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.

BruceM (mail) (www):
I think the topic of the panel discussion is relevant as to whether or not the individual refusing to be on the panel should be condemned. If the topic relates to the reason the individual cites for not wanting to associate with the other panel members, he should be condemned for skipping out on a debate merely because he doesn't like the people he'd be debating with. For example, the topic of the panel discussion here has something to do with Israeli policy towards Palestinians. The focus is more on encouraging debate and free speech than freedom of association.

If, however, the topic of the panel discussion has no relation to the reason he cites for not wanting to associate with the other panel members, I think it is more trivial for him to not participate. For example, the topic of the panel discussion here is about Star Wars, prequels versus the original trilogy. That has nothing to do with isreal and its soldiers. Thus, the focus of his desire not to participate is more on freedom of association than encouraging debate and free speech.
11.1.2007 3:50pm
This whole post rests on the assumption that the professor refused (or "seemingly refused") to appear on the panel when, in fact, his email explicitly said he planned to be there (though perhaps late). It seems to me you could make the exact same argument you've made without distorting what the professor actually did here.
11.1.2007 3:50pm
Aradruin (mail) (www):
I agree with your general approach to this matter, but disagree with the substance of your example. While you and probably most people would criticize the academic for refusing to be on a panel with an abortionist, or someone affiliated with abortions, I would find such a decision somewhat misguided but not worthy of criticism. Personally, I would prefer an academic to agree to be on a panel with people who participate in abortions, but think it completely defensible to not.

On a similar but slightly different note, an annoying but frequent occurrence is when somebody (such as a company through an advertisement) says or displays something really horrendous. People then criticize the speaker as morally reprehensible. I find it extremely annoying when people then criticize these people with "They have a right to say what they want, so you shouldn't criticize what they say."

Absolutely wrong. The "right" to speak has nothing to do with the wisdom or appropriateness of saying particular things. When you say something morally reprehensible, buckle down for the rightful criticism you receive from others.
11.1.2007 3:53pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Prof. V.: In all but the most extreme cases, being right on a moral judgment is a matter of opinion and individual conscience. Yet some people object to those who have either more scruples or fewer scruples than they have. For example, my local paper condemns pharmacists who would follow the Pope's recent teaching not to give abortifacients or euthanasia drugs to their customers. The paper thinks they need to abandon their consciences and follow state law which requires them to provide whatever has been prescribed. Yet, when courts stopped executions by lethal injection because they might not be pain-free, the paper did not call upon physicians, who could monitor the suffering of the condemned, to violate their consciences and euthanize condemned murderers. Just because the paper has no moral scruples against abortion but they do against execution, they won't support anyone whose conscience does not exactly match their own.
11.1.2007 4:26pm
Mike& (mail):
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.

Ultimately, the debate stems from whether someone believes Israelis unjustly and illegitimately drove Palestinians from their land. If it was unjust, then soldiers who perpetuate this injustice are immoral actors. If it wasn't unjust, then IDF soldiers are as American as apple pie.

In a different vein, we could say a front line solder in Nazi Germany played a different role than a high-level SS officer or concentration camp officer. A front-line soldier fires against other soldiers in self-defense. He would have more of a "Nuremberg defense" than a concentration camp guard.

Assuming no one would have a problem sharing the stage with a low-level soldier who served on the front lines in, say, Poland, when Nazis ran Germany, then it would be intellectually consistent to condemn the professor for not sharing the stage with a front line IDF soldier. But if even a low-level German soldier in WWII is beyond the pale, it's hard to see why a soldier who served as part of an occupying force isn't beyond the pale.

And, while we're at it, yes, soldiers who drove Native Americans from their property at the barrel of a gun are also "beyond the pale." And an academic would have been justified in refusing to share the stage with such criminals.

But, again, this debate all comes down to how one views the Israeli [non/occupation] of [Palestine/Israel]. In my mind, this is a debate that thoughtful and moral people can disagree over. Because of this, it's wrong for us to condemn the professor. After all, to condemn him requires a vast amount of moral confidence. From where does this confidence stem?
11.1.2007 5:35pm
Most of the people who disagreed with you in your last post argued that you badly misread what the professor said in his e-mail. I'd like to see you address that point, particuarly with respect to the fact that in the e-mail in question, the professor confirmed he would be on the panel. It looks like you're making some progress though: at least now you're saying "seemingly refused."
11.1.2007 5:57pm
"Seemingly refused"? In addition to what tarheel and Confused wrote, it has do be added that the guy actually did attend, and says that he expected Romirowsky to be there.
11.1.2007 6:06pm

If he's wrong, and I think he is, then his position is as narrow-minded and as improperly undermining of scholarly debate

I must disagree. I don't think there is any sort of moral obligation to serve on panels with people with whom you dislike. In fact, I think it would be perfectly appropriate to decline to serve on a panel just because you found another speaker to be a bit boring. Or for any other reason.

Let me come at this a different way. If you are thinking about attending a panel as an audience member and you discover that another speaker has been added and you think s/he is a bore, should you still feel obligated to go? Of not, why is a panelist required to attend?

As I said before, I don't have a dog in the Israel/Palestine pissing match and, almost always, I find strong proponents of either side to be petty-minded nuts. So I'd imagine if I knew anything about the underlying issues and "rooted" for one side, that I would truly dispise proponents of the other side.
11.1.2007 6:26pm
Prof. Ethan (mail):
None of this, interesting as it is, is as important as the indoctrinaton program instituted at the University of Delaware by the administration itself, where this incident with Khan and Rominowsky. took place.

Here are some selections from the training of the ra's for the dorms, a training section presented by Dr. Shakti Butler on August 14 and 15, 2007. This is from the official U of D website:

"Definitions and Descriptions of Racism:

White Supremacy [this is the first subheading]: White supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.

White privilege [third subheading]: is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of (1) Preferential prejudice for and treatment of white people based solely on their skin color and/or ancestral origin from Europe, and (2) Exemption from racial and/or national oppression based on skin color and/or ancestral origin from Africa, Asia, the Americas, or the Arab world.

Racism: Racism is race prejudice plus power. This is the definition provided by the People's Institute.

Internauzed [sic!] Racism: (1) The poison of racism seeping into the psyches of peoples of color, until people of color believe about themselves what whites believe about them--that they are inferior to whites; (2) The behavior of one perosn of color towards another that stems from this psychic poisoning; (3) the acceptance by persons of color of Eurocentric values.

Reverse Racism: a term created and used by whie people to deny their white privilege. Those in denial use the term reverse racism to refer to hostile behavior by people of color toward whites, and to affirmative action policies, which allegedly give "preferential treatment" to people of color over whites. In the U.S. there is no such thing as "reverse racism."

Racist: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture, or sexuality.

A Non-Racist: a non-term. The term was created by whites to deny responsibility for systemic racism.

etc, etc., etc.
11.1.2007 9:48pm
r78I don't think there is any sort of moral obligation...
The point you seem to miss is this is within academe. No one maintains there is a "moral obligation" to serve on a panel like this one, but not to is a problem for @academic freedom.@
11.2.2007 7:08am
Neuro - so @academic freedom@ constrains academics to do things personally they prefer not to do?
11.2.2007 1:03pm
D Palmer (mail):
Professor Volokh,

I have to disagree with your characterization of Mr. Khan. He clearly stated in his e-mail that he was attending and went to great pains to describe his itinerary BEFORE he mentions his discomfort at sharing the stage with an Ex-IDF member.

The students at Delaware clearly overreacted to his (very mild)comments. And even if Mr. Khan had asked for Mr. Rominowsky to be removed from the panel, they should have politely told him no.

I have no problem with Mr. Khan's comments, whether they were made in jest or not.
11.2.2007 2:11pm
MDJD2B (mail):

Ultimately, the debate stems from whether someone believes Israelis unjustly and illegitimately drove Palestinians from their land.

Huh? These soldiers are patrolling land occupied by Palestinian Arabs who have NOT been driven out. These soldiers never drove anyone out of their land.

Assuming for the sake of argument that their grandparents illegitimately drove Plaestinians out of their land, are you saying that the resulting moral taint affects descendants who were born and raised in Israel, whose language is thier first language and who have no place else to go?

Many of them, including the penultimate president, were illegitimately driven from Iraq, landing in Israel as refugees. May they (or anyone, for that matter) refuse to appear on a podium with former Iraqi soldiers, on the grounds that Iraq illegitimately drov Jews from the land in which their ancestors had lived for >2500 years?

Or perhaps anyone has moral authority to refuse to appear with a former Pakistani soldier. After all, at the same time as Israel was being formed, so was Pakistan, and the latter efficiently drove ALL Hindus and Sikhs out.
11.2.2007 5:16pm
duglmac (mail):

What I read in the professors email is expression of surprise to find out he was going to be in the uncomforatble position of being on a panel with someone who represents a contrary position on an issue that is very dear to him. In that same email he stated he will be there, but maybe a little late due to logistics.

I did not walk away from that email thinking a) he was suggesting that the soldier be excluded, or b) he was not going to attend. I did walk away thinking that he was unhappy with the way the organizers went about setting the panel up. The message there is "next time, you should be more carfull about notifiying panel members as to whom they are going to be panel-ing with."
11.2.2007 7:22pm
markm (mail):

Neuro - so @academic freedom@ constrains academics to do things personally they prefer not to do?

Academic freedom should constrain academics to discuss issues with those holding opposing views, even when that obliges one to sit on a panel with those one dislikes.

However, I do not read Mr. Khan's note as a refusal to do so, and thus the problem is with the student committee that overreacted. That university needs to focus more on teaching reading comprehension and less on political correctness.
11.3.2007 12:17pm
Yankev (mail):
In the immortal words of Walt Kelly, some freedoms are as academic as they come.
11.5.2007 4:32pm