversations anthropologists are actually willing to have, even as ‘we’ assert the importance of de familiarizing the familiar and pushing students out of their comfort zones. But what comfort zones are anthropologists themselves (especially professors and aspiring professors) willing to be pushed out of?

    And no, I am not taking this opportunity to ‘hijack’ the conversation. This comment is actually directly related to what Rex writes above about the un-hiring of Salaita, both because it gestures toward larger questions of academic freedom and how certain racialized minorities can be retaliated against when they make comments which make elites uncomfortable–and angry about questioning racial privilege, especially in settler colonies/racial states–and because Salita’s comments were a Palestinian scholar showing solidarity with and empathy for Palestinian suffering and the ongoing brutalization in Gaza. Given the statement of solidarity–and empathy–that Palestinians have shown, in an official letter of support to Ferguson and Black Americans more broadly (where in we are referred to as “our black brothers and sisters”:, the Salaita un-hiring is not separate from the issues in Ferguson, or a larger conversation about what uncomfortable conversations anthropologists are willing to have–especially about things that matter and involve life-and-death realities.

  2. Anthropology has to be social science that “tells it like it is” even when to do so is uncomfortable for the messenger. Too much is made of being politically correct at both ends of the spectrum. The institutions that allege to represent the higher values of openness, freedom of expressions and freedom of inquiry are not to be respected when they add a footnote in a legalistic font that appears for 2 seconds in the TV ad that disclaims all of the above for its faculty if we change our mind. Yet, here it is at the University of Illinois with Steven Salaita — offered a contract, accepts the contract, exercises a personal and professional right to hold and express an opinion on a public issue and then have the University welch on its promise and negating the sanctity of a contract because he exercised his right and the Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, decides to pull the contract Here is her justification .

  3. My problem with the debate about the Salaita case is that there’s too much defense of what he said, when what he said should be irrelevant. John Yoo is still at Berkeley and the various defenders of race theory cited in The Bell Curve never lost their jobs. Free speech and academic freedom are not based on defending arguments you agree with.

    One of Salaita’s tweets reads: “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” Is that hate speech? Trigger words? In terms of his job, I don’t care. In the wider context I care even less, because it was hyperbole in the context of a wider argument I agree with.

    Academic freedom is limited to those who’ve proved acceptable enough, in beliefs and behavior, to be allowed into the community of academic scholarship. Compared to the freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, it’s hardly free. But Salaita made the grade. His peers made a decision. An Israeli professor suggests raping Palestinian women as a deterrent to Hamas. And he’s coming to the US, speaking at a university near you. Who’s going to deny tenure to the people who invite him?

    The academy isn’t removed from politics; teachers are kept at a distance from its consequences. That’s the principle that needs to be defended.

    As to the other controversy, that doesn’t matter, from what I can tell the critics of the keynote are absolutely right.

  4. And the backdrop to that justification:

    Explicit threats to end donations, and appeals from the fundraising arm of the university (with specifics of their pressure on Wise redacted from released emails). Can’t be sure what weighed most heavily in Wise’s decision but I have the feeling the bottom line counts more to chancellors than hypothetical “student comfort.” Which makes this all worse and more tawdry than a potentually legitimate disagreement over professionalism and teaching competence.

  5. For anthropologists of conscious, there is a petition going in support of Salaita. See:

    Currently, more than 3,000 scholars have signed onto similar petitions, but only 150 of those are anthropologists. By contrast, more than 500 philosophers have agreed to boycott UIUC – and they tend to be a smaller discipline than us, numbers-wise). Let’s see if we can’t boost our numbers a little bit!

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