Refusal to Be on Panels, Israeli Soldiers, and Obstetricians:

The post about the University of Delaware professor who seemingly refused to be on the same panel as an Israeli ex-soldier led some commenters to defend the professor. In the professor's view, the commenters reasoned, Israeli soldiers do (and not just advocate) very bad things; if the professor thinks that those things are so bad that they put the soldiers beyond the pale, then we shouldn't condemn the professor for refusing to share a panel with the soldiers, even if we disagree with his view.

I don't think this is quite right; I agree that professors are entitled to decide which panels they'll be on and which they won't be on, and to refuse to be on panels with people they see as especially evil. But I think that it's proper for us to judge their decisions, and condemn them for narrow-mindedness if we disagree with their judgment about this evil.

Here is an analogy that came to my mind; I realize it's not perfect, but it seems to me helpful. (Note that the analogy focuses only on evaluating a professor's refusal to be on the panel; I am not claiming that the students' reaction to this refusal would be the same in this hypothetical as it was in the real Delaware case.)

Say Professor X writes about medical ethics, including matters related to abortion, and say he believes that abortion is murder (or something morally close to it). He therefore believes that anyone who has performed an abortion, or who has participated in performing it, even indirectly, is a murderer. Assume that in Professor X's country, a medical education as an obstetrician and gynecologist requires people to learn how to perform abortions, including by participating in actual abortions.

Professor X therefore refuses to be on any panels with anyone who has been educated as an obstetrician, or who is involved in an organization that performs abortions (such as Planned Parenthood, or for that matter virtually any hospital in this country). He also suggests to people that they disinvite such other panelists if they want to keep him (X) on the panel. And this is so even though many of the people who have interesting and useful things to say about abortion ethics, abortion law, and reproductive law, ethics, and policy more broadly are obstetricians or are associated with organizations that perform abortions.

What would we say about Professor X's decision, especially if we disagree with his views about abortion? Well, we surely wouldn't try to legally force him to participate on the panels, or threaten him with losing his job as a professor (which in any case doesn't require participation on panels at all). He should be free to choose whom to share a table with.

But I think we would condemn him in some measure, because his decision undermines useful academic debate, and because it reflects an improper narrow-mindedness. I take it we'd say that he should engage with people whose views and actions he disagrees with, and try to persuade them (and, more likely, their listeners) that his views are better.

Nor would we be much moved by his argument that "I think people who perform or assist in abortions are like Nazi concentration camp guards; you wouldn't fault me for refusing to be on a panel with an unrepentant Nazi -- likewise, don't fault me for refusing to be on a panel with someone I see as morally tantamount to a Nazi." I think we'd acknowledge that some views and actions are beyond the pale morally, and it's not improperly narrow-minded for an academic to refuse to engage them. But I think we'd say that this is so only as to those views and actions that really are beyond the pale; and if someone has what we see as the wrong view about where the pale is to be drawn, then we can properly condemn that person's judgment.

The same, I think, applies here to Khan. If he thought that Israeli ex-soldiers are morally beyond the pale, and he were right on his moral judgment of Israeli ex-soldiers, then I would accept (perhaps even praise) his decision not to share a conference panel with them. But he has to be right on that moral judgment. If he's wrong, and I think he is, then his position is as narrow-minded and as improperly undermining of scholarly debate, as an abortion ethics scholar's decision not to share a panel with anyone who was educated as an obstetrician and therefore performed or assisted in abortions.