Judith Butler on debate and academic freedom

Since I’m busy working on my intellectual history project right now, I don’t have time to critically reflect on Judith Butler’s recent remarks to Brooklyn College on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement). But, I wanted to link to it and mention a few passages (bold emphasis is mine) that seem noteworthy and consistent with themes in her work that I’ve been teaching, researching and writing about for years.

on academic freedom and the importance of democratic debate

“The principle of academic freedom is designed to make sure that powers outside the university, including government and corporations, are not able to control the curriculum or intervene in extra-mural speech. It not only bars such interventions, but it also protects those platforms in which we might be able to reflect together on the most difficult problems. You can judge for yourself whether or not my reasons for lending my support to this movement are good ones. That is, after all, what academic debate is about. It is also what democratic debate is about, which suggests that open debate about difficult topics functions as a meeting point between democracy and the academy. Instead of asking right away whether we are for or against this movement, perhaps we can pause just long enough to find out what exactly this is, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and why it is so difficult to speak about this.”

on exercising critical thinking/judgment

“But I would like briefly to continue with the question, what precisely are we doing here this evening? I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered. In other words, you come here to exercise critical judgment, and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing view and to communicate that as you wish. In this way, your being here this evening confirms your right to form and communicate an autonomous judgment, to demonstrate why you think something is true or not, and you should be free to do this without coercion and fear. These are your rights of free expression, but they are, perhaps even more importantly, your rights to education, which involves the freedom to hear, to read and to consider any number of viewpoints as part of an ongoing public deliberation on this issue. Your presence here, even your support for the event, does not assume agreement among us. There is no unanimity of opinion here; indeed, achieving unanimity is not the goal.”

not pro or anti but we

“One could be for the BDS movement as the only credible non-violent mode of resisting the injustices committed by the state of Israel without falling into the football lingo of being “pro” Palestine and “anti” Israel. This language is reductive, if not embarrassing. One might reasonably and passionately be concerned for all the inhabitants of that land, and simply maintain that the future for any peaceful, democratic solution for that region will become thinkable through the dismantling of the occupation, through enacting the equal rights of Palestinian minorities and finding just and plausible ways for the rights of refugees to be honored. If one holds out for these three aims in political life, then one is not simply living within the logic of the “pro” and the “anti”, but trying to fathom the conditions for a “we”, a plural existence grounded in equality.”

re-imaging justice

“What does one do with one’s words but reach for a place beyond war, ask for a new constellation of political life in which the relations of colonial subjugation are brought to a halt. My wager, my hope, is that everyone’s chance to live with greater freedom from fear and aggression will be increased as those conditions of justice, freedom, and equality are realized. We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together. Perhaps the word “justice” will assume new meanings as we speak it, such that we can venture that what will be just for the Jews will also be just for the Palestinians, and for all the other people living there, since justice, when just, fails to discriminate, and we savor that failure.”